Untitled

Media - 2016.38.48 - SAAM-2016.38.48_3 - 142577
Copied Philadelphia Wireman, Untitled, ca. 1970-1975, found objects and wire, Smithsonian American Art Museum, The Margaret Z. Robson Collection, Gift of John E. and Douglas O. Robson, 2016.38.48

Artwork Details

Title
Untitled
Date
ca. 1970-1975
Dimensions
5 38 × 4 18 × 2 14 in. (13.7 × 10.5 × 5.7 cm)
Credit Line
The Margaret Z. Robson Collection, Gift of John E. and Douglas O. Robson
Mediums Description
found objects and wire
Classifications
Keywords
  • Abstract
Object Number
2016.38.48

Artwork Description

Within the record of artists whose identities were lost over time, one known only by an assigned label, the “Philadelphia Wireman,” remains among the most enigmatic. In the late 1970s, about one thousand bundles of wire, wrappers, reflectors, lost possessions, trash-treasures—intentionally encompassed and shaped—were found in a South Philadelphia alley.

Each cocooned sculpture is unique and roughly fits in the palm of a human hand, more specifically that of their maker. These objects have no designated front, back, top, or bottom, no title, and in and of themselves raise questions about both art and artist. Scholars’ observations and anecdotal accounts, together with where the objects were found, suggest an African American male maker working predominantly with his hands. Additionally, the small works are not unlike protective charms or power bundle objects that trace back over a thousand years across Africa and its diaspora. Such bundles, clusters of objects or materials that are inherently meaningful or symbolic, may be imbued with a protective force that can help the holder feel safe, healed, or empowered.

These works describe a maker who went unnoticed and unappreciated in his lifetime, and who may have faced insecurities on a number of fronts. But they also point to an artist who created a body of work chronicling reclamation and transformation, and used the ritualized acts of gathering, seeing, and making as a way to survive, day by day.
(We Are Made of Stories: Self-Taught Artists in the Robson Family Collection, 2022)

Exhibitions

Media - 2016.38.43R-V - SAAM-2016.38.43R-V_2 - 126225
We Are Made of Stories: Self-Taught Artists in the Robson Family Collection
July 1, 2022March 26, 2023
We Are Made of Stories: Self-Taught Artists in the Robson Family Collection traces the rise of self-taught artists in the twentieth century and examines how, despite wide-ranging societal, racial, and gender-based obstacles, their creativity and bold self-definition became major forces in American art. The exhibition features recent gifts to the museum from two generations of collectors, Margaret Z. Robson and Douglas O. Robson.