Cutting a Figure

Fashioning Black Portraiture

Richard J. Powell

Cutting a Figure

Richard J. Powell

296 pages | 40 color plates, 76 halftones | 8-3/4 x 9-1/2 | © 2008
Cloth $60.00 ISBN: 9780226677279 Published February 2009
Examining portraits of black people over the past two centuries, Cutting a Figure argues that these images should be viewed as a distinct category of portraiture that differs significantly from depictions of people with other racial and ethnic backgrounds. The difference, Richard Powell contends, lies in the social capital that stems directly from the black subject’s power to subvert dominant racist representations by evincing such traits as self-composure, self-adornment, and self-imagining.
            Powell forcefully supports this argument with evidence drawn from a survey of nineteenth-century portraits, in-depth case studies of the postwar fashion model Donyale Luna and the contemporary portraitist Barkley L. Hendricks, and insightful analyses of images created since the late 1970s. Along the way, he discusses major artists—such as Frédéric Bazille, John Singer Sargent, James Van Der Zee, and David Hammons—alongside such overlooked producers of black visual culture as the Tonka and Nike corporations. Combining previously unpublished images with scrupulous archival research, Cutting a Figure illuminates the ideological nature of the genre and the centrality of race and cultural identity in understanding modern and contemporary portraiture.
List of Figures
Introduction          Posing While Black

One                       Interlocutors
Two                       Luna Obscura
Three                     Barkley L. Hendricks’s Afro-Shrine
Four                       The New Black Portraiture
Conclusion            Beyond the Bodies of Evidence

Review Quotes
Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

“Richard Powell has been at the forefront of the study of African American art for more than two decades, and in Cutting a Figure he makes a characteristically provocative case for the centrality of black representation and identity in the larger genre of portraiture. Featuring exciting new interpretations of the portraitist Barkley L. Hendricks and the fashion model Donyale Luna, as well as fresh insights about images ranging from the renowned to the rarely discussed, Cutting a Figure represents the work of a highly original scholar at the peak of his powers.”

Deborah Willis, author of Let Your Motto Be Resistance

“A significant study based on truly original research. Richard Powell presents a critical assessment and exploration of the portrait as both object and subject of art and fashion. One of the many important aspects of Powell’s book is his reinterpretation of the different ways the black body is represented within the context of the observer and the observed. By focusing on such representations within and outside the boundaries of art, Powell offers a conceptual exploration of agency and resistance as he questions the existing historiography. Cutting a Figure will make a significant mark in the fields of American art history, fashion, visual culture, American studies, photography, and African American studies.”

Ann Eden Gibson, author of Abstract Expressionism

“This is the first study I have seen that explores the complex subjectivities available in contemporary black portraiture in such breadth and depth. Richard Powell tellingly explores the production and criticism of widely known artists as well as fascinating examples from popular culture. His style and powerful facility with words at once illuminate his argument and enliven the subtle and spectacular methods of the artists whose work he unfurls.”

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