Henri Matisse’s 1947 painting “Icarus” depicts the boy who flew too close to the sun in Greek myth. His is a cautionary tale about over-ambition, but Matisse’s rendering of the free-floating Icarus falling from the sky feels almost dreamlike, as if you could be convinced that there is freedom and lightness to be found in his descent. Hank Willis Thomas’s reinterpretation of this painting, 2016’s “Icarus Falling,” dispenses with any possible sentimentality: The Icarus figure is positioned horizontally, evoking the image of a police chalk outline. Surrounding the body is a patchwork of NBA jerseys, many from cities with high rates of gun violence among Black men. The sun that Thomas’s Icarus flew too close to was the dream of NBA basketball, but it wasn’t his ambition that became his undoing–rather, it was the reality of too many young Black lives cut short in America.
This is a hallmark of Thomas’s work—not the politics, though that is certainly a large part of what he does, but his desire to take the familiar, adjust the perspective, and create something that troubles our understanding of how the world works. “I think that we are challenged as creative people to open up new pathways in our hearts and minds about things that we think we understand or think we know,” Thomas tells me over the phone, “and that’s like a portal for others to follow through.”
Thomas has most often been called a conceptual artist, a label he isn’t keen to embrace, but which would seem the most apt shorthand for the type of work that he does. He employs various mediums (“I never learned how to paint or draw,” he says) such as sculpture, photography, video, and more (“Icarus Falling” is a quilting) to probe questions of race, gender, identity, legacy, capital, and anything else that captures his interest and imagination. In 2010, he debuted a work entitled “Unbranded: Reflections in Black Corporate America, 1968-2008,” for which he combed through magazine advertisements featuring Black people and then removed the branding of the product being sold. His fascination was with the idea that the advertisement was never selling the product itself. The ad was meant to convey a story, and what could we learn from the story that it was telling about Black people and Black life?
Thomas grew up in New York in the ‘80s and ‘90s; his mother is the renowned photographer and art historian Deborah Willis, who worked as a curator at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem when he was very young. Hip-hop culture painted the streets and subway cars with graffiti, introduced the world to the art of emceeing, and created a community in New York City that had fresh style and a common bond. “I had such a wonderful, awesome upbringing because I grew up in a place where, what we now refer to as Black excellence, was everywhere,” he says. It was also the height of the crack era, and the distance between these two visions of Black life seem to inform his work today. Thomas knows what is possible for Black people, provided the opportunity to do their work with as little interference as they can manage; he also knows that a system of white supremacy has placed as many obstacles in their paths as it can muster. Thomas’s work is at times a celebration of the former, and at others an intense critique of the latter.