HANK WILLIS THOMAS TRAFFICS IN MONUMENTAL IDEAS, AND WE SHOULD APPLAUD THAT
By P. Andrews-Keenan
Pigment wanted to delve deeper into the bruhaha that has arisen around “The Embrace” the monumental work by Hank Willis Thomas that was unveiled last week in Boston. A good place to start is with the fact that Thomas is a conceptual artist. Conceptual art is art for which the idea (or concept) behind the work is more important than the finished art object and the materials and the form are chosen for putting the idea across.
The conceptual art movement emerged in the 1960s and generally refers to works created through the 70s. The first recognized piece of conceptual art was done by French painter, sculptor and writer Marcel Duchamp who was an iconoclast who refused to be identified with just one style. His piece, ‘Fountain, a urinal, was submitted to an art fair in New York in 1917. (This is giving us vibes from the ‘Banana’ sold for $120K at Art Basel in 2019, only yuckier.)
Duchamp influenced scores of artists from Warhol to Koons. David Hammons’ “For The Holy Bible, Old Testament”, repurposed a copy of The Complete Works of Marcel Duchamp for his exhibition at the Honolulu Museum of Art (HoMA). And Kerry James Marshall upon completing his large-scale work “Untitled,” said that he, like Duchamp, was inspired by the art of the possible.
All this to say that Thomas follows the tradition of creating art on the grandest scale. His masterful creation was flawlessly executed, and we can’t wait to see it in person. I was told by an artist that experiencing a piece like this two dimensionally does it a disservice. The other thing at play here is the significance of this piece in our country’s art history. In the Fall-Winter 2020–21 issue of the award winning Pigment Magazine, we explored what will sit in the public square of the future in a piece titled, “A Discourse on Monuments.” If public art continues on this path, those that come behind us will get a much clearer picture of the strength and beauty of this country. Much more than we’ve had in the preceding 247 years.
We should be applauding this monumental achievement, both for Thomas and the city of Boston that sought to tell a different story of a city where fraught race relations have long been the norm. It is not the artist’s charge to account for the opinion of others, time and history will take care of that.
Comedians have to pull their commentary from somewhere, so good for them. And Kehinde Wiley has masterfully done the monumental Black figure on horseback. Small minds traffic in small ideas and certainly that is not worthy of the greatness of Duchamp, Hammons, Marshall or Thomas.
Read this week’s Pigment Newsletter here.