|James Little, Juju Boogie Woogie, 2013. Image via artnews.com: Courtesy the artist and June Kelly Gallery, NY.|
Long marginalized by their community and overlooked by the art market, African American abstractionists are finally coming into the spotlight
Text | Hilarie M. Sheets for ARTnews
Published | June 4, 2014
“Donald Judd didn’t have to explain himself. Why do I have to?” asks Jennie C. Jones, an African American abstract painter who has grappled with the issue of how her work can or should reflect her race. “Fred Sandback can make this beautiful line and not have to have it literally be a metaphor for his cultural identity.”
Jones, 45, sidestepped the debates around multiculturalism that were raging when she was in school in the 1980s and gravitated toward Minimalism. Yet over the last decade, she has forged a conceptual link in her work between the histories of abstraction and of modern jazz in America—“black guys in the 1950s taking jazz into the concert hall and making it this bluesy hybrid with Bach,” as she puts it.
In her recent show at Sikkema Jenkins in New York, an atonal sound environment accompanied her monochromatic paintings that had acoustic panels attached to the canvases. Strips of fluorescent color painted on the edges of the canvases bounced off the white walls and created a sense of movement, rhythm, and vibration. “This art and music juncture,” she says, “gave me the permission to point to something in the room that said, ‘I didn’t fall out of the sky.’”
The contributions of African American artists to the inventions of abstract painting have historically been overlooked, or else fraught with the kind of questions faced by Jones. “Generations of black abstract painters never seem to be celebrated,” says Valerie Cassel Oliver, senior curator at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, where she recently organized “Black in the Abstract,” a two-part exhibition that focused on the history of African American painters working in abstraction. She placed younger artists, including Jones, Shinique Smith, and Angel Otero, in dialogue with members of the older generation, such as Felrath Hines, Alma Thomas, and Romare Bearden, who were producing seminal works in the 1960s.
“You find these artists being marginalized on both ends of the spectrum,” Cassel Oliver continues. “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 says, referring to a group that coalesced in the 1960s to promote social and political engagement in art and literature. “Oftentimes abstract painting is not as celebrated as more figurative work by the black community. From the mainstream art world, it’s just the sense of not being preoccupied with what black artists are doing, period.”
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