Radcliffe Bailey, an artist whose sculptural assemblages and paintings elegantly summoned the past, present, and future of Black Americans through ready-made objects and images, died at 55 on Tuesday in Atlanta.
His brother Roy confirmed his passing, saying that the artist had been battling brain cancer.
Over the past three decades, Bailey assembled an influential body of work that located objects he collected within a continuum of Black history. Tintypes from his family’s archive, Georgian red clay, shipping tarp, and African figurines were among the many elements that appeared in his art, which primarily took the form of sculptural installations, some of which were monumental in scale.
His 2009–11 installation Windward Coast, featuring 35,000 piano keys set on the floor with a Black man’s head peeking out of the pile, is among his most well-known works. With a rumbling soundtrack emitting from a conch shell, the piece evokes the precariousness of Black life, the deeply felt pain resulting from slavery that resounds across the centuries, and the impact that sound and music have held for Bailey and other members of his community.
“An ocean is something that divides people,” Bailey told the New York Times in 2011, the year a survey of his work was staged 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 connects people. Duke Ellington or Thelonious Monk—it’s a different sound that takes you somewhere else. It’s also about being at peace.”
Michael Rooks, a curator of modern and contemporary art at that museum, told the Times in that same profile that Bailey was “probably the most prominent living artist here in Atlanta.”
Within Georgia’s capital, Bailey’s art was widely seen and well-loved. For the Cascade Nature Preserve, he created a concrete amphitheater that has been used to mount plays and concerts. For the city’s airport, he made Saints, a 40-foot-long commission that features photographs of his relatives that are set within an abstract patterning and among a Kongo cosmogram, a symbol that recurs in the Bakongo religion and signifies a circular transference between this world and spiritual realms.
Saints, like other works by Bailey, situates his own family within lineages that extend across millennia. “For me, it’s helpful to remember your tracks,” Bailey told ARTnews earlier this year. Bailey meant this both literally and figuratively, given that railroads formed a recurring element in his family history.
Radcliffe Bailey was born in 1968 in Bridgetown, New Jersey, and moved to Atlanta when he was young. His father was a railroad engineer, and his family had been involved with the Underground Railroad, which helped secret away Southern enslaved people to the North, where they could be free. The interest in travel remained with Bailey. “I’ve always been fascinated by different forms of travel—by sea, by train, or into outer space and other realms,” he told Art in America in 2021.
During his childhood, Bailey visited the High Museum, where he once met the artist Jacob Lawrence, and drew inspiration from his grandfather, a deacon at a Virginia church who built birdcages in his spare time. Bailey pursued baseball as a teenager, even playing semi-pro at one point, but he realized he did not have the right body type for the sport in the long-term and chose art instead. He attended the Atlanta College of Art as an undergraduate. Then, unlike most practicing artists in the US today, he did not seek a master’s degree.
As he was thinking about going to graduate school, he visited the Abstract Expressionist painter Grace Hartigan at the Maryland Institute, where he considered enrolling. “What the hell do you want to come here for?” Bailey recalled her telling him. “You need to go do your work!” He went back to Atlanta and remained there.
In college, Bailey trained as a sculptor, with the idea of producing large outdoor works when school was complete. He even acted as an assistant to the sculptor Melvin Edwards. Yet he ended up initially producing paintings. “It was easier to move painting than sculpture, and my work has always fallen between the two,” he explained in a BOMB interview. “Some people see me as a painter, but I don’t see myself as a painter or a sculptor, just an artist.”
The works for which Bailey first became known during the ’90s incorporate tintypes from family albums that were inherited from his grandmother. These works point toward historical connections that extend far beyond his own lineage. Strangest Fruit (1997), for example, features an aged photograph of a man seated in a chair and holding a cane; its title alludes to a 1939 Billie Holiday song that refers to lynchings.
Later works would grow more and more expansive. Nommo (2019), an installation that he produced for the 2019 Istanbul Biennial, is a reconstruction of the hull of the Clotilda, a ship that transported enslaved West Africans to Alabama after the practice was outlawed in the US. Dotting it are casts of a plaster bust that Bailey purchased from a Belgian dealer. As in other Bailey works, there is a sound element: jazz music plays from one source, and from another can be heard recordings of ship builders at work and ocean waves in Bay of Soumbédioune, Senegal. Its title is a reference to a deity associated with the Dogon religion.
During the last few years, Bailey made a transition back to painting, producing abstractions that obliquely alluded to some of his prior themes, with tracks crossing stretched tarps. “I always thought the surreal was real to Black people, and in that way, I wanted to represent these two different worlds,” he said in the Art in America interview. “The abstraction in the paintings now—that was always a layer that existed in the earlier work, but I may have covered it up with a photograph. Now I’ve peeled back the layers, and I’m figuring out how to work in several different ways, as opposed to having the photograph as an anchor.”
Bailey is survived by his wife Leslie Parks Bailey, his daughter Olivia, his son Coles, and his parents Radcliffe Sr. and Brenda.
“Radcliffe was a true force, creating work that resonated with so many on a profoundly intellectual and emotional level,” said Jack Shainman Gallery, the New York enterprise that had long represented him, in a statement. “We could not be more appreciative of the years we’ve spent collaborating as colleagues, though above all, we are beyond grateful for the friendship that has blossomed from our time together.”