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Museo Novecento, Florence

‘I developed the idea of Modern Ancient Brown 40 years ago – explains the artist – as I wanted my work to be contemporary, to have a historicity and to honor Black and Brown painters who came before me. It is also a kind of self-portrait: McArthur Binion and Modern Ancient Brown: MAB and MAB’.

Modern Ancient Brown, curated by Lorenzo Bruni and organized in collaboration with Massimo De Carlo gallery, opens to the public on Saturday, October 24th at Museo Novecento and will run until February 11th, 2021. This is the first solo exhibition in a European public institution by the well-known African American artist McArthur Binion.

Museo Novecento gets to the heart of the most urgent issues of our time, such as that of civil rights and fights against racism, and it does so by presenting the works of an artist who has been involved in such issues for decades, both with his painting and with his civil and didactic commitment. In 2019 McArthur Binion has established a foundation committed to raising awareness among young artists about racial issues according to an interdisciplinary and holistic vision. The works on display, all made in 2020, were created by the artist specifically for the spaces of Museo Novecento and for Duel, the exhibition cycle conceived by the museum’s artistic director Sergio Risaliti. The exhibition presents several works on paper from the Healing:work series, twelve works from the Altar:work I-XII series – which reflects on nature and limits of monochrome – and a large wooden altarpiece titled Modern Ancient Brown-Altar. It also premieres a documentary about the artist by filmmaker Marika Mairova, commissioned for Art Basel 2020, which has been postponed due to Covid-19.

Modern Ancient Brown is not only the title of this exhibition but also the name of a foundation established by Binion in 2019 in Detroit, whose purpose is to promote the work of black artists dedicated to both visual arts and literature and whose work has been under-represented. McArthur Binion – who initially started his career as a poet – engaged in an intense dialogue with the spaces of Museo Novecento, as an essential response to this year’s pandemic, Black Lives Matter’s movements and general rethinking by museums of their role of preserving and proposing cultural offer in a global world that is still in its long post-colonial phase.

Since the 1970s, McArthur Binion has sought an alternative to minimalist art, through his personal philosophy of the pictorial grids fused with his archival belongings, such as the pages of his phone books or found photographs of racial lynching. The project, presented at Museo Novecento as a result of two years of investigation, began with the conception of a large abstract work on board, which will be placed in the pre-existing frame above the altar of the Renaissance chapel, one of the three rooms dedicated to the Duel exhibition cycle.

The other two rooms of the exhibition will host two different body of works, both driven by the search for modernist abstract painting’s legacy in relation to a wider context, that of the need of human society to leave traces of itself and, at the same time, to project itself into the future. This approach led McArthur Binion to amplify his artistic research, which includes both pictorial and sculptural practice, along with a monochromatic dimension that coexists with intimate and personal narratives.

The artist reflects on this process in an unprecedented way, through a dialogue with Head of a Woman (1939), a small terracotta by Marino Marini coming from Alberto Della Ragione Archive in the museum’s permanent collection. This sculpture impressed Binion for its intimate fragility – very distant from the Italian equestrian monuments he knew – and for the Tuscan artist’s ability to carve the clay, giving life to the hair and humanizing the head, which rather seems to come from an archaic time without history. This connection allows to explore Binion’s plastic way of understanding painting in the healing:work series, in which monochrome color mixes with a paper surface made up of pieces from his personal phone book or other sources.

The pages of the artist’s agenda also form the basis of the work Modern Ancient Brown-Altar – placed on the altar – which investigates the relationship between the paper’s grid and that created by the layers of oil paint stick, with which the grid is amplified and negated at the same time. The twelve works altar:works I-XII are made with a particular paper and analyze, in a different way, the shape of the altarpiece and the color’s ability to emerge even if covered by multiple layers.