Last week the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts opened Determined to Be: The Sculpture of John Rhoden, the first comprehensive retrospective of sculptor John B. Rhoden (1954 Fellow), the first Black visual artist to win the Rome Prize. Curated by Dr. Brittany Webb, the show features seventy of the innovative but sometimes overlooked artist’s sculptures in bronze, wood, and stone. “His story is as big as his over-life sized sculptures, and I'm thrilled that we all have the opportunity to get more familiar with his work and his legacy through this exhibition,” said Webb.
John Rhoden was born in 1916 in Birmingham, Alabama, and came to sculpting in his youth, later moving to New York in 1938. After serving in the Army during the Second World War, Rhoden studied painting and sculpture at Columbia University, where his teachers included the landscape painter and sculptor William Zorach. In 1951, Rhoden became the first Black visual artist to win a Rome Prize (and only the second Black Fellow, after composer Ulysses Kay). At the culmination of his fellowship, in 1954, Rhoden exhibited a towering bronze sculpture whose “lithe organicism and integration of figuration and abstraction presaged the style that would characterize his art for years to come,” as former interim Andrew Heiskell Arts Director Lindsay Harris noted in an essay published last year on the occasion of 2022 Winter Open Studios (fig. 1).
Rhoden’s work included commissions for the exterior of the Metropolitan Hospital in Harlem, the Afro-American Museum in Philadelphia, and a bronze sculpture of Frederick Douglass at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania. In 2017, the Rhoden Estate transferred over 275 works to PAFA; twenty-eight of these works were accessioned by the museum and the remainder will be placed into other museum collections. PAFA, tasked with the responsibility of preserving Rhoden’s artistic legacy, also received 22 linear feat of archival material, which have been partially digitized for the public thanks to a grant by the National Endowment for the Humanities.
PAFA’s exhibition, and its accompanying catalogue, explore themes such as Rhoden’s experience of Blackness in the American North and South and Europe, and the importance of public art commissions in Rhoden’s career. There will also be a robust schedule of related programming and lectures.
Determined To Be: The Sculpture of John Rhoden is on view through April 7, 2024 at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, 118-128 N Broad Street, Philadelphia, PA.