Ellen Gallagher. They Could Still Serve. 2001

Ellen Gallagher They Could Still Serve 2001

  • Not on view

Gallagher's labor–intensive paintings embed racial subtexts in otherwise abstract images. They Could Still Serve takes its title from an etching in Francisco de Goya's series The Disasters of War (1810-20), a caustic meditation on the brutality and futility of human warfare. "Bruised into a kind of caricature," as Gallagher puts it, the disembodied eyeballs in her work are reminiscent of lynchings and other "caprices" of inhumanity. The image suggests a fine line between comic book imagery and outright stereotype.

Gallery label from Comic Abstraction: Image-Breaking, Image-Making, 2007.
Additional text

This painting at first appears to be an abstract composition that modifies the grid format of Minimalist art, but closer inspection reveals that ruled penmanship paper and tiny painted eyeballs play a role in its patterning. Gallagher incorporates these bulging eyeballs as references to racial stereotypes found in the "blackface" masks of minstrel–show performers. Her work often subverts the purified language of abstraction with commentary about race, racism, and cultural identity.

Gallery label from Multiplex: Directions in Art, 1970 to Now, November 21, 2007-July 28, 2008.

Gallagher has simultaneously adopted the grid and reversed its rigorous use by a former generation of Minimalist and Conceptualist artists: her patches of bluelined paper form a grid pattern, but it is liquefied, disassembled, blurred, and dematerialized with watercolor. Among the papers’ blue lines are small marks, a repeated stereotyped sign of race drawn from minstrelsy: wide eyes peering out at the viewer. These signs are paradoxically at once free floating and mapped in her grid structures. They Could Still Serve takes its title from an etching in Francisco de Goya’s series The Disasters of War (1810–20), a caustic meditation on the brutality and futility of human warfare.

Gallery label from On Line: Drawing Through the Twentieth Century, November 21, 2010-February 7, 2011.
Dye, rubber cement, acrylic gel, oil paint, and pencil on paper mounted on canvas
10 x 8' (304.8 x 243.8 cm)
Emily and Jerry Spiegel and Anna Marie and Robert F. Shapiro Funds and gift of Agnes Gund
Object number
© 2022 Ellen Gallagher
Painting and Sculpture

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