The Treasure of Ulysses Davis

February 12 - May 15, 2010

Curated by Susan Crawley

Right: Ulysses Davis, Frederick Douglas, 1940-1985, wood and paint, 12 3/8 x 7 3/8 x 5 5/8 inches, King-Tisdell Cottage Foundation. Photo © Peter Harholdt. Left: Ulysses Davis, Lost Tribes in the Swamp with Alligators, assembled in mid-1980s, wood and paint, 16 1/4 x 5 1/4 x 5 1/4 inches, King-Tisdell Cottage Foundation. Photo © Peter Harholdt.

The Treasure of Ulysses Davis debuted at the High Museum in Atlanta and traveled to the American Folk Art Museum in New York and the Menello Museum of Art in Florida, before arriving in Chicago. Organized by Susan Crawley of the High Museum of Art in collaboration with the King-Tisdell Cottage Foundation of Savannah, Georgia, this retrospective features about 109 pieces, including 78 from the King-Tisdell Cottage Foundation, which acquired most of Davis’s work after he died, fulfilling his desire to keep his corpus intact. The title comes from Davis’s explanation of why he disliked parting with his work: “They’re my treasure. If I sold these, I’d be really poor.” The exhibition will increase public knowledge of and appreciation for the work of this much admired but rarely seen sculptor.

Davis (1914–1990) was a Savannah barber who created a diverse but unified body of highly refined sculpture that reflects his deep faith, humor, and dignity. His carvings were featured in the seminal exhibition, Black Folk Art: 1930–1980 at the Corcoran Gallery, since which time his reputation has increased. Because he wanted his work to stay together after he died, Davis rarely sold his sculptures. As a result, they have had little exposure outside Savannah, particularly since his death, and he is little known outside folk art circles. One notable exception was the curator J. Carter Brown’s inclusion of Davis’s portrait bust of Martin Luther King, Jr. in Rings: Five Passions in World Art, an exhibition at the High Museum of Art during the 1996 Summer Olympic Games; Davis was the only Georgia artist whose work was included in the show.

Davis’s sculptures, which range in height from six to over forty inches, can be divided into major categories: portraits of U.S. and African leaders; religious images; patriotism; works influenced by African forms; fantasy; flora and fauna; love; humor; and abstract decorative objects. Davis also carved utilitarian objects such as canes and furniture. Among the pieces owned by the King-Tisdell Cottage Foundation is a group regarded as Davis’s masterwork: a series of 40 carved busts of all the U.S. presidents through George H. W. Bush. In addition to a large number from the King-Tisdell Cottage Foundation, the exhibition will also include works by Davis from the High Museum of Art’s permanent collection, plus a selection of pieces owned by other museums and by collectors in Atlanta and other locations.

The exhibition is accompanied by the first significant Davis catalogue, a 120-page critical reassessment of the artist, which contains 75 color plates; an introduction by High Museum of Art Director Michael Shapiro; and an essay on Davis’s life and work by Susan Crawley, Curator of Folk Art. A Davis monograph, long overdue, represents a significant contribution to self-taught art scholarship. Both the exhibition and the catalogue will serve as the definitive introduction to and analysis of Davis’s work.

Click here to view this exhibition on Flickr

This Chicago exhibition is made possible by the generous support of the Terra Foundation for American Art with additional support provided by the Polk Bros Foundation in celebration of Nikki Will Stein’s 20th Anniversary with the Foundation.

Organized by the High Museum of Art, Atlanta in association with King-Tisdell Cottage Foundation of Savannah Georgia. The exhibition is made possible by the National Endowment for the Arts as part of American Masterpieces: Three Centuries of Artistic Genius. Generous support is provided by the Henry Luce Foundation with additional support from The Judith Rothschild Foundation.