Between What Is and What Could Be

Between What Is and What Could Be

A bold exhibit delivers the message that there can be much power in the decision, and autonomy in the will, to be an abstract artist in America.


Pamela Joyner began collecting works of abstract art by members of the African diaspora 20 years ago. Now the collection she holds with her husband, Alfred Giuffrida, includes over 300 works and spans the pages of the book Four Generations: The Joyner/Giuffrida Collection of Abstract Art. A selection from it is on display in “Solidary & Solitary: The Joyner/Giuffrida Collection,” an exhibition at New Orleans’s Ogden Museum of Southern Art. The show works to trace a new line of history through the collection—one that marks how abstract art has evolved, changed, and been influenced by black artists. The exhibition, by design, manages to communicate an important message effortlessly, so there is no room for confusion: This is a show of great works of abstraction that span generations. The fact that they are all works by black artists comes only secondarily. What’s perhaps more worthwhile is the exhibition’s challenge to what can even be considered abstract art.

“Solidary & Solitary” is a show made up of “solos and duets”—of artists shown alone and paired together. Norman Lewis occupies a gallery of his own. Lewis was the only African American among the first generation of Abstract Expressionist painters in America, during the late 1940s and early ’50s, and his works are the earliest in the exhibition. His career alone works as an illustration of the exhibition’s message: There can be much power in the decision, and autonomy in the will, to be an abstract artist in America, especially as an African American.

During the civil-rights movement, especially, black artists faced pressure to make representational art that addressed social issues in ways that it was thought abstract art could not and did not even attempt. Contemporary black artists working in abstraction still encounter similar scrutiny. Kerry James Marshall has criticized black abstract artists for what is often seen as an attempt to fit in to the elitist white community making abstract art. In contrast, Marshall makes it his mission to fill museums with large-scale black figures: “What I wish to show is that abandoning black figure representation was not really a move toward true freedom but instead another box within which black artists encountered other issues, chiefly the idea of belatedness, that prevented them from being recognized as significant contributors to the art historical record.” (It can, however, be convincingly argued that Marshall uses abstract techniques in his art that he doesn’t acknowledge in his verbal statements.)

Nevertheless, abstraction and blackness are often seen as two ideas that are incompatible with each other; the artists in “Solidary & Solitary” powerfully challenge this notion. Lewis openly struggled with his role as a black artist and the pressure he faced to address racism overtly in his art. He began his career painting black figures in the style of social realism, but even his figuration veered toward the abstract—anatomies pieced together out of wide shapes and flattened with warm colors. Ultimately, in the 1940s, Lewis turned to formal abstraction. “For many years, I, too, struggled single-mindedly to express social conflict through my painting,” he wrote in his 1949 Guggenheim Fellowship application. “However, gradually I came to realize that certain things are true: The development of one’s aesthetic abilities suffers from such emphasis; the content of truly creative work must be inherently aesthetic or the work becomes merely another form of illustration; therefore, the goal of the artist must be aesthetic development, and in a universal sense, to make in his own way some contribution to culture.”

And yet Lewis’s aesthetics and politics never completely separated. In 1963, he helped found Spiral—a (short-lived) collective of artists that included Romare Bearden, Charles Alston, and Hale Woodruff—which worked to determine the black artist’s role in the civil-rights movement. Later, in 1969, he co-founded Cinque Gallery, a space committed to showing the works of emerging African-American artists. And many of his abstract works do allude to themes of race in America, like his black-and-white paintings of the 1960s.

In “Solidary & Solitary,” Lewis’s paintings feel more like formal examinations of color and line. Lewis uses color as energy; his quick, gestural, and sometimes almost Cubist marks give off different energies depending on the palette. Afternoon (1969), the largest piece in the gallery, is placed on the wall directly across from the doorway. It draws the viewer in with its warmth. Yellow and green hues make up the background, and the quick pink, orange, and blue brush marks conjure a field of fragile flowers relieved by the wind. On the adjacent wall hang two paintings with a somber and subtler energy. The calligraphic lines of delicate color on the thickly painted black background of Untitled (1955) and the ghostlike presence of Many Faces of Legend II (1960) make it is unclear if, in either painting, the color is resisting being covered up, or if it is dissolving against the weight of the background.

The power of abstraction lies in its ambiguity—in its refusal to give the viewer an obvious context or direct meaning. The quick marks and intentional gestures in Lewis’s works do not lead to any immediately recognizable image; they represent reality in a looser way, if they represent it at all. This divergence from the way we are used to seeing and thinking about reality leaves more space between the viewer and the artwork—space that the viewer occupies with his or her own emotions, associations, and experiences.

Each of the works in “Solidary & Solitary” evinces a certain dichotomy—between heaviness and delicacy, wild and tame, noise and silence, imagined and real identities—between what is and what could be. These opposing forces, in conjunction with one another, create a push-and-pull effect that mimics that of power and resistance. The apparent acts of contradiction draw the viewer in with questions as to how these opposites can exist together at once. Are they indeed incompatible? Or does our tendency to categorize and characterize create restrictions that inhibit us from experiencing an entirely new sensation, imagining new possibilities?

