The Metropolitan Museum of Art

New York, NY



Perfect Documents: Walker Evans and African Art, 1935

February 1 - September 3, 2000


The Metropolitan Museum of Art is presenting a group of distinctive and relatively unknown works by the American photographer Walker Evans (1903-1975), through September 3, 2000. "Perfect Documents: Walker Evans and African Art, 1935 examines in detail the history of Evans's African art photographs through 50 vintage images from the portfolio that Evans created in conjunction with a landmark exhibition of African art. Complementing "Perfect Documents" is a selection of sculptures that Evans photographed in 1935, many of which are on loan from public and private collections. (left: Figure Stuck with Nails (Nkisi N'kondi front view), Africa, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Yombe peoples, gelatin silver print, 9 1/8 x 4 1/4 inches, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, THe Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Gift of Robert Goldwater, 1961 and 1962 (1978.412.2199)

In 1935 the groundbreaking African Negro Art exhibition was organized by The Museum of Modern Art. It was one of the first exhibitions in the United States to display African sculptures as works of art, rather than as ethnographic objects. Evans, then 32 years old, was commissioned by the museum to create a photographic portfolio of a selection of works from the exhibition of more than 600 sculptures. The large commission created a record of masterpieces in the exhibition and gave Evans the opportunity to build relationships with individuals at the Museum of Modern Art who would continue to encourage and promote his artistic endeavors.

Virginia-Lee Webb, the curator of the exhibition and Archivist of the Photograph Collection in the Metropolitan Museum's Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas, stated: "Evans's photographs of African art were made just before he began his renowned work for the Resettlement Administration. Importantly they record many masterpieces, and they also reveal Evans's signature style of photography." (right: Figure surmounting a calabash [Detail, gourd figure: Kabwelulu] Africa, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Luba peoples, Gelatin silver print; 7 x 9 3/8 in. (17.8 x 23.8 cm), The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Gift of Robert Goldwater, 1961 and 1962, 1978.412.2205)

The commission comprised 17 portfolios, each with 477 photographs, and a typescript index. While the actual photography took about six weeks, often at night during the run of the exhibition, the printing, mounting, and collating of the prints took almost a year. Evans photographed many sculptures from more than one view, and the manner in which he pictured the works reflects his highly personal photographic style. He generally positioned the sculptures tightly within the frame with little space around them, and in many instances - as he did throughout his career - he cut the prints to specific dimensions to achieve the effect he desired.

The Evans photographs include those of such famous works of art as the Fang Reliquary Sculpture (head from Gabon) that has long been admired for its balanced symmetry and juxtaposition of straight lines and sinuous curves. In the collection of the sculptor Jacob Epstein in the 1920s, the formally powerful sculpture was one of the works of art that brought early-20th-century modernist artists to the admiration of non-Western art. It is now in the collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art. The vintage photographs in Perfect Documents will be rotated once during the run of the show. In June 2000 another set of prints will be installed in the exhibition.

Born in St. Louis in 1903, Walker Evans was raised in Kenilworth, Chicago, and Toledo, Ohio. Educated at Andover and Williams College, Evans developed a love of contemporary literature - for James Joyce and T. S. Eliot - and for the French modernists, Charles Baudelaire and Gustave Flaubert. His passion for literature, coupled with a resentment of authority and academic conventionality, impelled Evans to abandon the classroom for the streets and cafés of Paris in 1926. He returned to New York the following year, intent on becoming a writer; but by 1928, he had taken up photography. At the request of Alfred H. Barr, Evans began photographing the African sculptures on display at the Museum of Modern Art in mid-April 1935, and by August he began work for the Resettlement Administration in Washington, D.C. This led to further work with the government, and Evans continued working until the museum project ended in April 1936. (right: [Untrimmed contact print showing a Banda Headdress] Africa, Guinea, Baga/Nalu peoples, Gelatin silver print; 10 x 8 in. (25.4 x 20.3 cm), The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas, Purchase, 1989, 1989.410.1)

The exhibition is accompanied by an illustrated catalogue by Virginia-Lee Webb. The exhibition catalogue is made possible by the Doris Duke Fund for Publications. This publication - the first to examine the subject and related projects - includes new and comprehensive information drawn from The Walker Evans Archive in the Museum's Department of Photographs, and as well as from other archival sources. It is published by the Metropolitan Museum in a paperback edition and is available in the Museum's Bookshop.

"Perfect Documents: Walker Evans and African Art, 1935" is organized by Virginia-Lee Webb, with Alisa La Gamma, Assistant Curator in the Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas at the Metropolitan Museum. Exhibition design is by Dennis Kois, Design Assistant to the Chief Designer, with graphics by Constance M. Norkin, Graphic Designer, and lighting by Zack Zanolli, Lighting Designer. The exhibition is sponsored by Philip Morris Companies Inc. (left: Ancestral figure, head [Reliquary sculpture: head (Nlo Bieri)] Africa, Gabon, Fang peoples, Gelatin silver print; 9 1/4 x 6 in. (23.5 x 15.2 cm), The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Gift of Robert Goldwater, 1961 and 1962, 1978.412.2145)

Please also see Walker Evans (2/25/00)

Metropolitan Museum of Art's MetPublications, an online resource that offers in-depth access to the Museum's print and online publications, covering art, art history, archaeology, conservation, and collecting.includes the following title available for.pdf download: Perfect Documents: Walker Evans and African Art, 1935; Webb, Virginia-Lee (2000)

Read more about the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Resource Library Magazine

For further biographical information please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.

Links to sources of information outside of our web site are provided only as referrals for your further consideration. Please use due diligence in judging the quality of information contained in these and all other web sites. Information from linked sources may be inaccurate or out of date. TFAO neither recommends or endorses these referenced organizations. Although TFAO includes links to other web sites, it takes no responsibility for the content or information contained on those other sites, nor exerts any editorial or other control over them. For more information on evaluating web pages see TFAO's General Resources section in Online Resources for Collectors and Students of Art History.

Search Resource Library for thousands of articles and essays on American art.

Copyright 2003-2013 Traditional Fine Arts Organization, Inc., an Arizona nonprofit corporation. All rights reserved.