This is the portrait of an artist with eyes that seem to look equally inside and out. It’s difficult not to think that this picture was taken outdoors in the sharp light of the cotton fields of Alabama against which the shining eyes close, and yet that boxer’s dressing gown, although out of focus, is suggestive of someone who has just come from a fight. James Agee went south with Walker Evans to meet the truth of the inherent injustices of America and internalized the guilt of that witnessing. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941), the outcome of their journey, has become a pillar in American literature alongside Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) and James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time (1963). All three are indictments of the claim set forth in the American Declaration of Independence: maybe everyone has the right to pursue happiness and wealth, but not everyone gets to exercise it. How can we use prose and poetry—the act of witness and the act of reflection—to deal with the paradoxes of the American urge to self-realization and its total denial under cruel commercial conditions? Walker Evans’s haunting portrait bears witness to the impossibility of pure creation in the context of human suffering.
Text by Antony Gormley, adapted from Seeing Differently: The Phillips Collects for a New Century (The Phillips Collection in association with Giles, 2021)