The sculptor Melvin Edwards makes the viewer wonder how both heaviness and delicacy can exist simultaneously in “Lynch Fragments,” his long-running series reacting to racist violence in America. The three-dimensional sculptures are jarring, but calculated and sensitive, arrangements of welded steel that confront the viewer directly at eye level. The padlocks, chains, and screws in the sculptures evoke the violence of slavery and lynching. There is a heaviness and undeniable weight to these works, partly due to their material and partly due to the associations of the collective objects within them. At the Ogden, the room’s careful lighting reveals the sculptures’ dark crevices, metallic highlights, and intense shadows, adding to their gravity. While these objects emphasize their potential to harm, Edwards’s skill as a sculptor creates a new, poetic quality that the objects could not have held on their own. The juxtaposition between the elegance of the metal tools entangled in and around one another and the weight of the subject leave the viewer feeling both fascinated by their beauty and disoriented by this attraction.

The influence that Edwards has had on Leonardo Drew’s work, harder to conceive of otherwise, is obvious when their sculptures are paired side by side. The artists are a generation apart and use different materials. Drew’s large-scale wooden assemblages are not as immediately jarring as the “Lynch Fragments.” But both artists create movement, force, and tension in their sculptures. Drew combines pieces of chopped wood and uncontrolled branches, all painted and weathered in his studio. The sculptures move from contained to wildly out of control, like they have grown out of the gallery walls and are still growing—even if we cannot quite detect it. A tension runs through this calculated chaos: It’s unclear whether the wild pieces are resisting containment, or if the tamed wooden blocks are what is being overtaken. The works mirror the human tendency to cut ourselves down and back until we blend into uniformity. Or, depending on the personality of the viewer, they reflect someone who resists the temptation to conform. Probably most of us are somewhere in between, regularly fighting the tension between holding back and pushing through.

From Edwards and Drew’s gallery, one of Glenn Ligon’s well-known oil-stick and coal-dust stenciled paintings is visible. Stranger #68, part of his series of paintings based on James Baldwin’s essay “Stranger in the Village,” gives physicality to Baldwin’s words at the same time that it obscures them. Ligon manipulates passages from the 1953 essay by repeatedly stenciling the text on canvas until the letters and words blur together. Ligon communicates conflicting messages—the obvious, overwhelming reverence for, and power in, the words and, through his indecipherable and layered text, a possessiveness that restricts the viewer’s ability to fully access them, turning the viewer into a stranger.

Ligon’s paintings share a gallery with Jennie C. Jones’s, and their works interact powerfully, with a similar confidence in their simplicity. Jones’s, which straddle the line between sculpture and painting, give visual expression to music. Light Gray With Bright Note #1 and #2 (2013) is a diptych made of acoustic-absorber panels and paint on canvas. The first piece is broken into thirds—the slate-gray acoustic panel separating two lighter shades of smooth gray paint. It would be symmetrical, were it not for the thickness of the neon strip that borders one side of the work and the pencil-thin line that borders the other. The recurring neon helps the viewer’s eye bounce from #1 to #2, where another neon strip rests on the left side of the work, offsetting the calm of two solid-gray acoustic-absorber panels, one dark and one light. Jones’s elegant work expands space with neat lines and open panels.

“Presence, absence and intention are huge aspects of my work and metaphorically reflect my interest in history,” Jones said in an interview with The Huffington Post. “There is a poetic nature to minimalism that is about striking a balance between full and empty. I think abstraction can be off putting, still, sadly, yet it’s a subjective space. A simple line or single extended note could have a weight and simultaneous lightness.”

While the acoustic material in Light Gray With Bright Note #1 and #2 absorbs noise, the blank surface area of the panels feels like an open stage on which we are just waiting for a piece to be played. The space created by the absorbers is so powerfully silent that it is screaming—like there is something there, we just cannot hear or access it. The two conflicting aspects of silence and sound play off of each other, creating an impossibly loud conversation between the panels.

Both Ligon and Jones have the ability to evoke power and inspire awe through the complex simplicity of their works. The ambiguity in the artists’ message or the works’ meaning requires pause and contemplation by the viewer. Ligon’s inaudible words and Jones’s silent evocation of sound convey what Jones describes as the “poetic nature” of the balance between full and empty. Both artists have struck a balance between what is said and what is unsaid, between what is heard and what remains quiet.

Finally, what may at first appear to be a striking inclusion in this show, the dreamlike figures in Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s paintings test the bounds of abstraction and seem to mock the notion of a simplistic identity. The method by which she conceives of these figures and the style in which they are painted bend them into the category of abstraction, which we often understand as simply lacking figuration. Her subjects exist on the canvas with no background, no foreground, and no sense of historical context. The distinct expression and characteristics of each figure give off the impression that they are painted from life; but Yiadom-Boakye’s figures come from her imagination. Her style makes it easy to wonder what came first—the imagined person or the first strokes of paint on the canvas. Yiadom-Boakye’s paintings obviously work in the representational mode, but her style encourages the viewer to experience them more like an abstract work. By attempting to identify who these figures are, and what in them is attractive, viewers end up pulling from their own personal narratives and histories in order to fill the space between painting and viewer—indeed, to derive meaning.

In his 2015 book, Abstractionist Aesthetics, Phillip Brian Harper argues that “the abstractionist work invites us to question the ‘naturalness’ not only of aesthetic representation but also of the social facts to which it alludes, thereby opening them to active and potentially salutary revision.” The synthesis between opposites conveyed in the works collected in “Solidary & Solitary” suggests that categories such as abstraction, black art, and blackness—these “social facts”—do not have to exist as either-or propositions, or even exist at all.

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