Black Abstraction: Symbolizing Reality for Meaning

by Shantay Robinson

Abstract art is typically more than just mark making. In recent years, there have been relatively few well-known black abstract artists in comparison to the number of figurative painters out there. Black art is going through a figurative painting renaissance as we look at the number of contemporary artists painting portraits. But abstract artists, Julie Mehretu and Mark Bradford, are performing at the top of the artworld.

In 2019, Baltimore Museum of Art held an exhibition of black abstract artists, including work by Edward Clark, Kevin Beasly, Charles Gaines, and Leonardo Drew, in addition to Shanique Smith and Barbara Chase-Riboud. The same year, The New York Times published an article about black abstract artists over 70 finally being recognized for their work, focusing on artists, Howardena Pindell, Frank Bowling, Melvin Edwards, McArthur Binion, and Lorraine O’Grady. Though abstract artists tend to be misunderstood because their art is not always readily accessible to the viewer, black abstract artists maintain a tradition of creating work that speaks to real conditions.

Kevin Cole: “Spiritual Celebration with Miles, Dizzy and Coltrane,” 1992. Mixed media, 85 x 125 inches. Collection of the artist.

Though Norman Lewis did not adequately receive his flowers while he was living, he is most known for his jazz-inspired abstract paintings starting in the 1940s. Lewis was the first black abstract artist to receive acclaim, even at a time when black artists were representing their experiences rather didactically. At times, abstract art can express meaning and emotion more accurately than a figurative artwork can. Lewis was drawn to abstraction because of his disillusionment with America after World War II. His focus was on developing the aesthetic. His art conveys the grief of his experience as a black person in America that could not be expressed any other way. Interestingly, the heights in abstraction happened at three key points in history: during the Great Depression, World War I, and World War II.

Sam Gilliam’s art career began in the 1960s when abstract art by black artists was being dismissed by the art establishment as not being black enough. When Gilliam moved to Washington D.C. with his wife in the 1960s, he became affiliated with the Washington Color School. He is most known for removing the canvas from the frame and draping his artworks from the ceiling or the wall. Gilliam likens his draped paintings to the clotheslines he saw in his neighborhood where there were so many items drying on the clothesline that they had to be propped up. Though clotheslines were present in many neighborhoods, he abstracted his experience to share a glimpse of his worldview.

Black artists have been pressured into conveying the black experience in one way or another, especially since the 1960s. Thelma Golden and Glenn Ligon’s concept of post-blackness really speaks to the black abstract artist’s conundrum when it comes to their artwork. Many artists just want to make aesthetically pleasing artworks, but often they are asked to locate their blackness in their art. Alma Thomas’ abstract artwork, although coming from a black woman, could have been created by a person of any gender or race. Thomas’ work relies on beauty in the world, natural and man-made, that is transposed onto her canvases. She used color and brushstroke to abstract phenomenon into artworks by stripping them to their bare minimum.

Sam Gilliam: Sam Gilliam, 10/27/69, 1969, acrylic on canvas, installation dimensions variable, approximate installation dimensions: 140 x 185 x 16 inches, (355.6 x 469.9 x 40.6 cm), Collection of The Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY, photography by Fredrik Nilsen Studio.

Abstract art is often looked at as art for art’s sake, a movement championed by art critic and theorist, Clement Greenberg. This art for art’s sake movement came about in the early 19th century in French literary circles. Before this time, art needed to have justifications. Frank Bowling uses painting techniques associated with the Color Field school that show command over the materials, but also provoke emotion. Bowling is motivated by the materials—the paint, the canvas. He’s not attempting to create a narrative that is abstracting anything conceptual. Creating art in 1960s America, Bowling was criticized for creating art for art’s sake. Critics and artists of the time wanted there to be some sort of perspective on the turbulent times coming from black artists. Despite criticism of his work, he was accepted and shown in the 1971 Whitney Biennial.

The formal qualities of black abstract art makes reference to both the contemporary and historical black experience. In moments of grief, emotion seeps onto the canvas in ways that can’t otherwise be conveyed. Throughout black history, there has been consistent grief related to the discrimination and terrorism of black people and their communities. Contemporary artist, Kevin Cole’s abstract art relates to the trauma that black males, especially, have endured throughout American history. Cole asserts what he calls “Soul Ties,” neckties fashioned into artworks made of wood and metal, into abstract pieces that reflect on the terrorism of lynching black men. Abstracting this heinous institution, Cole is able to remind viewers of this country’s heinous past while reflecting on the horror of lynching.

