Pierce gave visual form to the bitter truths of slavery, as well as to his own experience growing up in the Jim Crow South.
Judith Stein December 12, 2020
PHILADELPHIA — The astute art collector Dr. Albert C. Barnes (1872-1951) treasured African sculpture as well as Picasso, Modigliani, and Matisse. When his radical collection was officially dedicated as the Barnes Foundation in 1925, carvings from West Africa and paintings by today’s Modern masters were displayed in the same gallery. Far from regarding African masks and figurines as rudimentary Western art, Barnes and his associates viewed them as “perhaps a stage in advance of European evolution, and valuable as ideals” (Paul Guillaume and Thomas Munro, Primitive Negro Sculpture, 1926). Ceramic wall tiles designed by Barnes flanked the Foundation’s front door in suburban Merion, Pennsylvania, their African motifs previewing the importance of the carvings inside.
The collector’s distinctive wall arrangements, which he called ensembles, remained unchanged when in 2012, the Foundation moved into architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien’s state-of-the-art facility in downtown Philadelphia. The new building allowed space for temporary exhibitions, providing the opportunity to build on the founder’s deep interest in African American art, music, and literature. The vigor of this legacy informs its current exhibition, Elijah Pierce’s America, a major retrospective of more than 100 painted bas-reliefs and freestanding carvings by Elijah Pierce (1892-1984) on view through January 10.
Born on a cotton farm in Baldwyn, Mississippi, Pierce began whittling wood with a pocketknife when he was just a boy. Carving became a lifelong pursuit. For subject matter, he turned to the Bible, American history, and current events, or his own invented scenarios. Social justice was an abiding concern; as the son of a former slave sold away from his mother by the age of four, Pierce gave visual form to the bitter truths of slavery, as well as to his own experience growing up in the Jim Crow South. Once, while playing baseball in a nearby town, the teenaged Pierce was mistaken for a suspect in a white man’s murder. In “Elijah Escapes the Mob” (1950s), a characteristic low-relief carving, the tale unfolds like a storyboard across an upper and lower register. The teen and two rabbits run for safety in the final vignette, a possible allusion to the artist’s later comment that “killing a Black man in Mississippi was no more a crime than killing a rabbit.”
Pierce moved north as part of the Great Migration, settling in Columbus, Ohio, in 1923. In time he opened a barbershop and he would carve on wood between haircuts. Although raised in a devout Baptist household, Pierce didn’t discover his religious calling until one evening: when he was expected for devotional study, he reached for a Sears Roebuck catalogue instead of the Bible and had a dramatic moment of awakening. He heard God speak to him directly, saying: “Your life is a book, and every day is a page.”
The enormous lightning bolt in “Saul on the Road to Damascus” (1948) may have conveyed a personal significance for the artist. Some of his carvings served as didactic props for his pastoral work. During the Depression, he and his wife took to the road with “The Book of Wood”(1932), “a sermon in wood” with 33 Bible stories mounted on seven huge pages, two of which can be seen in the exhibition. Pierce found inspiration everywhere. A portrait bust with gaping mouth and fearsome teeth in “Bad Bad Leroy Brown” (1979) looks every bit “badder than old King Kong,” as Jim Croce described in his song of the same name. The popularity of Popeye the Sailor, a comic-strip character in the 1930s, is evidenced by the artist’s delightful low-relief and free-standing Popeyes from that decade, some dark skinned, others light.
For the terrifying details in “Police Dog” (1971), Pierce relied on a 1963 photo of a Civil Rights march in Birmingham, Alabama, that documented a vicious dog lunging at a protester. By restricting color to the background and coating the unpainted figures with high-gloss varnish, he isolated the action like a spotlight. “[Pierce] would have been carving George Floyd or Breonna Taylor today,” filmmaker Carolyn Allport commented in a 2020 interview in The Guardian. Her rarely seen documentaries on the artist, Elijah Pierce, Woodcarver(1974) and Sermons in Wood (1976), are continuously screening in the exhibition.
Pierce’s compassion for humankind is evident in both his secular and pious narratives. So too is his joie de vivre. The fun-loving dancers and musicians in “Music Box” (1940s) exude a jubilant energy that recalls merrymakers in paintings by Archibald Motley, Pierce’s modernist contemporary. “Music Box” shows off Pierce’s mastery of bodily expression, in its poised musicians and swaying dancers, as does “Holy Family” (1931). In the latter, the central Christ Child is positioned equally within the parenthetic space created by his parents’ deferential poses, yet the baby subtly reaches for his mother, while pulling away from his bearded father’s proffered smooch.
The artist’s sense of humor and his extraordinary eye for human foibles shaped many of the scenes he imagined. In “Father Time Racing”(1959), the zealous grim reaper, scythe in hand, is re-invented as a bare-chested geezer in athletic shorts. Multiple, and diminishing, representations of the sprinter, whose gray locks fly in the wind, chase after those not destined to outrun him. Meanwhile, the commander-in-chief in the hilarious “Nixon Being Chased by Inflation” (1974) is hellbent on escaping a sour-faced creature — part cheetah, part inflated bulldog — who embodies ballooning prices. A pair of fleet-footed men race through “Nixon Being Driven from the Whitehouse” (1975); Nixon, in triplicate, wears red socks that become bright spots of color that pace the visual flow. Curators have suggested that his pursuers, holding what look like microphones, may represent Washington Post reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward.
Pierce’s diminutive lions, tigers, and crocodiles beguiled me. But lilliputian versions of them that I discovered on a shelf in the tour-de-force dollhouse he made for his mother (pre-1948) enthralled me. I recognized it as a kindred spirit to the Museum of the City of New York’s Stettheimer Dollhouse (1916-1935), constructed by Carrie Stettheimer over 19 years, which is full of miniature artworks.
Pierce was creative about rendering space and scale in his compositions. The affectionate duo, and the plants that encircle them, in “Couple with Roses” (1975) all cling to the same surface plane. At times, he disregarded the function of frames as containers, as did medieval manuscript illuminators. The artist cleverly enhanced the spatial depth in “Joe Lewis, World Champion” (1967) by positioning his hero stepping toward us onto the frame, while he structured the lower edge of “Bibl[e] Love” (1976) as a parapet for the figure, behind which lurk Satan and a temptress. His frequent use of glitter, as in “Watergate” (c. 1975), could serve as an analogue for gold leaf. Rhinestones, shells, and hair clippings artfully enrich textures and boost dimensionality.
Pierce’s art did not gain a national audience until 20 years after Barnes died. However, the collector did acquire work by Horace Pippin (1888-1946), who, like Pierce, was a self-taught African American artist. After you see the Pierce show, cross the courtyard to visit the Foundation’s world-famous collection, which never travels. Walk through the enfilade of galleries to find the Pippins and discover points of tangency with Pierce’s work. Both artists sometimes pictured the same subject, such as Christ and the Woman of Samaria, and both could transform unpainted wooden grounds into skin or wood objects. Their distinct bodies of work notwithstanding, the two described their creative process similarly. “A picture would form in my mind,” said Pierce, and for Pippin, “pictures just come to my mind.” Pierce’s vital, joyous, and important work is at the Barnes through January 10. The Foundation’s Pippins, African carvings, and companiable modernists are permanently on view.
The Barnes Foundation (2025 Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) is currently closed due to COVID-19 restrictions and is scheduled to reopen on January 8. Elijah Pierce’s America continues through January 18, 2021. The exhibition was co-curated by Dr. Nancy Ireson, Deputy Director for Collections and Exhibitions & Gund Family Chief Curator, Barnes Foundation, and Dr. Zoé Whitley, Director of Chisenhale Gallery, London.