Almost all books of recent art history seem to start by analyzing a snapshot. It’s a way of slipping into an analytical mode through a side door, under cover of an image — a specimen of what they call visual culture — that can be allegorized. Darby English, in his new book 1971, starts out not with one photo but two, informal snaps of the installation of a show of color field painting “in a converted movie theater in what people sometimes call the black part of town” in Houston. There’s Clem Greenberg sporting a cowboy hat — but in the next picture, the same hat is worn by Peter Bradley, one of the artists in the show and its curator. The local headgear’s circulation, English says, “captures the animating spirit of the exhibition project: a casual statement of affinity between the races.” True enough, but also, I’d add, of affinity between critic and artist — normally said to wear different hats. It’s a black hat, but unlike the movies, those who wear it are not the bad guys. That English paints Greenberg as a good guy is just one of the reasons why his revisionist look at two 1971 exhibitions — “Contemporary Black Artists in America” at New York’s Whitney Museum, and “The DeLuxe Show” in Houston, curated by Bradley and sponsored by the Menils — will raise hackles. English decries black nationalist demands for a unified community in favor of an individualism, personal autonomy, and subjectivity that many then and now would deride as a bourgeois affectation if not a betrayal. And he rejects the concomitant call for an art that emphasizes recognizable images of that community (an idea still championed by, for instance, Kerry James Marshall) in favor of an art of abstraction. In so doing, he aims to revive interest in the Houston show, long lost from art-historical view, and to rehabilitate the reputation of the Whitney show, which was boycotted by many of the invited artists and has gone down in history as a debacle. (Another recent book, Susan E. Cahan’s Mounting Frustration: The Art Museum in the Age of Black Power, published last year by Duke University Press, is heavily slanted against it.) Just as bad, maybe, is his giving the time of day to something as unfashionable as color field painting. Today, it’s easy to see that artists like Ed Clark and Sam Gilliam (to name just two of the participants in “The DeLuxe Show”) are ripe for re-evaluation. But their white colleagues like Jules Olitski, Walter Darby Bannard, and Kenneth Noland are a much harder sell. All the better. I love seeing a consensus shaken. And I love English’s statement that “unearthing optimism is a project of overriding concern.” We need some of that these days. Just as attractive is his idea that an “easy relationality […] made art an unfussy way of doing integration” and that the work of an artist like Gilliam instantiates a “relaxed relationship to what is.” English always seems to want us to chill, not unlike our last President — though in fact English tends to lose his cool when contesting the views of critics who claim to discern black identities revealed in abstract paintings (Kellie Jones, Geoffrey Jacques). And his case that “black abstraction” is “a self-contradictory label” (and in a positive sense, that the escape offered by abstraction from a restrictive identity should be welcome) remains unproven. So is his argument for color field painting in general, whether by black or white artists. The fact that he can produce rhetorically convincing phenomenological descriptions of encounters with certain paintings does not actually indicate that they are significant works; that’s the problem with trying to make a discursive argument in favor of works made, as he says of Gilliam’s, with an “absence of preoccupation with how his work would signify.” Signifying is just what a book can do, so English is entangled in a self-contradiction. To describe what a given work does and then go on to say that that embodies something like “a concrete public manifestation of this human creativity” can only earn a shrug. The natural response? Show me. Maybe English should team up with Bradley to mount a remake of “The DeLuxe Show.” I’d be willing to fly to Houston to check it out. Until then, I agree that English’s ambition that art “shift from racially delineated space to contact zone” is one that we should keep trying to act on.
Darby English’s 1971: A Year in the Life of Color (2016) is published by the University of Chicago Press and is available from Amazon and other online booksellers.