"Energy/Experimentation: Black Artists and Abstraction, 1964-1980"; Studio Museum in Harlem

Article excerpt

At first glance, this show appears to be a simple survey of the dominant modes of postwar abstraction. In one corner hangs Melvin Edwards's Cotton Hangup, 1965, an expressionist sculpture of black steel, tools, and rebar; in another stretches Joe Overstreet's Saint Expedite A, 1971, a post-Minimalist rigging of green-, black-, and red-painted canvases. Barbara Chase-Riboud similarly reimports reference into Minimal forms: Her Bathers, 1972, consists of a field of low rectilinear aluminum volumes that ripples like a bed of wave-polished rocks, with green-gray silk splays suggesting seaweed exposed at low tide. On the wall nearby hovers William T. Williams's Trane, 1969, a tour de force of Op/Minimal painting, in an eye-shocking palette, that seems to be shearing apart at its center. Over it all presides Al Loving's untitled banner of batiklike dyed canvas strips, from around 1975. Evoking a sign of nationalism, it seems to propose something militant; but in the service of which cause--art, abstract art, black art, black America, what?

The fifteen artists in "Energy/Experimentation," all African American, can be located with respect to contemporaneous "mainstream" artistic developments; and it would be disturbingly easy to describe Williams as the black X, Chase-Riboud the black Y, Edwards the black Z. But pegging them to white art is the mechanism of their erasure from the histories of art in the '60s and '70s--and not just those of formalist and post-formalist genres: Their work was shunned by black critics of the time, who dubbed it "white art in blackface," and so the standard history of the period's African-American art, which focuses on artists who took an explicitly activist stance--those in the Black Arts Movement, for example--excludes them as well.

Curator Kellie Jones wisely avoids promoting the artists she selected as lost geniuses ripe for rediscovery. It would be awkward for a show whose premises undermine the idea of an eternal canon to lobby for admissions to it. Instead, the forty artworks in the exhibition sketch portraits of myriad individual practices and a variety of attitudes toward materiality, the image, the role of process, and "black" themes. …