30 Americans Thematic Trail: Art as History

Many of the artists in 30 Americans address the notion of history in their work, whether by revisiting American history, or considering their legacy in art history.


Through their artwork, artists in 30 Americans ask us to reconsider the familiar narratives of American history. Whose stories do our textbooks tell? How can these stories be questioned and made personal, to get at the truth of what occurred? How can we learn from the past?

Kara Walker’s Camptown Ladies (1998) is one of the largest artworks in the exhibition. This mural-like, cut paper work uses silhouettes of figures and props to tell a dark story about the pre-Civil War era. By turns gruesome and fantastical, the work forces us to physically follow the ambiguous tale to its end, deciphering interactions between the figures. Art historians have called her work dreamlike, as well as nightmare-like, as if history itself and our memories of the past continue to shift through time.

Carrie Mae Weems uses archival photographs of slaves from the pre-Civil War era to remake the narrative of slavery. She adds color and text to the original photographs, asking us to think about how the original photographs were used—as examples of scientific specimens, as a “type” or category of a species, as stereotypes—so that we can both question how the subjects were treated in their own time and honor them today.

In Untitled #25, Leonardo Drew asks us to think about a specific association with slavery: cotton picking. The tall mounds of waxed cotton evoke labor: the labor of the slaves who worked on cotton plantations, and of the artist himself in creating this massive object. Drew uses just one material to encourage us to remember the history of the United States.

Meanwhile, David Hammons uses simple but powerful objects to represent John Henry, an African American folktale character (read the folktale here), who was a steelworker and freed slave, in Esquire (or John Henry) (1990). John Henry has stood as a symbol for the Industrial Revolution, for diversity, and for triumphing over insurmountable odds. Despite this, Henry has also been the subject of many racial stereotypes, and Hammons, in representing him through seemingly straightforward objects such as a steel railroad tie, human hair, and a rock, seems to ask us to reconsider how such folklore heroes are shown.


Many of the 30 Americans artists consciously insert themselves in the narrative of art history. Their works reference and create conversations with artists in the Western art canon, placing them squarely and powerfully in American contemporary art.

Robert Colescott and Kehinde Wiley appropriate images from famous works of art but in very different ways. Wiley’s large-scale oil paintings place young African American men in poses and settings pulled from old master works. Wiley scouts his models from the streets, asks them to choose a painting from an art history textbook, and paints them in that pose, in their own clothes. Colescott’s Pygmalion riffs off of the Venus de Milo and the Mona Lisa, giving them African American features. His modern-day illustration of the myth of Pygmalion—an artist who falls in love with his own work of art—asks us to consider contemporary beauty rituals and our own assumptions about modern beauty.

In the work of Mark Bradford and Rodney McMillian, we move into the abstract. Both artists are influenced by modern art. Bradford’s Whore in the Church House (2006), a collage-map of a neighborhood in Los Angeles, references Jasper John’s map paintings, while bringing to life the concept of location and self. McMillian brings a square of carpet purportedly from his grandmother’s apartment from the floor to the wall in Untitled (2005), just as Jackson Pollock brought his abstract action paintings from the floor to the gallery wall. But in a move indebted to Dada artist Marcel Duchamp, who made art from objects found on the street, McMillian, too, took the carpet off the streets—not from his grandmother’s home.

iona rozeal brown combines art history and contemporary culture in Sacrifice #2: it has to last (after Yoshitoshi’s “Drowsy: the appearance of a harlot of the Meiji era”) (2007). Directly influenced by a print from the late 1800s by printmaker Yoshitoshi, brown references the tradition of Japanese woodblock prints. But in modernizing the figure to reflect ganguro culture, in which Japanese girls dress as American hip-hop stars, she also asks us to confront how art, history, and global culture interact together.

Discussion Prompts:

  • How do these artists question our prior knowledge of history through their work? Have you re-thought any aspects of what you have learned about American history in class now that you have seen their art?
  • The artists in this show were influenced not only by art history as a whole but also by each other. Which artist do you think might have inspired another? What do you see in their artwork that makes you think that?