In response to the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, Charles Alston, Romare Bearden, Norman Lewis, Richard Mayhew, Hale Woodruff, and other Black artists founded the Spiral Group (1963–65) to discuss how art might align with the growing demand for civil rights in the United States. One year later, in the aftermath of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act (1964) into law, officially ending segregation. The shortcomings of the Civil Rights Act, however, were not lost on Bearden and Lewis, prominent Black artists the mainstream art world continued to ignore. In 1969, knowing they would have almost no opportunities to show their work in New York, the two artists, along with Ernest Crichlow, started Cinque, an artist-run gallery that exhibited more than 450 artists of color during its 35-year existence. By opening Cinque Gallery, Bearden, Lewis, and Crichlow recognized the existence of at least two distinct art worlds in New York, a situation that has not completely changed.
One artist who was on the cusp of both groups was Mayhew, a Black-Native American painter whose lustrous canvases have yet to receive the recognition in New York that they have long deserved. While he has shown regularly in Manhattan galleries for many years, this city’s cultural institutions have almost completely ignored him, even as they’ve started paying attention to overlooked artists of color. Mayhew has not been embraced by the art world primarily because the trajectory he has pursued has no overt connection to politics or race, and, more importantly, it challenges all the categories to which Black artists are routinely consigned.
Born in 1924, near Amityville, New York, where he was raised, Mayhew is now 99 years old and resides in California. His current, must-see exhibition, Richard Mayhew: Natural Order at Venus Over Manhattan, consists of 21 paintings and works on paper done between 1973 and 2022.
Mayhew’s visionary paintings — what he calls “mindscapes,” honoring the landscape as sacred — occupy an area of art history that no contemporary painter approaches; he is a singular figure whose work has never fit into any of the movements the art world has promoted since 1950. When he was interviewed by Bridget Cooks and Amanda Tewes for the Getty Trust Oral History Project, African American Art History Initiative, he cited three figures as crucial to his development: Edwin Dickinson, Reuben Tam, and the 19th-century American landscape painter George Inness, whose use of saturated color and softened edges anticipates Mayhew’s work. By taking different cues from these independent, unaligned artists, and making something that is recognizably his, Mayhew developed an unrivaled sensitivity to color and nuance, all while articulating a contradictory spatial “mindscape” that recedes dimensionally while advancing because of the saturated color. That simultaneity imbues his paintings with an otherworldliness. They appear both solid and ethereal — a synthesis that echoes Pierre Bonnard’s many portraits of his wife, Marthe de Méligny, where she is never completely shown.
Composed of layers and textures of different reds bleeding into each other, it is impossible to say where the land ends and the sky begins in “Essence II” (1973). While Mayhew captures that indeterminacy in many of his paintings, he does not repeat himself. In “Mood Indigo” (c. 1995), the larger of two hazy silhouettes of trees seems to be trying to pull away from the glowing blue sky. Is this scene a memory or hallucination? As in his other paintings, the light comes from within the forms and spaces.
One of the show’s most powerful and mysterious paintings is “Beyond the Bramble Bush (1996–97). The composition, with its large, green bramble bush near the center, suggests the possibility that we are walking into a landscape. Receding into space is a glowing orange path and, beyond that, an inlet of luminous blue water hemmed in by green. The foreground of the painting looks familiar and believable, while everything past the bush is mysterious and unknowable. Of what is the orange path made? Is it liquid or lava? If so, from where did it come? Mayhew pulls the viewer into a world that remains remote. What is this world we have entered?
In some paintings, the artist has spelled out his last name, rendering the M as an inverted W and the Y as an inverted H. In this way, he proposes that his paintings can be turned around. He doesn’t do this in all his paintings and watercolors, which would make it seem like a cheap parlor trick, but this gesture both nods to Jackson Pollock’s all-over paintings and refutes them as being solely about paint. Perhaps that formalist way of reading Pollock’s poured paintings has contributed to Mayhew’s marginalization in the New York art world. It is time we see his works for what they are: inimitable visions that only paint can conjure.
Richard Mayhew: Natural Order continues at Venus Over Manhattan (39 Great Jones Street, Noho, Manhattan) through June 17. The exhibition was organized by the gallery in collaboration with ACA Galleries.