Introduction

 

Their methods and materials testify to the diversity within contemporary abstract art and the penchant for defying the conventions of the media they employ. For example, printmaker Lou Stovall describes his 2004 monoprint Actus Artis VI as “action printing,” referencing the all-over nature and methods of action painting or gestural abstraction. Artists Sam Gilliam, Nannette Acker Clark and Mary Lovelace O’Neal push printmaking towards construction through cutting, interlacing, and layering. In a similar vein, the works by Al Loving and Alonzo Davis are best called constructions, though they also use painting, printmaking and collage.

Abstraction is not wedded to materials but rather an aesthetic bestowed by the artist though the use of materials. Though largely concerned with formal aesthetics, abstract art can represent a range of ideas from the spiritual to the political. This is most directly expressed in Kevin Cole’s Dreams that Merge (For Martin, Malcolm and Mandela) from 1996–99 and Melvin Edwards, Cunene (1986), named after the region in southern Angola occupied in the 1980s by the Apartheid-era South African Defence Force to destabilize the region and deter national liberation movements.

Abstract Relations is not the first exhibition to focus on the particularism of abstract art and black artists who work in this idiom. Since 1969 exhibitions have sought to record, honor, contextualize, and render visible the long and rich history of the engagement of African American artists with abstraction. Some have shown together before: Sam Gilliam, William T. Williams and Melvin Edwards exhibited collectively five times between 1969 and 1976 and many times since. Most have had solo exhibitions and been woven into a more inclusive canon of contemporary abstraction. In 1986 Williams, described as a lyrical Expressionist, and his 1979 painting Batman were included in the 3rd edition of W.H. Janson’s canonical History of Art.

Informed by earlier exhibitions, Abstract Relations is distinguished by its focus on Felrath Hines and work from the collections of the University of Delaware and the David C. Driskell Center, University of Maryland. Shared relationships underpin the grouping: one collection to another, artist-to-artist, work-to-work. Three of the artists, William T. Williams, Ed Clark and Melvin Edwards, participated in an artist’s residency at the University of Delaware in 1970. David C. Driskell, whose legacy is honored by the Driskell Center, hired Hines to conserve works in the collection of Fisk University while he was chair of the art department and director of the university’s Carl Van Vechten Gallery (1966–1977). He included Hines, Alma Thomas and Norman Lewis’s work in his groundbreaking exhibition, Two Centuries of African American Art, which toured the USA between 1976 and 1977. Focused on the years 1750–1950, Two Centuries demonstrated the variety of styles and media mastered by African American artists and abstraction was well represented.

African American artists who work in abstraction today must contend with histories and forces that marginalized their predecessors.  Historically, African American artists whose work eschewed representational blackness were often seen as apolitical or otherwise disengaged from black American life.  Critical discourses on abstract art centered the practices of white and notably male artists, largely ignoring African American artists. The widespread failure to see black aesthetic expression as a conveyer of universal principles disenfranchised African American artists from the American mainstream.  For these and other reasons, abstraction is a mode of expression fraught with complexities for African American artists.  Abstract Relations highlights artists who have forged notable careers through abstract art, bringing to life a range of practices and aesthetic impulses. Their works bear witness to the criticality and vitality of abstract art and its everlasting ability to enrich our lives.

 

Julie L. McGee, Ph.D.
Curator of African American Art, UD University Museums

Adrienne L. Childs, Ph.D.
Curator, David C. Driskell Center, University of Maryland