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In the early decades of the 20th century, traveling salesmen in the United States sold everything from billiard tables to dental veneers, and they demonstrated their wares with miniatures and portable samples. Ricco/Maresca Gallery in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood is showing a grid of 16 tombstone paintings created in 1929 by one E.B. Roberts in English, Indiana, for this itinerant trade.
The “Series of Salesman Samples for Memorials” are part of Expiration Date, a group show centered on mortality. They’re joined by other examples of vernacular art, including a wooden skeleton Penitente figure from New Mexico, and a curious assembly of ink hand prints (1925–35) by German palm reader Marianne Raschig. There’s also contemporary art related to death, like unsettling photographs by Joel-Peter Witkin where bits of corpses are incorporated into beautiful still lifes, and a phantasmagoric 1870 painting by David Scott Evans of a shrouded woman floating in the night, roses flying around her, the seemingly deceased figure caught between the light of heaven, and a skeletal king in hell below.
With their flat style, saturated colors, and one-syllable Anglo-Saxon-sounding names, the tombstone paintings stand out as the best reflection of the visual culture of death in the United States, where for most of the 20th century a funeral with a formal wooden coffin buried below a stern, granite stone was the norm. American cemeteries of the 1900s are on the whole as regimented as the country’s suburbs, complete with the manicured grass. Each stone is a near copy of the other, the only difference being the names. The salesman samples reflect this aesthetic, with monikers like “Grant,” “Lane,” and “Cole” depicted on granite memorials. Dan Piepenbring in an article on the tombstones for the Paris Review wrote that “a name with the faintest whiff of the particular — a Smolenski, say, or a Piepenbring — could dissuade an otherwise willing client, who had to imagine either himself or his loved one resting beneath this stone for all eternity.”
Around this time, the Sears, Roebuck and Company was selling similarly generic granite monuments through their catalogues — you can flip through a 1902 example at the Internet Archive. And traveling salesman would sell all aspects of death, including coffins and mausoleums. A 1922 notice in the American Stone Trade journal advertises a sample case for “twelve beautiful mausoleum designs,” complete with scale drawings.
Each painting is united by a muted sky, a landscape of mottled green suggesting grass and trees. Although created for commercial purposes, there’s something heavy in the repeated tombs against these somber settings, a reflection of the standardization of American death.
Expiration Date continues through April 16 at Ricco/Maresca Gallery (529 West 20th Street, 3rd Floor, Chelsea, Manhattan).
“Black infants in America are now more than twice as likely to die as white infants—11.3 per 1,000 black babies, compared with 4.9 per 1,000 white babies, according to the most recent government data—a racial disparity that is actually wider than in 1850, 15 years before the end of slavery, when most black women were…
he ownership of images has a long and nuanced legal history, which has evolved dramatically in recent years as cultural standards and photographic technologies have rapidly advanced
The show, which honors the 50th anniversary of an exhibition history once ignored, continues a series of projects documenting Wilmington’s contemporary art scene.
Renty and his daughter Delia. Renty was an enslaved African, kidnapped from the Congo, sold and forced into slave labor on the South Carolina plantation of B.F. Taylor
What is the relation between possessing a person, possessing their image, and dispossessing their progeny
As a scholar of African American history and photography whose work has focused on the status of violent images in museums and archives, I fully support the validity of Ms. Tamara Lanier’s claim and the amicus brief.
Two K-12 art teachers will each receive a $1,000 cash gift and an additional $500 to put toward classroom art supplies. Nominations are due October 31.
The daguerreotypes of Renty Taylor, Delia, Drana, Alfred, Jack, George Fassena, and Jem remained in an unused storage cabinet until 1975, when it was discovered by an employee of the Peabody Museum.
I am writing in support of the amicus curiae brief submitted by Professor Ariella Aïsha Azoulay of Brown University for the full restitution of the daguerreotypes of Renty Taylor and his daughter Delia, currently held by Harvard University, to their familial descendant, Tamara Lanier.
We cannot be indifferent to the long-lasting effects of photography. The photographs at the center of Lanier v. Harvard are relentless in making Renty and Delia Taylor work and perform as slaves. The pain inflicted on them has not ceased. Photography has the capacity to propagate harm, and we have the moral obligation to interrupt…