What makes a hero? Why do we honor some people above others? Who represents a community’s beliefs and ideals? The exhibition Heroes, Legends, and Legacies features artwork from the Wichita Art Museum’s permanent collection that considers these questions. Grappling with the rapidly changing culture of the United States over the last 50 years — including the fight for civil rights for women and people of color, economic insecurity, and anxieties about war and global conflict — American artists since the 1970s have explored what it is to be an American hero. As they picture extraordinary individuals or events, some artists find new relevance in old stories. Others critique larger-than-life leaders or uplift humble figures in downtrodden places. Each depiction provides a window into the values and concerns of our moment.
Modern and contemporary American artists mine pop culture, history, and mythology as they retell and reconsider hero stories. Roger Shimomura and Judith Schaechter use bold colors, active poses, and comic book imagery to create new heroes. Sharif Bey offers a monumental take on traditional North African beadwork, celebrating generations of Black empowerment. Andy Warhol and Alex Katz irreverently depict two of America’s most important leaders — Presidents George Washington and Theodore Roosevelt. Jacob Lawrence and Faith Ringgold celebrate icons of the civil rights movement. Hung Liu honors everyday Americans who have endured suffering and social inequity. Elizabeth Catlett, Will Barnet, and Fritz Scholder use mythic imagery to heroize the human condition. Many artists keep the traditional visual language for depicting a legendary person — the figure’s prominence in the composition, an active pose, and a confident expression — while others deliberately reject these strategies, all in service of expanding the roster of American heroes.