Norman Lewis: Title Unknown (March on Washington), 1965 oil on fiberboard 351/4 x 471/2 in. L. Ann and Jonathan P. Binstock, (c) Estate of Norman W. Lewis.

Abstract art made its initial appearance in 1913 with Wassily Kandinsky’s Composition VII at the Armory Show in New York City. The work that is composed of lines and shapes is said to convey Biblical themes. It is possible for abstract artists’ work to depict broader themes because abstract art separates one thing from something else. So the artists get to decide what those things are that will replace one another for meaning. Abstract art uses a visual language to create meaning using shape, form, color, and lines that exist independently from references in the real world. But while abstract art may seem to be elements on a canvas, there is typically meaning attached to the art that stems from the visual language the artist is communicating.

Abstract art is about an artist placing an idea on a canvas he or she feels is worthy of attention. Of course, what could warrant the attention of an artist could be an image of a person such as in figurative and portrait paintings, but with abstract art, the lines, the colors, shapes, and their composition are what the artist wants us to pay attention to. The abstract artwork is asking that we engage our imaginations and attempt to understand what is set before us as interesting and contemplate why it is important. And we may find that the reason the abstract work is interesting is based in our individual experiences. Because abstraction is asking us to suspend our ideas of reality and imagine, it is up to the viewer to make sense of the abstract artwork with some clues from the artists in relation to their practice or titles to guide the viewing experience.

Frank Bowling: False Start, 1970, Acrylic and spray paint on canvas, 87.8h x 210.24w x 1.97d in (223h x 534w x 5d cm)
Collection of Minneapolis Institute of Art, MN

Artists Network notes that “The continuing interest in abstract art lies in its ability to inspire our curiosity about the reaches of our imagination and the potential for us to create something completely unique in the world.” At a time when black figurative artists are inserting the black body into the art historical canon, abstract art offers an opportunity to be totally original. The precursors for abstract art have established space for artists to explore abstract art as a genre that allows them to develop meaning about the black experience without being didactic in order to flesh out the nuances in their understanding of it. Abstract art, although detached from reality, offers an opportunity to understand reality at its most basic levels.

We owe it to ourselves to try to understand abstract art through the symbols inherent in it to expand our understanding of the world. And, at the same time, black abstract artists should develop their symbology lexicons in a way that allows for understanding of their work at a deeper level. For their audience to engage with them, there needs to be a basis for understanding. Abstract art that is meaningful does not have to simply be lines, shapes, and color without some association with reality. Artists should identify a theory or thesis and work on developing a language that conveys that theory or thesis.

Alma Thomas: Pansies in Washington 1969. Acrylic on Canvas 50 x 48 in. National Gallery of Art, Corcoran Collection (Gift of Vincent Melzac)

When Mark Bradford creates social abstraction, he’s relying on materials that can be associated with an idea in order to create meaning. Julie Mehretu relies on city grids that she abstracts into landscapes. So, while abstract art suspends the imagination, some of it also relies heavily on reality to create a foundation for understanding. Without that basis, there is likely no meaning. Sure, people love pretty artworks that can be hung over their sofas, but a work of abstract art that attempts to offer meaning and provoke conversation must do much more than be a pretty picture. It should offer the viewer an opportunity to think about our collective realities. Honestly, the bar for abstract art has been raised by artists like Mark Bradford and Julie Mehretu. It would be interesting to see how artists follow their lead and create abstract art that challenges our thinking while we get to enjoy the aesthetic qualities in the art.

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Shantay Robinson was a participant in the inaugural class of Burnaway Magazine’s Art Writers Mentorship Program, a fellow in Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies Digital Publishing Project Editorial Fellowship and was chosen for the CUE Art Foundation’s Art Critic Mentoring program. In addition to writing for Black Art in America, she has written for Washington City Paper, Arts ATL, Nashville Scene, ARTS.BLACK, AFROPUNK, Sugarcane Magazine, Number, Inc., and International Review of African American Art. She also published a scholarly article in Teaching Artist Journal. She presented papers about art and education at SCAD’s (Savannah College of Art and Design) Symposium on Art and Fashion, Georgia State University’s New Voices Graduate Student Conference, Georgia State University’s Glorious Hair and Academic Identities Conference, Northeast Modern Languages Association Conference, Mason Graduate Interdisciplinary Conference, and New York African Studies Association Conference. In 2019, she sat on a panel at Prizm Art Fair during Miami Art Week. In 2020, she served as visual arts judge in Shreveport Regional Council’s Critical Mass 8 Art Competition.

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