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Modern and Contemporary Art

VMFA’s Modern & Contemporary collection includes European art after 1900, American art after 1950, and a global collection of 21st-century art.

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The Ludwig and Rosy Fischer Collection of German Expressionism and the T. Catesby Jones Collection of French Modernism provide outstanding examples of European art in the early twentieth century. The Sydney and Frances Lewis collection represents iconic American art from the 1950s through the 1980s, plus European art from the 1980s. With the support of donors such as Pamela K. and William A. Royall, Jr., our dynamic and diverse collection of contemporary art continues to grow.

German Expressionism

Most of VMFA’s German Expressionist art was originally purchased from 1905 to 1925 by Ludwig and Rosy Fischer, forward-thinking collectors from Frankfurt, Germany. The collection later passed to their sons, Max and Ernst. In 1934, Ernst and his wife, Anne, left Germany and eventually settled in Richmond. In 2009, VMFA acquired Ernst’s half of the collection, about 200 works, through a gift-purchase agreement. Two additional works represent Max Fischer’s half of the collection.

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The Sydney and Francis Lewis Collection

Sydney and Frances Lewis donated over eighty percent of the art from the 1950s to 1980s currently on view at VMFA. Their collecting began modestly in the early sixties, but by the end of the sixties, they reached the top tier of those collecting American contemporary art. In 1985, the Lewises gave the best of their private collection to VMFA. VMFA’s Sydney and Frances Lewis Galleries now represent one of the top postwar collections in a comprehensive museum in the United States.

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Twenty-First Century Art

With works by global artists, VMFA’s collection reflects the expanded nature of contemporary art. Mobility and diversity have given 21st-century art a kaleidoscopic quality with no dominant style, medium, or movement. New technologies inflect work made in both innovative and traditional formats. Over the past several years, gifts from donors like Pamela K. and William A. Royall, Jr. have catalyzed the growth of VMFA’s collection, with an especially strong commitment to African American artists.

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On View in the Mary Ann Frable Works on Paper Gallery

Ted Joans: Land of the Rhinoceri

In Ted Joans: Land of the Rhinoceri, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts presents a suite of 31 works—in watercolor, pencil, ink, crayon, and collage—that the artist completed in 1956 and gathered in a portfolio titled Drawings from Africa. 

Born in Cairo, Illinois, Theadore “Ted” Joans was an unlikely icon of the art world. An African American visual artist, poet, and jazz musician, Joans found a prominent space among the surrealist painters, beat poets, and avant-garde musicians of the era. Joans was a modern renaissance man who, upon his departure from Chicago, took residence in New York and Timbuktu, located in Northern Mali on the upper west coast of Africa. For nearly three decades, Joans kept a home in Timbuktu and traveled extensively throughout Africa creating a visual diary of his encounters. 

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Photo: Lyndon French. ©️ Lyndon French
Theaster Gates: Wonder Working Power

Wonder Working Power, a site-specific installation by the Chicago-based multidisciplinary artist and professor reflects the artist’s upbringing as well as his embrace of the genre of ceramics and the use of clay as a transformative material that embodies myriad elements.  

Multiple works are arranged on and around a steel plinth. Their presence exudes power as they occupy the spaces upon and around the altar-like structure. Gates invites viewers to come forward to experience the power of his handiwork and embrace the traditions of the divine.

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Jennie C. Jones: High as the Listening Skies and The Edges of Heaven, Rest

This immersive installation at VMFA features two sound works. The first composition, High as the Listening Skies, features three gospel choirs from Houston, Los Angeles, and Baltimore, performing the song “A City Called Heaven.” The song was popularized by gospel icon and civil rights activist Mahalia Jackson. The second featured work, The Edges of Heaven, Rest, is primarily tonal and associated with the concept of music as having healing energy. Jones layers audio samples—effectively collaging composition from Black composer Alvin Singleton.

The two works, which can be experienced together in the chapel located in the museum’s Sculpture Garden, create a striking balance between the crescendo of a spiritual ecstatic and a meditative calm. Interwoven, they emit a sonic framing that bridges the physical world to the ethereal realm, offering the transcendent and transformational possibilities of sound. 

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A Conversation with Mary Pettway

Interview with artist Mary Pettway conducted in October 2019 discussing her quilting practice, the community of Gee's Bend and quilts included in the permanent collection of VMFA.

A Conversation with Lalla Essaydi

Interview with artist Lalla Essaydi conducted in November 2017 discussing her practice, career and the work, La Grande Odalisque, featured in the permanent collection of VMFA.

A Conversation with Mel Edwards

Interview with artist Mel Edwards conducted in November 2018 discussing his practice, career and work featured in the permanent collection.

A Conversation with Glenn Ligon

Interview with artist Glenn Ligon conducted in February 2019 discussing his practice, career and the work A Small Band, recently acquired by VMFA for the permanent collection.

Storm In The Time of Shelter: A Conversation with Paul Rucker

Interview with Paul Rucker on the topic of his installation Storm In The Time of Shelter which was featured in the special exhibition The Dirty South: Contemporary Art, Material Culture, and the Sonic Impulse which opened May 2021.

Artist Talk | Sir Isaac Julien

On December 4th, Sir Isaac Julien shared insights on his film installation, Lessons of the Hour—Frederick Douglass, which contemplates the life and times of Frederick Douglass.

Julie Mehretu @ VMFA

Artist Julie Mehretu talks about the concepts, processes, and implications of her "Stadia" series, including "Stadia III" in VMFA's permanent collection.

Hank Willis Thomas @VMFA

American artist Hank Willis Thomas discusses his work and the construction of black identity through popular culture.

The interview was conduced by John B. Ravenal (Syndey and Frances Lewis Family Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art), VMFA.

Robert Pruitt @VMFA

American artist Robert Pruitt discusses his inspirations, his process, and elements of the absurd in this artist talk.