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.”