Kara Walker on The Met’s American Wing

Kara Walker, American History, American Art

Emanuel Leutze’s “Washington Crossing the Delaware” is one of The American Wing’s highlights. To Marabou, it appears that Gallery 760 was purposely built to showcase this monumentally-sized painting that stands 12.5 ft (3.8 m) high and is 18.75 ft (5.7 m) long.

Leutze, George Washington, American Art, American History
“George Washington Crossing the Delaware” (97.34), Emanuel Leutze, 1851.

When the American Wing’s renovation was completed in 2012, the artist Kara Walker participated in a panel discussion during which she shared her thoughts on Leutze’s famous painting and the new American Wing. Marabou enjoyed Kara’s take and thought you would too. Kara said,

“Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze’s “George Washington Crossing the Delaware”: To make a history painting in “The Grand Tradition,” and at the very beginning of American empire is hubristic, bombastic, and from my vantage point, largely hilarious, thrusting our humble, homely crew of American rebels under the spotlight, dressed up as European heros. Work like this presages the invention of cinema.”*

Following her thoughts on “Washington crossing the Delaware,” Kara went on to say,

“It’s sad to me that the new American Wing capitalizes on an old American attitude, the Washingtonian conquest rather than celebrate its clunky, quirky, cartoonish, improvised-looking attempts at establishing modern citizenship, which was often on the back of indigenous people and kidnapped slaves.”*

Amen, Kara.

Insightful and refreshing, this perspective and critical lens are what’s missing from the American Wing. The museum’s architecture, lighting, and gallery texts all direct visitors to passively appreciate the art on display. Visitors should be encouraged to actively engage with the art by analyzing, questioning, and challenging.

Marabou’s interpretation of The Met’s American Wing will continue after the weekend. Until then, if you’re interested in the entire panel discussion from where Kara’s quotes were pulled, you can find the video here.

* Kara Walker’s quotes from this post were taken from the symposium, “New Approaches to Presenting American Art: Afternoon Session,” held at The Metropolitan Museum of Art on March 23, 2012. The panel included Kara Walker and fellow artists Rackstraw Downes and Chuck Close. Kara entitled her thoughts shared on the panel, “Notes on the American Wing or Reflecting on the Character of the American Wing.”

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