Making History Visible: Of American Myths and National Heroes

Titus Kaphar, American, born 1976. Billy Lee: Portrait in Tar, 2016. Tar and oil on canvas, 152.4 × 121.9 cm. Collection of Bill and Christy Gautreaux, Kansas City, Missouri. © Titus Kaphar / image courtesy Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

Portraiture and history painting were instrumental to the early formation of the United States, generating a vision that served to unify the young nation behind a cast of influential figures and pivotal events. This installation draws together historical and contemporary works to consider the role of visual art in creating an image of American identity and a multifaceted representation of history in the United States. A suite of works by the contemporary artist Titus Kaphar is installed throughout the gallery, instigating conversations with historical genres as well as with artists who likewise grapple with a range of African American experiences. Some embrace traditional modes of representation, offering stately renderings of such heroes as Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman that affirm their place in an American canon; others wield traditional aesthetic forms to unearth buried histories. Some challenge the authority of words to obscure realities, while others turn to language as a means of expressive liberation. These juxtapositions raise questions about who is represented, who is invisible, and which cultural values are embedded in the visual traditions of American history; they also point to the ways in which art can represent full and layered, if also contested and conflicted, historical narratives.

The artists whose work is featured include Titus Kaphar, Thomas Hart Benton, Elizabeth Catlett, Glenn Ligon, Sally Mann, William Ranney, Faith Ringgold, William Rush, Kara Walker, Carrie Mae Weems, Charles White, John Wilson, and Hale Woodruff.

Making History Visible is one component of a rich campus-wide conversation catalyzed by the Princeton and Slavery Project, which examines the University’s historical links to the institution of slavery.

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The installation Making History Visible and related programming have been made possible by generous support from the Kathleen C. Sherrerd Program Fund for American Art; and by the Humanities Council’s David A. Gardner ’69 Magic Project; the Princeton Histories Fund; the Center for the Study of Religion; the Program in American Studies; and the Department of African American Studies, Princeton University.