Arthur Monroe, Untitled, 1983, oil on canvas, 96 × 84 1⁄2".

Arthur Monroe, Untitled, 1983, oil on canvas, 96 × 84 1⁄2".

Arthur Monroe

Suppose you had never heard of San Francisco Bay Area painter Arthur Monroe (1935–2019). He might be obscure, but his work, which was on display in a solo presentation at Malin Gallery, speaks for itself. It was immediately apparent that the large-scale gestural abstractions, produced between 1980 and 2012, were extremely accomplished. The viewer was drawn in by their rhythmic intensities, the linear storms of calligraphic black strokes, the honeycombs of vibrant color, and the grids that wove in and out of forms vaguely suggestive of Mayan hieroglyphs or tribal markings, influences cultivated over years of travel. Vestigial traces of Monroe’s body in motion clustered in overlays of sweeping, muscular strokes that further animated his restless, expressive style. Consistently, a sense of lyric grace was coupled with struggle, wherein one sensed the rigorous demands of making a painting in a purely spontaneous and direct way.

Why aren’t Monroe’s highly accomplished canvases better known? And why isn’t his story in all the history books? The artist, whose painting practice spanned sixty years, was African American. He was just a teenager when he started exploring the New York art scene—in those days an elitist society of white men—and hanging out in Harlem and Greenwich Village. He developed his painter’s chops throughout the 1950s at various art schools within the city and with mentors who opened their studios to him. He completed a brief stint at the Art Students League, where he endured a couple of critiques from Hans Hofmann (whose accent was so thick, Monroe once recalled in an interview, that he couldn’t understand what the older artist was saying). He counted renowned saxophonist Charlie Parker as a friend and frequented the Cedar Tavern, where he met Franz Kline. Monroe also lived in a studio across the street—or in the same building, depending on which history you read—from Willem de Kooning’s space. As a young man, Monroe frequently traversed the boundaries between the white art world and the Black jazz scene.

The AbEx painters were thirty years older than Monroe, but their style of gestural abstraction was new and energetic. And despite the discrimination and the racism, there he was, rubbing shoulders with the greats and living the bohemian life. Monroe further ratcheted up his cool when he relocated to the Bay Area in the late ’50s and took up with the artists and poets of the Beat generation (Lawrence Ferlinghetti gave him his first show of paintings, in 1962, at San Francisco’s City Lights Bookstore). He remained on the West Coast, pioneered the Oakland Cannery artist studios, and became an active force in the cultural scene, which was a nexus for Black artists, poets, intellectuals, and musicians. He didn’t have a gallery or institutional support, but he did have a very engaged and informed community. With his day job as the registrar at the Oakland Museum of California, teaching gigs, and a secure live-work space, he was able to devote himself entirely to problem-solving with paint. One great example of this in the exhibition was Untitled, 1983, in which a loosely constructed black-and-white grid offers up a moment of relative stasis against a frenetic field of teeming, spinning strokes in jade, ruby, and ecru that dive into the composition’s pockets of shallow space and blast their way into calligraphic intensity.

Monroe’s output has been described as Black Abstract Expressionism, the somewhat pigeonholing term suggesting the necessity of yet another “un-telling” of the story of midcentury American painting—a massive revision to include all the women, artists of color, and others who were marginalized but who nonetheless persisted and produced important work. Much of Monroe’s early work didn’t survive evictions from storage units and dispersals at auction. But he never waivered in his conviction. In 1990 he stated, “As a Black artist I have two purposes: I have an indebtedness to my heritage; and as a Black artist I might have a tow to carry. I’m prepared to do that.” That’s what Monroe’s bold and bravura paintings are talking about. We need this art and this history. Now.