A man in a pink long-sleeved T-shirt stands in an oval painting, gazing out at the viewer with his hand over his heart. While his visage is sober, the subject is nearly engulfed by an ornate, marigold-hued backdrop.
You’ll recognize the signature style of the painter who immortalized Barack Obama and figures from Napoleon to Michael Jackson. Their portraits repurpose and shatter Western portraiture tropes. The work, Portrait of Najee Hall II, is a new Kehinde Wiley painting, acquired by the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth in its most recent round of acquisitions. It represents one of the most substantial swaths of new entries to date, and all of which you should go see.
The new crop of works, which boasted a more substantial number in light of the Fort Worth institution’s 20 year anniversary in December, will be on view through the spring and into the summer, interspersed throughout the permanent collection installation.
When new works enter a museum’s permanent holdings, they are often displayed for a period of time before being rotated out. (After which they appear again intermittently.) These new rounds are also a chance to tap the pulse of the institution. It is an opportunity to see what it focuses on within the limits of what its purchasing power allows it to do.
New acquisitions are where a museum can make its mark. What is clear from the recent swath is that the museum is in step with the times, focusing locally and on groups that have been marginalized. It’s a gathering I would make a special effort to see.
“They’re not a group per se: There were some gifts, and other pieces to the puzzle that all came together,” says chief curator Andrea Karnes. “We had a lot of things that we had the opportunity for at the same time. Also, it was our 20 year anniversary, so we wanted to have some major acquisitions. We did that for our 10 year anniversary, things that would make a big bang.”
Some works came out of last year’s ambitious, blockbuster show Women Painting Women, which assembled dozens of female-identifying artists and their depictions of women.
“There were some artists that we really wanted to have in the collection, that we got a good reaction from during the run of the show and that were in a place market-wise that we could afford them as a museum,” Karnes says.
These include the arresting mixed-media collage portrait Shanika and Grace by Deborah Roberts, the Austin-based weaver of textural marvels that tackle topics of societally inflected tropes of race and beauty. It includes the kaleidoscopic Bunnies by Iraqi American and Los Angeles-based painter Hayv Kahraman, whose large works are as detailed as miniatures. It includes large-scale portraits by Christiane Lyons and Marilyn Minter.
These, says Karnes, “came out of us living with those works in the exhibition for a while and wanting to have them in the collection.”
For the Kehinde Wiley works—the oval painting and two bronze busts—guests’ tastes as well as the current political climate came into play. “We already had one [Wiley painting] and we’ve done two exhibitions with him, and there are certain artists that we like to go in depth with and show their works in the context of their other works,” Karnes says.
“We get a lot of requests to have the [Wiley] painting out. We get a lot of comments. So it seemed like he would be a good one to have more of.” (Not to mention that his work has continued to move with utmost relevance recently at the Venice Biennale, at the Orsay in Paris, and in a vast exhibition at the De Young in San Francisco.)
Local artists such as the painter Sedrick Huckaby were also a focus.
“We’ve been wanting to get a work for a long time. I wanted a big portrait,” Karnes says, referring to the lush applications of paint in larger-than-life compositions. “When I saw the work—it’s his cousin Roy Lester. And he’s sitting pretty stoically, but he has a commemorative T-shirt on,” honoring a Black life lost. “I like what it says about masculinity and mourning and also the Black community and Sedrick’s own community.”
Huckaby and his wife, the artist Letitia Huckaby, are behind the Fort Worth community gallery and performance space Kinfolk House.
A large-scale work by Linda Blackburn, a Fort Worth artist who died in 2022, is among the recently acquired pieces. And a work in downtown Fort Worth’s Burnett Park, Jonathan Borofsky’s 50-foot Man With Briefcase, was given to the museum by the Burnett Foundation. “We’ve maintained it for years, but now it’s in our name,” Karnes says.
The new roster includes new photographic series and two videos; a painting to add to the vast holdings of work by Sean Scully (an American flag with a gun in place of the stars, “so it’s pretty intense. We put it in a room that is political within the exhibition,” Karnes says); an abstract work by Liliane Tomasco (“I feel like it holds a lot of wall … I’m excited”); and a Chris Ofili painting, Strange Eyes, from 2001, just after he won Britain’s prestigious Turner Prize. “I love the way the woman looks,” Karnes says. “In person, it’s dazzling.”
Its representation is a sign of these times; they place an emphasis on women artists and artists of color.
“We have taken a really analytical look at our collection, like many museums across the U.S.,” Karnes says. “And I think our collection looks like a lot of museums across the U.S., meaning very White, male, Western-centric. We are making an effort. We realize that getting to a place of equity is going to take time. But we are making an effort to include more and more under-represented artists for every acquisition committee meeting.”
They also see what they can do for artists by acquiring their work. “We want to get works at a good market by museum standards,” Karnes says, but impact is another motivation. “We want to help raise markets for certain artists who haven’t had the opportunity to be in institutions, but should be.”
Ultimately, what’s next on the docket is right on target with the focus in other institutions. Like other museums, “we’re looking at Latin America, Black America, the Caribbean, the Middle East, South Korea,” Karnes says. In this, she names the hot spots for art currently. The artists and origins that have not always made it into the proverbial four walls—but should be seen.