What Abstraction Can Teach Us About Race and the Color Black

"Blackness in Abstraction" Installation view at Pace Gallery (photograph by Kerry Ryan McFate, courtesy of Pace Gallery)
‘Blackness in Abstraction’ installation view at Pace Gallery (photo by Kerry Ryan McFate, courtesy of Pace Gallery)

Blackness in Abstraction is one of the best opportunities in years to face the riddle of the color black and the phenomenon of blackening. No one could have anticipated that the show’s run would coincide with this summer’s eruption of racially charged violence. But recent police brutality makes these explorations of the color black as a metaphor for racialization and power dynamics all the more prescient.

Adrienne Edwards (photograph by Whitney Browne)
Adrienne Edwards (photo by Whitney Browne)

Last year, curator Adrienne Edwards wrote an important piece in Art in America, “Blackness in Abstraction.” Now she has essentially turned the article’s second and third paragraphs into a summer group show at Pace. Graduate students will be footnoting the essay years from now because Edwards is synthesizing a new shared direction in the art of the African diaspora, as well as among other artists of color. Many artists are “blackening” art objects as a metaphor for race and power.

This new emphasis on exploring blackness departs from the formulae of the Harlem Renaissance. Is it the black artist’s job to craft clear messages that persuade viewers to advance civil rights? W.E.B. Du Bois and many other Harlem Renaissance luminaries thought so and weren’t shy about instrumentalizing art as propaganda. As Du Bois explained, “All art is propaganda, and ever must be, despite the wailing of the purists. I stand in utter shamelessness and say that whatever art I have for writing has been used always for propaganda for gaining the right of black folk to love and enjoy. I do not care a damn for any art that is not used for propaganda.”

To put it mildly, Du Bois’s assertion that all artists of color need to do their duty as the artistic spokespeople for their race has gotten some pushback since the Harlem Renaissance. And many artists who happen to be of African descent have created work that happens to explore other content.

But — to state the obvious — race remains a daunting challenge confronting today’s leaders, activists, and thinkers. Many artists want to contribute creative imagery to the conversation, to help viewers reflect on what blackness means in 2016, and to give a fresh artistic perspective. The challenge is the fresh and creative part. Many of the formulae of social realism and activist propaganda of the Harlem Renaissance feel outdated to today’s artists.

No critic or artist wants to diminish the historical value of the artists who came before us. But let’s understand that today’s artists don’t wish to merely syndicate the strategies of the Harlem Renaissance. They want to do what hasn’t been done yet. This exhibition marks the emergence of a new pattern — exploring the color black itself. A new artistic direction is opening up. Many artists are all focusing on how working with the color black can help viewers appreciate the paradoxes of blackness, or — better put — the paradoxes of being blackened.

Over the course of the 20th century, Black was explored by many abstract artists working in Cubist, Suprematist, Abstract Expressionist, Minimalist, and Conceptual styles. Artists who happen to be people of color are drawing inspiration from this tradition of abstraction as they create new work. In her show, Edwards has included works by artists of many races from many periods to show this arc over the 20th century and into the 21st, and to contextualize this new direction in exploring blackness and race with the color black.

Louise Nevelson "City-Reflection" (1972) (photograph by Al Mozell, copyright Estate of Louise Nevelson / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Louise Nevelson, “City-Reflection” (1972) (photo by Al Mozell, © Estate of Louise Nevelson / Artists Rights Society [ARS], New York)
For example, Louise Nevelson’s “City-Reflection” (1972) is an all-black box sculpture with minimalist and cubist resonances. The black paint is so slick that it ends up reflecting light like onyx. Because of its luminosity, it’s hard to say whether this work is completely black. In its simple elegance, it totally problematizes blackness as a category. The light dances differently inside each box and each compartment offers different shades of black to the observant eye. It’s good for all of us to see how boxes don’t produce uniform results. It’s also important to see just how thoroughly black and white, light and dark are interconnected.

“Nothing is black — really nothing,” Frida Kahlo wrote in a page of her diary about color. Kahlo’s observation that nothing is completely black hits home when looking at Nevelson’s sculpture and the show’s other works. She’s getting closer than many of the white men normally quoted as experts on color theory. For those who can’t read this page in Spanish, Kahlo explores colors as they appeared in her natural surroundings and everyday lived experience instead of cold abstractions in books. In her time, it was standard practice for white critics to distill the essence of black. But Kahlo’s point is that whatever thinkers in what she called “gringolandia” abstractly mused about black, that wasn’t how she saw her world. And she found black to be a fiction.

