Radcliffe Bailey, an artist whose sculptures and paintings presented the past, present, and future of Black Americans beautifully through crafted objects and images, passed away on Tuesday in Atlanta at the age of 55.
His brother, Roy, confirmed his death, stating that the artist had been battling brain cancer.
Over the past three decades, Bailey assembled a significant body of work, bringing together objects from his family’s collection, including tintypes, Georgia red clay, shipping tarps, and African sculptures, which figured prominently in his art, primarily taking the form of sculptural installations, some of which were monumental and commemorative in nature.
His 2009-11 installation “Windward Coast,” featuring 35,000 piano keys laid out on the floor with the head of a Black man peering out, is one of his most well-known works. Accompanied by a haunting soundtrack emanating from conch shells, this piece highlights the uncertainty of Black life, the profound pain resulting from centuries of slavery, and illuminates the influence of sound and music on Bailey and other members of his community.
“Bailey told The New York Times in 2011, ‘The ocean is something that divides people,’ the year a survey of her work was conducted at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta. (The show also traveled to the Wellesley College Museum in Massachusetts and the McNay Art Museum in San Antonio, Texas.) ‘Music is something that unites people. Duke Ellington or Thelonious Monk – it’s a different sound that takes you somewhere else. It’s also about staying peaceful.’
In that museum, Michael Rooks, the curator of modern and contemporary art, told The Times in the same profile that Bailey was ‘perhaps the preeminent living artist in Atlanta.’
In the capital of Georgia, Bailey’s art has been widely seen and admired. For the Cascade Nature Preserve, she built a concrete amphitheater used for hosting plays and music programs. For the city’s airport, she created Saints, a 40-foot-long commission featuring portraits of her relatives within an amorphous pattern, set between a Congo Cosmogram and a parchment transfer symbolizing the connection between the world and the spiritual realm, a symbol doubled in the Bokongo religion.”
“Saints, like Bailey’s other works, situates her family within an expansive genealogy that spans millennia. At the beginning of this year, Bailey told ARTnews, ‘For me, remembering your track is helpful. Bailey’s expression was both literal and figurative, considering that the railroad was a recurring element in her family history.
Radcliffe Bailey was born in 1968 in Bridgeton, New Jersey, and moved to Atlanta when he was young. His father was a railroad engineer, and their family was connected to the underground railroad, which covertly aided Southern slaves in reaching the North where they could be free. Bailey’s interest in travel continued to grow. In 2021, he told Art in America, ‘I’ve always been attracted to various forms of travel – by sea, by train, or through outer space and other realms.’
During his childhood, Bailey visited the High Museum, where he once met artist Jacob Lawrence and drew inspiration from his grandfather, who was a deacon at Virginia Avenue Baptist Church and built birdcages in his spare time. Bailey adopted baseball as a teenager, even playing semi-pro at one point, but realized that he didn’t have the right physical attributes for a long-term athletic career and chose art instead. He participated in Atlanta College of Art as an undergraduate and, contrary to most practicing artists in America today, chose not to pursue a master’s degree.
When contemplating graduate school, he met abstract expressionist painter Grace Hartigan at the Maryland Institute, where he considered applying. “Why do you want to come here?” Bailey recalled her asking. “You have to want to do your work!” He returned to Atlanta and stayed there.”
“In college, Bailey received training as a sculptor, contemplating working on larger outdoor pieces after completing school. He even worked as an assistant to the sculptor Melvin Edwards. However, he eventually stopped creating sculptures. In an interview with BOMB, he explained, ‘Moving from sculpture to painting was easy, and my work has always hovered between the two.’ ‘Some people see me as a painter, but I see myself not as a painter or a sculptor, just as an artist.’
In the 1990s, Bailey was first recognized for works that included glimpses of family albums inherited from his grandmother. These works allude to historical connections that extend far beyond his own lineage. For example, in “Strange Fruit” (1997), there is an image of a seated man with a lynching noose, referencing the 1939 Billie Holiday song that alludes to lynching.
Later works become more expansive. “Nommó” (2019), an installation created for the 2019 Istanbul Biennial, is a reconstruction of Clotilda, a ship that brought illegally enslaved West Africans to Alabama after the practice was declared illegal in the United States. It features a cast plaster bust that Bailey purchased from a dealer in Belgium. Like his other works, it incorporates a sonic element, with jazz music playing from one source and recordings of shipbuilders in Senegal and the waves of the Gulf of Guinea from another. Its title refers to a deity in Dogon religion.”
“Over the past few years, Bailey has brought about a change in his paintings, creating intangibles that clearly reference some of his previous subjects, including tracks traversing expanses of stretched canvases. In an interview with Art in America, he said, ‘I always thought that abstraction was real for Black people, and in this way, I wanted to represent these two different worlds.’ ‘Now, in paintings, the abstraction – it was always a layer present in previous works, but I might have covered it with an image. Now I’ve opened up the layers, and I’m figuring out how to work with the image in many different ways, contrary to anchoring it as a cover.’
In Bailey’s family are his wife, Leslie Parks Bailey, their daughter, Olivia, their son, Cole, and his parents, Radcliffe Senior and Brenda.
“Radcliffe was a true force; he did work that affected many people on a profound intellectual and emotional level,” said Jack Shainman of Jack Shainman Gallery, New York, the enterprise that represented him for many years, in a statement. “We cannot praise enough the years we have spent collaborating as colleagues, although most importantly, we are grateful for the friendship that has developed over the time spent together.”