Steeped in Abstraction: After 70, These Artists Deserve Acclaim

By Shantay Robinson 


Although the article, “Discovered After 70, Black Artists Find Success, Too, Has Its Price” by Hilarie Sheets published in The New York Times on March 23, 2019 claims that several black artists over the age of 70 are now being “discovered,” these artists are known. The idea that they have been “discovered” by the larger art establishment seems a bit inaccurate when you consider the careers these artists have had. While they are only recently gaining acclaim from the mainstream art world, their reputations have been recognized in select communities. Howardena Pindell, McArthur Binion, Lorraine O’Grady, Melvin Edwards, and Frank Bowling could not possibly just be emerging on to the art scene with the amount of work they have put into their careers. These are not emerging artists as the article might imply. These artists, some of whom are art professors, are seasoned. It just so happens, the mainstream artworld only recently looking. While it is great that the art establishment is finally responding to the work of some of the black community’s preeminent artists, it might be a stretch to state these artists are only now being “discovered.” To say that, would be to discredit the artists themselves, the black artworld, many museum curators, and the art writers who for years have supported them. But would their late reception of acclaim indicate something deeper?

Art by Freddie Styles

In his article, “Abstract Art in the American Scene,” Stuart Davis writes, “The term ‘abstract art’ has no single meaning. It changes with the intellectual scope of the person who uses it, but this does not mean that it is exclusively a subjective term.” While the aforementioned artists create abstract art that can be interpreted in a number of valid ways, there is also objective meaning available from them; the artworks are produced in climates and environments that dictate their meaning. Davis goes on to say that abstract artworks are still not “free form political, psychological or utilitarian associations.” These artists lived through the Civil Rights Movement, the Women’s Movement, and the Black Power Movement. Most of America was impacted by these radical transformations in ideology and law. And their abstract artworks are no exception. That they weren’t forming figures does not mean that their work isn’t based in these struggles. They may simply think of these movements in different ways. Davis also states that, to some, abstract art, “…signifies the artists flight from subject matter and reality as the result of historically determined forces in the development of society.” But this is not essentially the case. These artists may interpret what other artists use figures for in alternative ways.


Of the five artists mentioned in The New York Times article, four of them are abstract artists. Although it may seem as though they are being discovered because mainstream art culture is now taking notice, these artists have exhibited in some of the nation’s most well-known and respected art establishments, their work exists in notable collections, and some of them have even had retrospectives of their artistic careers. McArthur Binion, who has had an active art career since the 1970s exhibited at Detroit Institute of Art, Studio Museum in Harlem, and Contemporary Art Museum. Howardena Pindell started working at the Museum of Modern Art in 1967 where she held varied positions and later started A.I.R. Gallery for women artists. She has had exhibitions at Spelman College, Studio Museum in Harlem, Rochester Institute of Technology, and Georgia State University. Mel Edwards had exhibitions at the Whitney Museum of American Art, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and New Jersey State Museum. Edwards also had a 50-year retrospective his work titled, Melvin Edwards: Five Decades at Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas Texas in 2015. Frank Bowling’s exhibitions include Metropolitan Museum of Art, Museum of Modern Art, and Tate Gallery. In 2017, he had a retrospective at Haus der Kunst in Munich, Germany. By all means, this is nowhere near an exhaustive list of the exhibitions that span the artists’ careers.


The abstract artists’ relationship to the black community has been fraught with tension. Black abstract artists have typically been considered self-centered instead of community-centered. But these artists, are especially important to the historical canon of African American art because they remained steadfast in creating abstract art throughout a time when doing so meant they were met with contention, and as a result there is a wealth of African American abstract artworks to now consider. According to Valerie Mercer in her article “Diversity of Contemporary African American Art,” “African American artists who practiced abstraction were ostracized by more militant supporters of [the black power] agenda and by institutions that upheld the belief that figuration was a more useful way to combat centuries of derogatory imagery.” Even while the mainstream artworld was enamored with abstraction, many black artists throughout the 1950s and later continued depicting figures in their artwork. Mercer notes, “…many African American artists maintained a reliance on the figure to focus on racial pride as Harlem Renaissance artists did, while an emerging generation increasingly used it to acknowledge the problematic history of race and politics in America.” Because African American audiences are more likely to respond favorably to figuration, these artists endured ostracization by the black community.


