Black History Month: Best and Least-Known Artists

Celebrate Black History Month with a Look at the Best and Least-Known Artists in the Past 50 Years

In the middle of 2019, an article on Datebook asked this question: Why is African American Art Having a Moment? The answer is complex and not as satisfying as many might hope. After all, at almost the same time, other publications like The New York Times and artnet news were posing similar questions.

The Datebook article opened with a brief description of Hank Willis Thomas, who at the age of 43 was having his first glimmers of international success. His work has been recently featured in the Delaware Art Museum, the “art museum at Northwestern University and the Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota, Florida. It was included in major group shows in cities from Miami to London to Palermo, Italy. He unveiled three public art commissions, was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, and published his second book,” the article explained.

Yet, as it continued, just twenty years earlier, such a level of success would have been nearly impossible for a young African American artist.

Black History Month Artist Hank Willis Thomas Sculpture Art

Art by Hank Willis Thomas

Hostility towards African American artists in the art world is not, necessarily, the underlying cause for this, though. As that article continued, “While the art world may not have been knowingly hostile to people of color, it was blind to their accomplishments.”

As they had noted earlier in the piece, “As recently as 1992, a proposed tour of the Whitney Museum of American Art’s Jean-Michel Basquiat retrospective was canceled when no other museums came forward to take it. Last spring, one of Basquiat’s paintings sold for $110.5 million, becoming the most expensive work by an American artist ever sold at auction.”

Basquiat certainly ranks as a well-known artist, meaning that lesser-knowns are far less likely to receive attention.

Untitled (Tar Tar Tar, Lead Lead Lead) Jean Michel Basquiat Art Black History Month

"Untitled" (Tar Tar Tar, Lead Lead Lead) by Jean Michel Basquiat 

Artnet undertook a study to determine whether this was true and found that it was when a director of MoMA said this: “If you deal with contemporary art, it is self-evident that many of the most interesting artists are African American. And you realize that there were always important African American artists, even if they were not as visible to museums as they should have been.”

This was backed up by data with the group finding that “since 2008, just 2.37 percent of all acquisitions and gifts and 7.6 percent of all exhibitions at 30 prominent American museums have been of work by African American artists.”

Who has been overlooked the most? As part of Black History Month celebrations, we’re looking at a few African American artists who were not as recognized for their accomplishments as they should have been, or as we said in the title, the best, least-known artists.

Mark Bradford has, as Artsy notes, “ turned his life experiences into art that, while largely abstract, embeds messages of community, awareness, and social justice…and offers a multi-layered and nuanced view of black history and the dynamics of urban life.”

Artist Mark Bradford Modern Contemporary Art

Mark Bradford

Nick Cave is a more widely known name and has “a multifaceted performance, installation, and sculptural practice…multilayered conversations … testifying to his sculptural ability to shape urgent communal dialogue.”

Artist Nick Cave Art Installations

Nick Cave

Charles Gaines is a painter with 40 years of work under his belt. One of the few “African-American Conceptual artists to focus on abstraction and aesthetics in order to consider perception, objectivity, and relationships,” his paintings look at the “he interplay between objectivity and interpretation, the systematic and the poetic.”

Artist Charles Gaines Abstract Contemporary Art

Charles Gaines

You will also want to learn about Theaster Gates, Sam Gilliam, David Hammons, Rashid Johnson, Glenn Ligon, Kerry James Marshall, Senga Nengudi, Howardena Pindell, Pope.L, Faith Ringgold, Betye Saar, Lorna Simpson, Henry Taylor, and Micakalene Thomas, among scores of others. Don’t ignore graffiti and street artists, contemporary artists, and those who merge them into everything from streetwear to gallery pieces.