Sometimes, museums outsmart themselves. They overestimate the need to contextualize the work they are exhibiting and, in doing so, underestimate their audiences’ wants, needs, and intelligence. It’s a lose-lose-lose situation, with the artist on display suffering the disservice. These were my first thoughts on walking into the exhibition William Edmondson: A Monumental Vision at the Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia. I’d traveled a decent distance to be there that day and prepared for a whirlwind of big thoughts and feelings but instead was met with a bewildering letdown.
The disappointment came quickly. On entering the gallery, you first see not the pale pink pedestals holding Edmondson’s work but a low-lying, deep maroon pedestal that sat empty, other than a shoddy rug. It felt out of place, a leftover from a previous exhibition. Its biggest blunder was its prominent positioning in the space. Front and center, this large, empty stage was right there to greet you. Edmondson’s work flanked the open stage on both sides. Somehow, the work we had come to see was relegated to a supporting role. As hard as Edmondson’s work tried to steal scenes from the background, the stage kept calling for your attention due to its prominent position. It was a distraction and returning conversation for myself and my museum going companion. It was the first thing another friend questioned on walking in the space later in the visit. In various parts of the gallery, it was overheard as a gripe by numerous others. The stage is the setting for Returning to Before, a dance piece choreographed by Brendan Fernandes on Saturdays from mid-July until September. It was the first time the Barnes staged dance performances inside one of its galleries, and they billed it as a “new way to engage with visual art” or a way “to explore power structures.” I’m no curatorial prude. And, I’m a fan of Brendan Fernandes. Regarding an exhibition of a living artist’s work, I’m all for alternative presentations. Still, when filling the space with a literal stage for an artist whose name was not on the marques, the Barnes diminished Edmondson’s power before the show had an opportunity to unfold.
This miss felt so crucial because a William Edmondson encyclopedic show is rare. The last two occurred in his hometown of Nashville at the Cheekwood Estate and Gardens in 2021 and 2000. The most recent Edmondson in Philadelphia was the 1994 exhibition Miracles at Janet Fleisher Gallery. Born in 1882, Edmondson began carving around 1932 in response to several personal divine visions in which God instructed him to produce tombstones. Edmondson was the subject of two solo exhibitions during his lifetime, first at MoMA in 1937, followed by the Nashville Art Gallery in 1941. Famously, the 12-piece exhibition at MoMA was the first single-artist show by a Black artist; eight years after their founding, it also marked his debut in fine art context. He neither traveled to New York to see his work nor met the director or curator of the exhibition. In 1938 MoMA sent a single work to Musee du Jeu de Paume, in Paris, as part of the large group exhibition Trois siècles d’art aux États-Unis (“Three Centuries of American Art” or “American Art 1609-1938”). The exhibitions in NY and Paris gained notable attention and press from both sides of the pond. However, media coverage often referred to him not by his name but by his race.
After those first exhibitions, the interest of the larger art world was fleeting. Between 1941 and 1965, Nashville held the torch up on his behalf. He had his first solo exhibition at the Cheekwood in 1964 and a major retrospective in 1981 at the Tennessee State Museum that included a catalog that showed 141 works.
In 1913, he moved from rural Davidson County (in what is now Nashville) to a house at 1434 14th Avenue South in the Edgehill Village area of the city. For two decades, he worked in various jobs and many of the skills he acquired later informed his art. He fashioned found iron railroad spikes into stone chisels and wielded a sledgehammer as a sculpting mallet. Much of his early limestone was sourced from a collection of discarded building remnants that were discarded by the city near his backyard. That backyard became his outdoor studio, rife with angels, unadorned tombstones, heavenly birdbaths, political figures, female figures, boxers, and biblical scenes; his yard served as a living testament to the divine creations of God.
Despite lacking formal training, he evolved into a sculptor whose creations bore a significant influence from the cultural heritage of his enslaved ancestors in Tennessee. His limestone sculptures encapsulated his forebears’ narratives and traditions communicated through speech and song, whether in moments of joy or adversity. Nashville was his home. He was a devout parishioner of the United Primitive Baptist Church, and many of his early tombstones were made expressly for members of this community, for segregated burial grounds. It’s the most impactful act one could give, tailoring a marker for many families that were often financially unable to provide. His sculptures served as solace for grieving African Americans and extended a hopeful glimpse into the future for those who encountered and embraced his art.
As much as I disagree with aspects of the exhibition at the Barnes it was certainly worth the visit, simply because they did the work and brought so many pieces together. That said, it’s worth taking the trip to Nashville for my money. Cheekwood has the largest institutional collection of Edmondson’s work, with 22 sculptures (11 included in the Philadelphia show). Before a recent visit this past April, I had forgotten what another world they’ve created there. Walking through the meandering paths to the art museum now housed in the original Georgian-style Cheek family mansion, each step bares a new tableau of colors, scents, and textures.
The home is a trove of prized possessions, with period rooms filled with American Arts and Crafts furniture and decorative arts. Heading up to the second floor, you’ll find the study of Leslie Cheek Jr., an architect and the former director of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. Primarily unchanged from the original floorplan, the room is defined by its rich oak and Spanish-style artesonado ornately patterned wooden ceiling. There is a regal grandeur to the space. As you enter, to the left is a large bookshelf that has been repurposed as a display case for glass and earthenware decorative vases. The bottom shelf holds two Edmondson sculptures: the upright Squirrel, 1940, a representation of the countryside wildlife around his home, and Ram, 1935 – 1940, symbolizing his spiritual convictions. Two more sculptures sit in the windows. His Eagle, c. 1930 – 1940 represents a state of spiritual liberation, while Girl with a Cape, n. d., which was likely inspired by his nearly 25 years of working as an orderly in a women’s hospital. Most of the women he sculpted remain unidentified, but his continuous return to female figures alludes to reverence for their relationships.
Something about centering the work in Nashville cannot be replicated elsewhere. In the middle of all this luxury and refinement, Edmondson’s work holds its own as a testament to timeless craftsmanship. They are masterpieces that go beyond the simplicity of stone, as they provide a tangible connection between the divine and human spirit. With each chip and cut, each layer of stone is peeled away, and he opens up hidden facets previously concealed beneath the surface. And during my weekday morning visits to Cheekwood, I’ve always had the room all to myself. To take real time to think about the artist’s hand, guided by devotion to God and a shared sense of community and identity. Here, you get to grasp the technical prowess, the emotional depth, and the profound connection between artist and material. In this serene space, we can consider Edmondson’s sculptures as not only expressions of faith but also as testaments to the universal pursuit of meaning and connection.