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How do you even begin to cover an exhibition as historically rich, layered and multifaceted as Riffs and Relations, the newest exhibition taking over the top floor at the Phillips Collection? It feels impossible to talk about any one piece, or any one room, when you can feel the conversations between the artists, both across walls and across decades. Riffs and Relations is so many things, a groundbreaking amalgamation of artists, a crash course in both African American and European art history and what feels like a never ending stream of artists referencing, critiquing and sustaining other artists. If you cannot already tell by the way I’m writing about it, Riffs and Relations is required viewing. You need to see and read and think about all of it.

A project that was three years in the making, Riffs and Relations is the work of guest curator Dr. Adrienne L. Childs, who has teamed up with The Phillips Collection to highlight how African American authors drew upon and subverted the iconography of the European masters to explore, question, compare and deepen their own stories. And all of these critiques and connections feel like they’re happening at the same time. It’s like walking into the middle of a party and trying to figure out what’s already been said, and what’s about to be said, but in the best way possible.

There’s Titus Kaphar’s Pushing Back the Light, which exposes the darkness behind the bright and cheery blue sky of Claude Monet’s Woman with Parasol. The piece is “cheek to jowl”, as CEO of the Phillips Dr. Dorothy Kosinski described it, with the original Monet.

Titus Kaphar, Pushing Back the Light, 2012; Oil and tar on canvas, 107 x 77 x 6 1/2 in.; Courtesy of the artist and the photographer, Christopher Gardner

There’s Robert Colescott’s Sunday Afternoon with Joaquin Murietta, Renee Cox’s Cousins at Pussy Pond, Ayana V. Jacksons’ Judgement of Paris, Mickalene Thomas’s Le Déjeuner sur L’herbe: Les Trois Femmes Noires and Carrie Mae Weems’ After Manet all riffing (and relating) off of Édouard Manet’s Luncheon on the Grass.

Ayana V. Jackson, Judgment of Paris, 2018; Archival pigment print on German etching paper, 60 x 40 in.; Courtesy of the artist and Mariana Ibrahim Gallery, Chicago

There’s Hank Willis Thomas using sports jerseys to repurpose Henri Matisse’s Icarus. More than a few of the pieces in the exhibition were created by artists who were inspired by the theme, but whether the art is new or old or somewhere in between, every piece feels breathtakingly alive. In every room and in every corner of the exhibition, these complex exchanges are being played out right before your eyes.

Hank Willis Thomas, Icarus, 2016; from Hank Willis Thomas: All Things Being Equal (Aperture/Portland Art Museum, 2018). Mixed media, including sports jerseys. Original artwork by Henri Matisse, 1944

While European artistic tradition is a theme that runs through the exhibition, it’s not the star of the show. “There’s still a little magic, if you will, about people like Picasso and Matisse that carry that panache with them,” says Childs. “But we’re de-centering them… They’re here and they should be here, but they’re not the whole show.”

The exhibition isn’t open to the public until Saturday, February 29, but the responses are already rolling in. “I was surprised that people were emotional. They didn’t even know how to describe their feelings,” says Childs, referencing the crowd at the VIP opening party. Childs explains that it’s going to be especially exciting, and moving, for people who are already knowledgeable about African American art. “They’re going to see a lot of people they know, their old friends.”

Whether you’re an expert or a novice when it comes to African American art, you need to spend some time visiting, and making new friends, at Riffs and Relations.

Janet Taylor Pickett, And She was Born, 2017; Acrylic on canvas with collage, 30 x 30 in.; Courtesy of the artist

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