At the risk of sounding pedantic, but because it needs to be written — no person is really “black” either. This category and this baggage gets foisted upon Africans and members of the African diaspora. As Zora Neale Hurston succinctly explained: “I do not always feel colored. Even now I often achieve the unconscious Zora of Eatonville before the Hegira. I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background.” So many white writers have written so many stupid things about race. And it’s important for critics and viewers who don’t identify as persons of color to pause and appreciate that we might not fully understand this lived experience. Writers like Hurston and the artists in this exhibition can offer portals into deeper understanding for those of us grappling with how to get it.

Hurston is articulating the experience of being “blackened,” which many artists in this exhibition explore by using the color black in their works. As Hurston explains further in her writings, there are moments when she does not feel colored. However, there are other moments when suddenly she feels blackened by white people, similar to how the white cube’s walls make these works blacker by optical contrast. Racial identity can be reduced to a box we check on a form, implying a permanence. But Hurston emphasizes race’s mutability, how certain situations blacken her, while other situations and contexts leave her feeling un-blackened, like Zora of Eatonvile before the Hegira.

Adam Pendleton, "Untitled" (2016) (photography courtesy of the artist and Pace Gallery)
Adam Pendleton, “Untitled” (2016) (photography courtesy of the artist and Pace Gallery) (click to enlarge)

In this context, the interaction between white and black on the picture plane can become an analogy for how white cultural contexts blacken people, and the artists in Blackness in Abstraction explore black’s chromatic properties and reveal blackening as a process in myriad different ways. For example, obscured words in the work of Glenn Ligon and Adam Pendleton lead to some interesting questions about how language can be used to blacken subjects, or the failure of words to get to the heart of a problem whose hermeneutics lie outside the verbal in the realms of color and the visual. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Looking through this lens of blackness, the history of abstract painting takes on some new meanings, and it was a stroke of genius to include historical works in this show alongside more contemporary pieces. Sol LeWitt’s “Wall Structure Black” (1962) reads like a diagram of race where the minority of white lines come forward while the majority of the black space recedes. Granted, LeWitt did not set out to illustrate racial dynamics. But as viewers of art, we are entitled to poetic license, to reflect upon how artworks can speak to cultural dynamics that their creators might not have anticipated.

Sol LeWitt, "Wall Structure Black" (1962) (photography by Ellen Page Wilson, copyright LeWitt Estate and Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Sol LeWitt, “Wall Structure Black” (1962) (photo by Ellen Page Wilson, © LeWitt Estate and Artists Rights Society [ARS], New York)
It’s important to acknowledge how Chloë Bass recently pondered whether abstraction can help us understand the value of black lives. In the immediate aftermath of racial violence, clear artistic messages like Dread Scott’s flag announcing that a black man was lynched by the police have an important role to play. And this summer, many have cherished the narrative content offered by the representational paintings of Kerry James Marshall in the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) Chicago’s current retrospective. But we do a disservice to art when we start to single out certain categories of art as better suited than others to addressing the challenge of race. Different kinds of art can help us understand it from different vantage points.

One of Marshall’s most provocative works in the MCA exhibition, “Untitled” (2009), depicts a black woman with a pallette and a paint-by-numbers canvas. Marshall is asking us to think critically about color theory and how it affects conceptualizations of race. In that vein, Edwards’s Blackness in Abstraction makes a contribution to the conversation by presenting an opportunity to explore blackness, the experiences that blacken subjects, and how this paint-by-numbers mentality affects race. Connecting color theory and race is hard work and requires a different kind of color theory than the familiar German names. But looking to Kahlo and Hurston for an alternate color theory offers a good start, and Edwards does a fine job carrying the conversation forward in the exhibition catalogue.

Hurston famously wrote: “There are years that ask questions and years that answer.” Let this year ask questions. Let color theory’s intersectionality with race remain a mystery. Let each artwork in Blackness in Abstraction discover this paradox and leave it unresolved. And as this summer from hell draws to a close, let’s not kid ourselves: it’s hard for any of us to pretend we have it all figured out. Let art ask questions we can’t answer. Let blackening exist as an enigma. Let yourself stand before art without all the answers. Because that’s how we get ready for the breakthrough.

"Blackness in Abstraction" Installation view at Pace Gallery (photograph by Kerry Ryan McFate, courtesy of Pace Gallery)
‘Blackness in Abstraction,’ installation view at Pace Gallery (photo by Kerry Ryan McFate, courtesy of Pace Gallery)

Blackness in Abstraction in on view at Pace Gallery (510 West 25th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through August 19.

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