Deborah Roberts: on top of the world

If any contemporary artist is presently in more demand than Deborah Roberts, I’m unaware of them.

She has a piece featured in an exhibition exploring the influence of children and childhood on the practice of visual artists at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston. She’s featured in a major show of female artists at the Hirshorn Museum in Washington, D.C., the national museum of contemporary art. A fascinating new exhibition pairs her side-by-side with legendary Benny Andrews at the McNay museum in San Antonio.

All of which makes the presence of “Deborah Roberts: I’m,” her first solo museum exhibition, at the Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens in Jacksonville especially noteworthy. The top figures in contemporary art rarely make it a point to have their work shown in northeast Florida.

This presentation would be a big deal at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta or the Perez Museum in Miami, but having it in Jacksonville, the only East Coast stop after originating in Roberts’ home town of Austin, TX then traveling to Denver and Los Angeles, proves historic.

Credit for bringing “I’m” to the Cummer goes to director Andrea Barnwell Brownlee who exhibited Roberts previously – before she was a superstar – while Barnwell was in charge of the art museum at Spelman College in Atlanta. It’s the second time since taking over in Jacksonville less than two years ago that Brownlee has landed a historic exhibition of contemporary art. In 2021, South African photographer Zanele Muholi had presentations running simultaneously at the Cummer Museum… and Tate Modern in Britain, along with MoMA, the most prestigious Modern/contemporary art museum in the world.

Roberts’ now instantly recognizable mixed media collages of Black children have become defining of 21st century art. Same as Kehinde Wiley’s portraits of Black people staged to mimic art historical poses against fantastically detailed backgrounds. Same as Kara Walker’s silhouettes. Same as Amy Sherald’s feathery soft portraits. Same as Banksy’s balloon.

Same as Picasso’s fragmented portraits or Monet’s quick, brushy landscapes or Velasquez’s searing portraits from previous centuries.

Deborah Roberts (American, b. 1962), Jamal, 2020. Mixed media collage on canvas, 65 x 45 in. Artwork © Deborah Roberts. Courtesy the artist; Vielmetter Los Angeles; and Stephen Friedman Gallery, London. Image courtesy The Contemporary Austin. Photograph by Paul Bardagjy.
Deborah Roberts (American, b. 1962), Jamal, 2020. Mixed media collage on canvas, 65 x 45 in. Artwork © Deborah Roberts. Courtesy the artist; Vielmetter Los Angeles; and Stephen Friedman Gallery, London. Image courtesy The Contemporary Austin. Photograph by Paul Bardagjy.

Deborah Roberts has become an essential. Her work will fill museums and textbooks and imaginations from now until long after she has left this world, same as Picasso and Monet and Velasquez.

For the Cummer, “Deborah Roberts: I’m” continues its track record of hosting the best special exhibition program in all of Florida. That predates Barnwell, although she’s supercharged it. Sorry Miami. Sorry Tampa. Sorry Orlando.

In the last handful of years, in addition to Deborah Roberts and Zanele Muholi, the Cummer has featured major national traveling exhibitions for Jacksonville native and esteemed Harlem Renaissance artist and educator Augusta Savage, the biggest figures of French Impressionism, historic Cheyenne and Arapaho ledger drawings, British contemporary installation artist Rebecca Louise Law, the Rockefeller’s collection of Asian art, exceptional objects of Folk Art from the American Folk Art Museum in New York and Louis Comfort Tiffany.

Extraordinary. Unsurpassed in state.

Deborah Roberts is the biggest deal in contemporary art. See her work through December 4, 2022 at the Cummer Museum in Jacksonville.

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