LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Louisville’s Black Avant-Garde: Robert L. Douglas, on view at the Speed Art Museum, includes more than 30 paintings, drawings, prints, and sculptures by the recently deceased artist who, along with contemporaries Sam Gilliam and Bob Thompson, co-founded Gallery Enterprises, a collective of Black creatives that existed in Louisville from about 1957 to ’61. This is what I thought the title’s “avant-garde” was referencing — a community that prefigured more well-known Black artist collectives in larger cities like New York and Chicago that weren’t active until later in the 1960s and ’70s. 

Instead, the show is the first in a series of four highlighting members of the Louisville Art Workshop, a later collective that Douglas helped lead throughout its existence, from roughly 1966 to ’78. Perhaps the “avant-garde” descriptor is meant more broadly: Whether they were gathering in the late 1950s or the 1970s, Louisville’s Black artists were organizing together because many White-dominated arts institutions would not offer them opportunities to show their work. 

Figures of Black women, often naked, dominate the modest show; most are from Douglas’s series The Shades of Earth Mother, which preoccupied the last four decades of his practice, according to the wall text. The 60 works in the series depict 20 different women, each with a preliminary sketch, a large-scale oil painting, and a smaller oil painting. Three of these “sets” are included (“Zambia,” “Ursula,” and “Doris”) and together date from 1973 to 1991. In each example, the nude women are represented in a domestic setting, seated on a chair or rug, with bright, modern furnishings and what looks to be an African figurine in close proximity.

Installation view of Louisville’s Black Avant-Garde: Robert L. Douglas at The Speed Art Museum

In the larger paintings, Douglas’s women are realized with curving forms in warm, realistic shades of butterscotch and mocha, yet idealized, with their flawless skin, long legs, and rounded breasts. Yet in the smaller works, he paints more abstractly: detailed, expressive faces are simplified, mask-like, into planes of color; breasts are transformed from sensual anatomies into spherical geometries; and limbs and torsos glow with deep blue, orange, and lime green tones. In these works, the women more closely resemble the antique figurines placed near them; more object-like, they become less objectified, studied for their formal, rather than sexual, qualities.

Five early paintings (1960–64) show Douglas at his most expressive, through intimate scenes depicting one to four people in thick paint with saturated colors and emphatic, confident brushstrokes. In “So What” (1961), four men sit closely at a bar, each face, shirt, and glass an area of abstraction that might be indecipherable removed from the painting. Dark greens, blues, and browns are electrified with highlights of bright orange, yellow, red, and white, bestowing an exciting, vibratory energy. “Then What Did She Say?” (1964) focuses on a domestic moment with similarly simplified figures: two women, seated in a living room, lean toward each other in conversation while a child plays on a nearby rug. Douglas’s palette is softer but no less vibrant, favoring peaches and salmons and reds as he emphasizes circular forms (a rug, two side tables) and curves (a vase, a lamp) amid a sea of pink, blue, and black brushwork.

The show’s earliest work, “The Painter” (1960), is certainly a self-portrait in some sense: a man stands in his home or studio, a palette and brush in his hands and an easel at his side. The boldly colored furniture and objects are flattened so the entire room seems to exist in one comfortably claustrophobic plane. The subject, clothed in blue jeans and a yellow shirt, is rendered with minimum detail. Violet shadow obscures one side of his face; from the other, he stares at the viewer with one black smudge of an eye, willing himself to be seen. 

Robert L. Douglas, “The Painter” (1960), oil on Masonite
Installation view of Louisville’s Black Avant-Garde: Robert L. Douglas at The Speed Art Museum
Robert L. Douglas, “Concepts in Blackness” (1976), pen and ink on paper
Robert L. Douglas, “So What” (1961), oil on Masonite

Louisville’s Black Avant-Garde: Robert L. Douglas continues at the Speed Art Museum (2035 South Third Street, Louisville, Kentucky) through October 1. The exhibition was organized by the Speed Art Museum and curated by Dr. fari nzinga, curator of Academic Engagement and Special Projects at the Speed, with support from Sarah Battle, coordinator of Academic Programs and Publications, Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts, National Gallery of Art. 

Natalie Weis is a writer and art critic based in Louisville, Kentucky. Her interests include emerging artists working on the periphery—both geographically and in their chosen mediums. Her writing has...

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