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Giants: The Dean Collection of Swizz Beatz and Alicia Keys at The Brooklyn Museum

The globally respected Director Anne Pasternack mounts a timely show of the work of Black artists – but here we have a very different kind of exhibition.

Alicia Keys and Swizz Beatz. image courtesy of The Brooklyn Museum.

Thrillingly twenty-first century in every regard, The Dean Collection of 98 works by 37 artists assembled over the past two decades by the music impresarios Kassem Dean and his wife Alicia Keys, is an ongoing, evolving and ‘in process’ endeavor which – like all great private collections throughout history – has been driven by aesthetic preferences, patronage of certain artists or advocacy of movements, availability of works and, (one must assume even in these well-heeled circles), budget. Namely – a private affair based on personal taste and current means.

Just as The Harlem Renaissance show included the greats of its twentieth century era, here the Deans have acquired many of, well . . . the contemporary Giants. Jean Michel Basquiat with an homage to the poet Langston Hughes, a Nick Cave Soundsuit, figure studies by the collagist Mickalene Thomas, and Derrick Adams’s reassembled cut outs are all here, as well as some older icons such as Barkley L. Hendricks (1945-2017) and the photographer Gordon Parks (1912-2006).

Nick Cave 'Soundsuit' installed in the exhibition. Image courtesy of Artscope intl, 2024.

Right behind these come the next generation’s acolytes with their own renditions of the Black figure; Deana Lawson’s often truculent occupants of claustrophobically compressed interiors, Nina Chanel Abney’s flattened and stylized pictograms and Tschabalala Self’s Romare Bearden-inflected, detritus-layered compilations of the contemporary female form. The decoratively Baroque, flora infused extravaganzas of Kehinde Wiley and the restrained grisaille-tones of Amy Sherald’s compositions will be immediately recognisable to European visitors as the artists chosen by President Barack and First Lady Michelle Obama for their official portraits on leaving the White House.

Kehinde Wiley's colossal portrait of a young man, 'Femme piquée par un serpent,' Glenn Steigelman/The Dean Collection, courtesy of Swizz Beatz and Alicia Keys ©Kehinde Wiley.

While press reviews of the show have often been quick to point out that not every one of the works here are the artists’ best, this criticism seriously misses the point. While the Nick Cave Soundsuit is not the most arresting we’ve seen, the spectacular Cave Tondo hung directly opposite is a stunner.  Likewise, Arthur Jafa is best known as a filmmaker, but he has recently created an astonishingly powerful series of 7,000lbs hanging truck tire sculptures entitled Big Wheel, one of which the Deans were clearly bold enough to acquire and which exerts its dominating presence.

Nick Cave 'Tondo' hanging just behind the 'Soundsuit'. Image courtesy of Artscope, intl. 2024.
Arthur Jafa’s ‘Big Wheel I’ dominates the Great Hall. Photo by Scott Lynch.

The Gordon Parks photographs, printed in enlarged format in 2018, take away somewhat from the intimacy of vintage prints, and the quirkily shaped Barkley L. Hendricks landscapes seem (momentarily we hope) like outliers in what will soon be deeper holdings of this hugely important artist.


That said – the colossal, multi-paneled, powerhouse history paintings by Botswana born artist Meleko Mokgosi which fill an entire gallery, and the exuberant studies of fellow Brooklyn residents by longtime local street photographer Jamel Shabazz have likely not been seen on this scale by even the most savvy New York gallery and museum going cognoscenti.


Kudos to the Deans who show us here what distinguishes a deeply personal, work in progress, private collection from the painstakingly and discerningly curated exhibition at The Met, or the Whitney’s on the fly, every-two-year survey of what is currently in play.

'Giants' is on view until 7th July, 2024.



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