Jack Whitten, "Special Checking" (1974), acrylic on canvas with rope collage, 54 1/8 by 95 7/8 inches (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

PHILADELPHIA — When I left the house a few mornings ago to see Expanded Painting in the 1960s and 1970s at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, I had some expectations. The exhibition includes the African American painters Alma Thomas and Sam Gilliam, both of whom moved from the South to Washington, DC, and became associated with the Washington Color Field Painters. Moreover, the website’s description states that the work in the show “speak[s] to an upending of barriers — be they artistic, ideological, racial, or rooted in gender stereotypes.” 

At minimum, the description suggests the exhibition will put pressure on the display of mostly white artists in the museum’s Modern wing, while expanding the public’s perceptions of abstract painting and painters. Thankfully, a number of artists, teachers, museums, and critics are finally realizing that Thomas and Gilliam, as well as Howardena Pindell, Norman Lewis, and numerous other artists have been written out of prominent histories of abstract painting.

The works in Expanded Painting are significant and well chosen, but the size of the exhibition is not up to the task of showcasing the diversity of artists working at the time. Perhaps my expectations were too high. But given the increasing scrutiny of museum collections, isn’t it reasonable to expect a major institution to devote more resources and space to the diversity of this expanded field? 

Sam Gilliam, “Dakar I” (1969), acrylic on canvas, 9 feet 5 inches × 59 inches × 14 inches

Sam Gilliam’s multicolored acrylic on canvas, “Dakar I” (1969), exemplifies the show’s stated premise. The unstretched canvas hangs on the wall like a cape. Named after Senegal’s capital city, the title proposes that viewers see beyond the United States as the center of arts or social change. Senegal, like much of west Africa during the 1960s, was working to establish political and cultural systems independent from French rule and centered on Black identity. In 1966, the First World Festival of Negro Arts, held in Dakar, featured selections of Gilliam’s work. 

The canvas hangs from a screw and some twine. These simple pieces of hardware are not focal points, but they define the structure of the work, allowing its patterns and washed-out colors to overlap in the soft folds of the canvas. Strengthened by its originality, “Dakar I” feels grand, as if it were cut from theater curtains.

“1972/F003” (1972), by the French artist Claude Viallat, is among the most radical departures from traditional painting formats. This work is composed simply of dye on a wide, delicate net. The dye varies in intensity and color, requiring the viewer to step closer to see the gradations. 

Claude Viallat, “1972/F003” (1972), dye on net, 8 feet 2 3/8 inches × 6 feet 10 11/16 inches

Viallat is associated with the group Supports/Surfaces, whose main belief was in the materiality of painting. In the members’ view, a painting is merely a surface on a support of some kind. “1972/F003” embodies this thinking. The group had no manifesto, but developed its ideas with a mixture of Marx, Freud, and Mao, as well as the critics Clement Greenberg and Michael Fried. Viallat and some of his colleagues were also military conscripts during the Algerian war for independence. This had a profound effect on the development of their ideas. As new political systems replaced the repressive French colonial system, artists responded by continuing to push at the edges of accepted artistic practices.

In the United States, Lynda Benglis was among the female artists dismantling the expectations of women in a male-dominated art world. Her use of unconventional materials such as glitter and aluminum screen in conjunction with acrylic and gesso for “Epsilon” (1972) subverts standard methods, while the form, which resembles a knotted rope, sits somewhere between sculpture and painting. It takes its name from the fifth letter of the Greek alphabet, perhaps a nod to Benglis’s heritage, but the term also represents, in mathematics, an arbitrarily small quantity. Intentionally or not, this could be an ironic comment on the under-recognition of women artists at the time. 

Though more conventional in format, “Hydrangeas Spring Song” (1976) by Alma Thomas appears almost kinetic. Its dancing shapes, in various blue hues on white, recall punctuation marks, letters, and other symbols. Thomas seems to capture the moment between one song and the next.

Lynda Benglis, “Epsilon” (1972), Acrylic, enamel, glitter, and gesso on plaster, cotton bunting, and aluminum screen, 42 x 29 5/8 x 10 1/4 inches

In contrast, Dorothea Rockburne’s “Robe Series, The Descent” (1976), displayed on the same wall, feels placid. The work (part of a series) takes inspiration from the folds in the clothes of figures in Italian Renaissance paintings. While she uses some traditional materials, like oil and gesso, she rejects the standard rectangular canvas, instead layering canvases to produce sharp angles. 

Throughout her career Rockburne sought ways to move beyond traditional methods of composition. She developed her ideas for Robe Series while studying Renaissance painting in Italy in the early 1970s. This work fuses her interests in mathematical theory with one of the tradition-defining eras in art history. 

Thickly textured white acrylic paint coats John E. Dowell, Jr.’s “To Weave through Time” (1979), a work that seems very much about what lies beneath the surface. In the center, a few partial curls of color push through the top layer. A long, vertical rectangle, the canvas suggests a test sample cut from the infinite swath of time. The dominance of white throughout this painting, marked only by a few instances of color, alludes to a history dominated by whiteness. To weave through time, then, means to navigate a history where Dowell and other Black artists are continually confronted with their own erasure.

Dorothea Rockburne, “Robe Series, The Descent” (1976), gesso, varnish, glue, and oil on linen, as installed, from largest points: 55 1/2 × 36 inches

Jack Whitten’s “Special Checking” (1974), one of the show’s more fascinating works, is an early example of the artist’s “slab” paintings. Laying the canvas on the floor, Whitten would move large slabs of paint across it with squeegees, rakes, Afro combs, and, later, a large metal tool he called “the developer.” In contrast to Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings, which allowed the artist more direct control, Whitten’s method opens to a wide range of surprising outcomes. He thought of these works as visual equivalents to the “sheets of sound” composed by free jazz musicians like Ornette Coleman. For Whitten, abstraction could have political significance. The social and political ramifications of the Civil Rights Movement were integral to his work. Through his paintings he paid tribute to Black artists and politicians, such as Jacob Lawrence, Thelonious Monk, and Malcolm X

While this exhibition clearly presents a significant history of painting, it offers merely a snapshot of a compelling time. It’s location in a hallway of the Modern wing, rather than a gallery, somewhat undermines the force of these works. A larger, more context-driven exhibition would better impress upon viewers how non-representational art can reflect social change. Considering the current attention on racial and gender justice, supported by the Movement for Black Lives and #MeToo movement, it seems high time for museums to provide the space and financial support for such an endeavor. Philadelphia would be a good place to start.

Expanded Painting in the 1960s and 1970s continues at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (2600 Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) through Fall 2021.

Stan Mir is a poet and critic whose work has appeared in The Asian American Literary Review, Jacket2, Seedings, and The Tiny. He has published two books of poems, Song & Glass (Subito, 2010) and The...