Howardena Pindell told Hilarie Sheets at ArtNews for a 2014 article, “The Changing Complex Profile of Black Abstract Painting” “I remember going with my abstract artwork to the Studio Museum in Harlem, and the director at the time said, ‘Go downtown and show with the white boys.’” Pindell also states, “We were basically considered traitors because we didn’t do specifically didactic work.” The times have certainly changed a bit, though. Thelma Golden organized Energy Experimentation: Black Artists and Abstraction 1964-1980 at the Studio Museum in Harlem in 2006. In the past decade there have been several exhibitions of African American abstraction including Magnetic Fields: Expanding American Abstraction 1960s and Today of abstract art by black women artists at Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, National Museum of Women in the Arts, and Museum of Fine Arts St. Petersburg; Black in the Abstract Part 1 and Part 2 at Contemporary Arts Museum in Houston; and Beyond the Spectrum: Abstraction in African American Art 1950-1975 at Michael Rosenfeld’s gallery in Chelsea. And several abstractionists who are able to combine art and activism were featured in Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties at Brooklyn Museum.


EJ Montgomery, Bicycles, 2014. Photo John Woo

According to Holland Cotter who reviewed Energy Experimentation at the Studio Museum for The New York Times wrote, “But the 1960’s revolution was about bodies and beliefs. Also, abstraction raised authenticity issues. It was widely seen as white art, academic art. Whites viewed black practitioners as copycats; blacks dismissed them as sellouts.” Valerie Cassel Oliver, Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at Virginia Museum of Fine Arts told ArtNews in 2006, “There was this manifesto with the Black Arts Movement that you did work that reflected the beauty of that community in no uncertain terms.” She also said, “Oftentimes abstract painting is not celebrated as more figurative work by the black community. From the mainstream artworld, it’s just the sense of not being preoccupied with what black artists are doing, period.”


“We Came From There To Get Here” by Joe Overstreet

While the careers of several black abstract artists have been heightened to the level where the mainstream artworld is taking notice, there remain black abstract artists who are existing below the dominant artworld radar, but who have been prominent figures in the black artworld. Some of these artists include, Joe Overstreet, Evangeline E.J. Montgomery, and Freddie Styles. Joe Overstreet’s most popular artworks Strange Fruit and The New Jemima reflect his interest in social issues and the Black Arts Movement. E.J. Montgomery is famous for her metal ancestral boxes, one of which she made for political activist Angela Davis during her trial. And while Freddie Styles’ work abstracts vegetation and nature, it references root workers like his grandmother who made charms and spells. These artists’ long and tenuous careers have garnered them appreciation of their work by a few, but the larger artworld with its favoritism for figurative works or its lack of interest in black artists, leaves all of the aforementioned artists with a lot more life to live.


Abstract works should be looked at in relationship to the contexts in which they were created and assessed for their affect. Carroll C. Platt in “Abstract vs. Realistic Art” writes, “All forms of art have their own intrinsic moods regardless of the contents used by the artist. Abstract art can be full of mood as any realistic art.” When we begin to reassess these abstract artists’ works in relation to the narratives they symbolize, we may then discover the meanings they hold. There may need to be context conversed in order to grasp the meaning of their works, but they are no less salient. For instance, how are we to appreciate Howardena Pindell’s penchant for circles without first knowing that when she and her father stopped at a root beer stand in Kentucky, she discovered a red circle at the bottom of her cup because black and white people couldn’t use the same utensils as she explained to Sheets at ArtNews. As Davis writes in his article, non-objective art doesn’t necessarily mean art without object. There is more to these artists’ works than meets the eye. And it isn’t until we learn their narratives that we gain a better understanding of our collective world and accept them wholeheartedly for their value.

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Shantay Robinson, BAIA resident scholar has participated in Burnaway’s Art Writers Mentorship Program, Duke University’s The New New South Editorial Fellowship, and CUE Art Foundation’s Art Critic Mentoring Program. She has written for Burnaway, ArtsATL, ARTS.BLACK, AFROPUNK, Number, Inc. and Washington City Paper. While  receiving an MFA in Writing from Savannah College of Art and Design, she served as a docent at the High Museum of Art. She is currently working on a PhD in Writing and Rhetoric at George Mason University.

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