African-American art finds a home with John and Sharon Hoffman

Updated: 2013-09-29T00:43:34Z


The Kansas City Star

John and Sharon Hoffman moved into their River Market loft space in 2002, following 28 years in a house at 57th Street and Ward Parkway where they raised their family.

Through it all they’ve been avid art collectors, so much so that to have room to keep going, they’ve sold some pieces and put others on display in their children’s homes.

Over the past decade the couple have built a major collection of contemporary African-American art.

So what prompted the decision to focus on African-American art?

SH: We were so involved with Alvin Ailey and then with (fundraising for) Barack Obama. The art fits in with our lives and the causes we believe in. It has something to say.

Kerry James Marshall’s acrylic and glitter painting “We Mourn Our Loss 1 (1997)” was the first one. It incorporates portraits of Martin Luther King and John and Bobby Kennedy. Ted Kennedy saw it when he spoke in our loft for Barack.

The second piece we acquired was this seven-panel embroidered wall piece by Nick Cave. The images include a cotton boll, a chained foot, and allusions to vaudeville and Black Power.

It was done during his transition from fashion design to the Soundsuits. It’s one of the strongest things he’s ever done.

Tell me about this enormous Kehinde Wiley in the living room.

SH: It’s like my grandchild. (Nerman Museum director) Bruce Hartman originally put us on to Kehinde Wiley, and we went to New York and saw Wiley’s show at Jeffrey Deitch gallery. Neither one of us could breathe.

But they were all sold. The day I flew to New York for the birth of my grandson, Chicago art dealer Rhona Hoffman called and said, “I’ve sold the first three to museums. You have your choice of the remaining three.”

I remember seeing a rhinestone-acrylic painting by Mickalene Thomas in the Kemper Museum’s “Pattern ID” show in 2012. Yours features portraits in a gridded format.

JH: The nine women in the piece were featured in Melvin Van Peebles’ film “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song,” an important film about blacks coming of age in entertainment. This is also her homage to Warhol.

What is the story behind this painting that hangs upside down?

SH: It’s by Titus Kaphar, an artist who went to Yale with Mickalene. He’s known for doing torn canvases with tar, a reference to blacks being tarred and feathered. Our painting, of a white general with a black hand, is meant to hang so the face is upside down, but the hand is upright. It’s called “Revolution/Revolution.”

There’s a lot of black history embedded in your collection.

JH: Our Gary Simmons piece keys off an old poster from the Joe Louis/Max Schmeling fight, which was so important to white supremacists who were against African-Americans. You can see a red rivulet that looks like blood dripping down the picture.

I thought that framed fire hose was one of the loft’s safety features.

JH: Theaster Gates did the coiled fire hose in the vitrine. It’s a reference to Selma. He also did that “Shoeshine” light box next to the Kehinde Wiley painting.

“Shoeshine” is part of the piece he showed in the 2010 Whitney Biennial in New York. It was all about shoeshine and barbershops, where black men gather to discuss everything. We let him stay in our New York apartment while he was installing the show.

I see black garbage bags and I think of David Hammons.

JH: Nathaniel Donnett also works with garbage bags. In our piece he combined them with the cautionary tape that police use, in a reference to police treatment of African-Americans. He also makes work using brown paper bags, alluding to the idea that in black society if you’re darker than a brown paper bag, you have lower social status.

You said you’ve also begun collecting African art?

JH: The large painting over the sofa is by Lynette Yiadom-Boakye. Her parents are from Ghana, and she grew up in London. She’s been short-listed for the (Tate Britain’s) 2013 Turner Prize. Her paintings are all about imaginary people. In ours, the women stepping from stone to stone could suggest movement from one continent to another.

You have many Obama-themed pieces.

JH: Chuck Close did the portrait of Barack from the 2012 election.

The photograph of Barack and his bodyguard, Reggie, in a blurred-out crowd is by Larry Fink, from his series on the ’08 campaign for Vanity Fair.

Hank Willis Thomas did the connect-the-dot portrait of Michelle right after the election. Connect the dots to see who she’s going to be. Thomas also did the “Absolut No Return” piece hanging next to our front door. The photo you see through the bottle’s outline is of Goree Island off Senegal, a departure point for African slaves.

To reach Alice Thorson, call 816-234-4783 or send email to

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