New York

“Energy/Experimentation: Black Artists and Abstraction, 1964–1980”

The Studio Museum in Harlem

At first glance, this show appears to be a simple survey of the dominant modes of postwar abstraction. In one corner hangs Melvin Edwards’s Cotton Hangup, 1965, an expressionist sculpture of black steel, tools, and rebar; in another stretches Joe Overstreet’s Saint Expedite A, 1971, a post-Minimalist rigging of green-, black-, and redpainted canvases. Barbara Chase-Riboud similarly reimports reference into Minimal forms: Her Bathers, 1972, consists of a field of low rectilinear aluminum volumes that ripples like a bed of wave-polished rocks, with green-gray silk splays suggesting seaweed exposed at low tide. On the wall nearby hovers William T. Williams’s Trane, 1969, a tour de force of Op/Minimal painting, in an eye-shocking palette, that seems to be shearing apart at its center. Over it all presides Al Loving’s untitled banner of batiklike dyed canvas strips, from around 1975. Evoking a sign of nationalism, it seems to propose something militant; but in the service of which cause—art, abstract art, black art, black America, what?

The fifteen artists in “Energy/Experimentation,” all African American, can be located with respect to contemporaneous “mainstream” artistic developments; and it would be disturbingly easy to describe Williams as the black X, Chase-Riboud the black Y, Edwards the black Z. But pegging them to white art is the mechanism of their erasure from the histories of art in the ’60s and ’70s—and not just those of formalist and post-formalist genres: Their work was shunned by black critics of the time, who dubbed it “white art in blackface,” and so the standard history of the period’s African-American art, which focuses on artists who took an explicitly activist stance—those in the Black Arts Movement, for example—excludes them as well.

Curator Kellie Jones wisely avoids promoting the artists she selected as lost geniuses ripe for rediscovery. It would be awkward for a show whose premises undermine the idea of an eternal canon to lobby for admissions to it. Instead, the forty artworks in the exhibition sketch portraits of myriad individual practices and a variety of attitudes toward materiality, the image, the role of process, and “black” themes. Canvases by Alma Thomas, who was born in the nineteenth century, rely on discrete brushstrokes and observation from nature; they seem less post-painterly than post-Impressionist. Howardena Pindell, at the other end of the show’s sixteen-year span, takes both Conceptual and process-oriented approaches to create her worrisomely fragile paper constructions. (The delicateness of her powder-encrusted, glitter-laced Feast Day of Iemanja II, 1980, which on my visit had visibly shed a few bits, makes one wonder what became of Feast Day I.) Art that might seem at odds rubs elbows: Pindell meets Fred Eversley, creator of luminous, transcendental volumes in lavender cast acrylic; Thomas’s Air View of a Spring Nursery, 1966, faces Daniel LaRue Johnson’s Homage to Rene d’Harnoncourt, 1968, a mischievous, floor-bound wooden construction whose pose suggests both a phallic totem and a trap about to spring. Down to the reference to d’Harnoncourt, it pays homage to the role of African art in the formation of modernism, and it plays with the notion of the primitive as much as Thomas’s folk impressionism does.

Within a certain currently prevailing history, Pindell is the most prominent artist in “Energy/Experimentation.” Here she benefits from having contributed its only video, the first-person, autobiographical Free, White and 21, 1980. It was perhaps curatorially unfair to give Pindell alone a chance to speak directly to the viewer. On the other hand, her performance in the guise of a racist blonde puts into words the problem the show exposes: “If you don’t use symbols the way we use them, then we won’t acknowledge them. In fact, you won’t exist until we validate you.” She’s ventriloquizing the white art world, but she could be speaking for the force inside any movement, artistic or otherwise, that takes it upon itself to decide who’s in and who’s out.

Domenick Ammirati