This past summer, the Art Students League of New York held the first historic exhibition dedicated to Cinque Gallery, an artist-led nonprofit that operated between 1969 and 2004. The brainchild of Romare Bearden, Ernest Crichlow, and Norman Lewis, Cinque was founded to exhibit and promote the work of marginalized, primarily Black artists, while also serving as a training ground for young arts administrators of color. Cinque was to some extent an outgrowth of the Spiral group, which met regularly from 1963 to 1965 to debate the role of Black artists in the struggle for civil rights. The gallery was named in honor of Sengbe Pieh—also known as Joseph Cinqué, the Mende man who led the rebellion aboard the Spanish slave ship La Amistad in 1839—and emerged in lockstep with the Black Power movement amid a push for cultural and economic autonomy in the arts. These revolutionary forces helped give birth to other New York institutions and collectives, such as the Brooklyn Museum Community Gallery and the Studio Museum in Harlem (both of which were established in 1968) and the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition (which was founded in 1969).
“Creating Community: Cinque Gallery Artists” was organized by Susan Stedman, who began an ongoing oral history of the gallery in 2017, with program curation by Cinque’s first artist-in-residence, Nanette Carter, whose collage Cantilevered #39, 2018, a tense teetering architecture of layered abstract forms in her signature oil on Mylar, was included in the show. Two vitrines containing Cinque’s bylaws, newsletters, and exhibition announcements anchored a sprawling presentation of paintings, sculptures, collages, photographs, and prints by thirty-nine of some 450 intergenerational artists who showed with the gallery during its thirty-five-year tenure. Many of these artists either taught at the Art Students League (including Bearden, Crichlow, and Lewis) or studied there (Vivian Browne, Edward Clark, and Mavis Pusey, to name a few).
The Art Students League has long collected pieces by affiliated artists, including those creators historically excluded by museums. Some of the choicest works on view were drawn from the school’s own holdings: for example, Charles White’s Mother (Awaiting His Return), 1945. The Cubist-inflected lithograph, which in 2002 also entered the collection of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, depicts a weary Black mother with large powerful hands who appears fragmented but fundamentally solid. In his “images of dignity,” White frequently depicted Black working-class women, employing a strategy that, as art historian Kellie Jones has pointed out, ties issues of race to those of gender and class. “Artists have always been propagandists,” White told writer Jeffrey Elliot in a 1978 interview. “I have no use for artists who try to divorce themselves from the struggle.”
Near White’s print were two canvases, Richard Mayhew’s Untitled, 1967, and Hughie Lee-Smith’s Abandoned, 1986, both of which were also drawn from the Art Students League’s collection. The former is a thickly encrusted, sfumatoed nature scene done in a swampy palette, painted before Mayhew, who is of Afro–Native American descent, began making his more transcendent Technicolor vistas. The terrain is mucked up and difficult to discern, much less to enter—a comment, perhaps, on the twinned romanticism of American landscape painting and the hideous realities of Manifest Destiny. Lee-Smith’s work depicts a forsaken construction site, with encroaching bushes set against an eroded plateau. Displayed alongside this piece was Dawoud Bey’s A Man Walking into a Parking Garage, 1981, an achromatic photograph of a Black man passing by a surveillance camera to enter the titular space. Bey and Lee-Smith’s psychologically taut imagery evinces abandonment, alienation, and marginalization—merely a sampling of structural racism’s many dark facets.
The exhibition’s sheer range bore out Cinque’s commitment to fostering opportunity rather than advancing any particular aesthetic doctrine. Holding space for a multiplicity of visions by Black artists, the gallery embraced both abstraction and figuration, which historically have often been portrayed as adversaries in the struggle for representation. Norman Lewis, who turned from social realism to abstraction in the mid-1940s (while never entirely abandoning his figurative inclinations, as his mature paintings of stylized Klansmen make clear), was written out of the AbEx canon for decades, despite having joined Manhattan’s vanguard Willard Gallery and having participated in the salons at Studio 35’s Artists’ Sessions in Greenwich Village. Lewis’s Untitled, 1976, a sweeping painting that also belongs to the Art Students League, features churning spirals that gather pace in a field of indigo. Part of the “Seachange” series, ca. 1973–78, that the artist made during his final decade, the scene is a depiction of unstoppable motion.