Riffs and Relations

African American Artists and the European Modernist Tradition

February 29, 2020 - January 3, 2021

"African American artists embraced modernism. But the art world didn’t embrace them." by Philip Kennicott, The Washington Post

"African American Artists Created Fruitful, But Fraught, Relations with European Modernism" by Mackenzie Weigner, The Washington Diplomat

Riffs and Relations: African American Artists and the European Modernist Tradition presents works by African American artists of the 20th and 21st centuries together with examples by the early 20th century European artists with whom they engaged. This exhibition explores the rich, multifaceted, and sustained connections and frictions around modernism in the work of artists such as Romare Bearden, Robert Colescott, Renee Cox, Wassily Kandinsky, Norman Lewis, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Faith Ringgold, Hank Willis Thomas, and Carrie Mae Weems, among others.

African American artists have interrogated and immersed themselves in European modernist art since its rise to prominence in the early 20th century. This period also saw a critical growth of professional African American artists, many of whom engaged modernist styles and sensibilities as they claimed the power to represent and define themselves, their histories, and their cultures. In the early part of the century, African American artists were nourished by the advances of Post-Impressionist, Cubist, and expressionist art. They contributed to modernism’s new languages of form, liberated use of color, and complex engagement with the arts of Africa. But in later years, artists began challenging master narratives. Using humor and satire, they created “riffs” to question the supposed superiority of European art, exposing its fraught association with people of color. The push and pull of these relationships became a distinct tradition in African American artistic practice. 

The African American and European artists in this exhibition have engaged modernism in different time periods and varied artistic and social contexts. The cross-cultural, international, and intergenerational exchanges assembled here offer a fascinating glimpse into dialogues that have evolved over the 20th and 21st centuries. Fittingly, The Phillips Collection was founded on the idea that works from various moments could be brought together to show enduring relationships that help broaden discussions on art history. These paintings, sculptures, photographs, and works on paper enhance the story of modern and contemporary American art by presenting compelling works born of these riffs and relations.

Exhibition catalogue
Available in the Museum Shop

Beautifully illustrated Riffs and Relations catalogue written by Adrienne L. Childs, with contributions by Valerie Cassel Oliver and Renee Maurer, foreword by Dorothy Kosinski, and statements from many of the artists featured in the exhibition.

Riffs and Relations is the recipient of the fifth Annual James A. Porter & David C. Driskell Book Award from the David C. Driskell Center for the Study of the Visuals Arts and Culture of African Americans and the African Diaspora at the University of Maryland.

$50/$45 Members: Contact [email protected] to order.

The exhibition is organized by The Phillips Collection with guest curator Dr. Adrienne L. Childs.

With lead support provided by The Frauke and Willem de Looper Charitable Fund, Altria Group, and The Mr. and Mrs. Raymond J. Horowitz Foundation for the Arts.

Brought to you by the DC Commission on the Arts & Humanities, The Robert Lehman Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, Eric Richter and Charles Shoener, Amanda and Earl W. Stafford, and George Vradenburg and the Vradenburg Foundation.

In-kind contributions provided by


The Phillips Collection thanks Brenda and Larry Thompson for their support in bringing The Eyes have it (1991) by Moe Brooker to Washington.

Additional support is provided by Melvin & Juanita Hardy and Millennium Arts Salon, Sandra Mabry, Jolene Tritt & Paul Herzog, and Damon Porter & Anne Maton. 

Hank Willis Thomas and Bomani Jones in Conversation

Enjoy a gallery-by-gallery tour of Riffs and Relations: African American Artists and the European Modernist Tradition.

Dr. Adrienne Childs in conversation with Dr. Rebecca VanDiver on Loïs Mailou Jones and David C. Driskell

Dr. Adrienne Childs in conversation with artist Renee Cox

Curator's Perspective: Dr. Adrienne L. Childs on Riffs and Relations

Watch a conversation between Dr. Adrienne Childs and artist Janet Taylor Pickett, part of The Keyes Collective and Facets58's The Art of Influence series.


Dr. Adrienne Childs chats with Tyler Green on the Modern Art Notes podcast.

Click on the highlighted artists to learn more about their artwork in Riffs and Relations

Mequitta Ahuja
Charles Alston
Emma Amos
Romare Bearden
Sanford Biggers
Georges Braque
Moe Brooker
Henri Cartier-Bresson
Elizabeth Catlett
Barbara Chase-Riboud
Robert Colescott
Harold Cousins
Renee Cox
Beauford Delaney
Aaron Douglas
Leonardo Drew
David C. Driskell
John Edmonds
Ellen Gallager
Felrath Hines
Ayana V. Jackson
Jennie C. Jones
Loïs Mailou Jones
William H. Johnson
Wassily Kandisky
Titus Kaphar
Wifredo Lam
Jacob Lawrence
Norman Lewis
Henri Matisse
Sam Middleton
Piet Mondrian
Claude Monet
Wangechi Mutu
Pablo Picasso
Janet Taylor Pickett
Martin Puryear
Winold Reiss
Faith Ringgold
Karl Schmidt-Rottluff
Chaim Soutine
Frank Stewart
Henry Ossawa Tanner
Alma Thomas
Hank Willis Thomas
Mickalene Thomas
Bob Thompson
Maurice Utrillo
Vincent van Gogh
Carrie Mae Weems
James Lesesne Wells
Hale Woodruff
Ossip Zadkine