PAFA to look after life’s work of late sculptor

John Rhoden sculpture displayed outside the African American Museum in Philadelphia.

African American Museum in Philadelphia. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia has received 278 sculptures by an important 20th century African-American artist few will know by name.

The estate of John Rhoden, who died in 2001 in Brooklyn, chose PAFA to build the artist’s legacy.

Rhoden had no personal relationship with PAFA — he did not attend school there, and his work was seldom displayed there. Upon the death of his wife last year, the executor of the Rhoden estate sought out institutions specializing in overlooked 20th century artists that might be good stewards of Rhoden’s work.

PAFA stepped in with a plan to produce a major retrospective exhibition and publish the definitive catalog of his life’s work. The school and museum will hire a curator to do that job.

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PAFA president and CEO David Brigham wants to lift Rhoden to his rightful place in the American cultural pantheon.

“He was working in a vocabulary informed by both African and Indonesian sculpture. He traveled extensively in the late 1950s, early 1960s,” said Brigham. “So his work fits in the modernist vocabulary with some inflections of surrealism and, to a lesser extent, cubism.”

For about three decades, Philadelphia has had a Rhoden sculpture on public view. His 9-foot “Nesaika” is permanently installed in front of the African American Museum in Philadelphia on Seventh Street.

The 278 sculptures are not PAFA’s to keep, although it likely will acquire a handful for permanent display in its new auditorium now under construction. That auditorium, to open next year, will be named after Rhoden in his honor.

PAFA will broker the rest of the collection for other institutions to acquire. The gift comes with a cash donation, still undetermined, that will likely be more than $5 million.

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