The Emerging Importance of Black Art in America

The Emerging Importance of Black Art in America
Black Conference Affirms African Heritage, American Independence
by Keith Morrison

            Their confrontations with the art museum stopped nearly ten years ago. A few of them have established solid art reputations to join the handful that had been established before. A few more have come to teach in several of the better university art departments and art schools around. Yet. even most of these few who are making it readily agree with the many Black artists who are not, that, as difficult as it is for the white artist in America to gain acceptance of his work today, it is still harder for a Black person to do so.

Ironically, many Black artists seem to have become resigned to the fact that their color is a basic reason that they are ignored by the higher echelons of the art world; indeed, many of them have no interest in what they consider to be a white-run game. Bu most of them bitterly contend that what angers them the most is the continuing nemesis of a white, narcissistic view of the world, a view that precludes acknowledgement of any African or Afro-American qualities in their work. They all acknowledge the supreme importance of quality, but Black artists claim that if you are good and if you want to make it, you must play the “Man’s” gam and act like Black values have nothing to do with your work. Even this Blacks who have no wish to “make it” find the idea of cultural subservience an outrage.

Nevertheless, art done by black people in America seems to be thriving in the undercurrent, as April’s National Conference of Artists annual convention in Washington, D.C., showed. From all over the country, some 1,000 artists, art teachers and art historians gathered to discuss the condition of art by Black people in America today. The theme of the conference was “Political and Economic Development of the African-American Artist.” Although most of the major galleries did not participate, some 25 sites in the Washington area showed work by Black artists, most of whom were attending the conference.


Art by Blacks in America seems to have attained a dynamism not found since the early 1970’s. While there has not yet been a comprehensive exhibition of recent art by blacks, this “new dynamism’ seems increasingly evident to those who have been visiting studios and who have seen some of the recent exhibitions, such as the one at the Virginia Museum in Richmond, Afro-American Abstraction at PS. i in New York, the Black Circle show at the University of Illinois Chicago Circle Campus, the Afro-American Show at W.P.A. Gallery in Washing- ton, D.C., the Black American graphics shows sponsored by the Studio Museum ofHarlem and Howard University, and some 25 gallery shows throughout Washington, D.C., during the first week in’ April when more than 1,000 Black artists from all over the country participated in the National Conference of Artists annual convention.

The artists that l write about showed in several of the exhibitions mentioned above. Several of these artists were represented in the PS. 1 Show, which has already been extensively reviewed in such journals as the Wage Voice, New York Times and Time. This is not another PS. 1 review, but it is about some of those artists because they happen to be among the very best Afro- American artists working today. (I have not written about artists from the West Coast because Allan Gordon has done so elsewhere in’ this issue.) it should also be noted that many of the artists that l discuss have worked outside the gallery system developing their ideas through personal introspection. In many ways, some of their ideas would seem to be refinements and distillations of the vernacular of the “street artist.”

Sculptor Mel Edwards’s works have been known for several years. He is properly regarded by many as one of the major sculptors around. Two sets of his work were seen in the P.S. 1 Show. One is a series of small mask-like wall hangings called Nile Lynch Fragments. The pieces are uncompromisingly austere in the brutishness of the metal. In each of the pieces the metal cross loops upon itself. That makes for taut tensions of the iron forms, which grip upon themselves against the helplessly flat backdrop of the white wall. On the one hand, the works impress as aggressive structures charged with energy. On the other hand, Nile Lynch Fragments suggest masks of African peoples. The treatment of the metal compels us to see these mask suggestions as the relationship between their wake. Edwards’s other work at P.S. 1 was Homage to the Poet Gotan Damas, a metal work that extends through planes, chains, and disks over about a 10’ x 20’ area of floor. Tensions in the work are induced through the spaces between elements of it, through the foreboding drama of the menacing chain, as well as through the stark shadows cast by the disk and angular forms. Edwards evokes in sculpture the menace of portentous quietude of space and object.

Lorenzo Pace, a younger sculptor, lives in Chicago. In some of his recent works, organic in feeling, skeletal structures of plaster support momentos whose exact meanings are defaced by the decaying fibrous materials that wrap them. These objects Pace carefully places in somewhat isolated relationships to one another, often laying them in sand as if in a desert. Pace is interested in mummification and its continuum through history and cultures. His works conjure an aspect of Nile Civilizations very different from Edwards’s images. While suggesting the decay and erosion of the desert, Pace’s work also reveals a profound involvement with death rituals, not only with a sense of the mysteries of history, but also with much empathy. He suggests the irony of enduring death through the macabre way in which the dry Sahara preserves loss.

Barbara Chase-Riboud, a distinguished artist in America since the 1950’s now lives in France. Her work has taken on new qualities in recent years, as All that Rises  Must Converge exemplifies. Part of the recent P.S. 1 show, this 3’ x 8′ work is made of glittering bronze pieces folded toward one another and draped and braided,with heavy strands of silk cord. The totality closes in on itself and presents, on the one hand, a suggestion of jewelry through the association of the polished, glistening metal and the ceremony of the braids and the folds, and, on the other hand, ironically, the suggestion of captivity; compelling those metals and fibers to unfold (with such austerity that sinister function emanates from their being.

Maren Hassinger’s installation, also at PS. 1,was about the arrangement of bundles and crops. The pieces extend over the greater portion of a fairly large room and are each only about one foot high; seen in panorama, they have a miniaturistic sense about them. Hassinger’s bundles are also fibrous, wrapped with shining strands of wire that contrast against the duller vertical tufts of rope. The whole gives a feeling of arid lightness, of grace and charm of modest groups swaying in romantic relation to one another.

Also of interest in Hassinger’s work is the sense of vernacular craftsmanship—the feeling that the works were not only assembled by hand but shaped through the criteria of sensitivity to touch, measured and gauged not by yardstick but by the eye which was dictated to by the spiritualness of the mind. The totality is one of uneven gracefulness, a quality that I feel even more strongly in Martin Puryear’s works, two of which were also displayed in the same room with Hassinger’s piece at P.S. 1.

Although Puryear’s pieces often reveal extraordinary craftsmanship and attention to detail, interestingly, Puryear casts aside elegance and seems to search through

to the spirit of the form contained within the material. Puryear does not distort the integrity of his materials (mostly woods, hides and fiber), and so it would seem that it is the material which dictates the form; but, Purer shapes the material beyond the boundaries of its origin.

If Puryear’s feeling for craftsmanship pervades his work, it is nevertheless subordinated within the character of the form. Puryear is too profound an artist to forsake elegance only to be trapped by craftsmanship. The latter, though crucial to his work, is always subsumed. Puryear’s art lies at that elusive juncture where the man-made object escapes the tangibility of its craft and attains the spirit of the natural order. Through the empathy of the artist, the art remains distinct from the natural order itself.

In recognition of possibilities of vernacular thought, as in Hassinger and Puryear, or sensitivity toward certain aspects of metal and fiber, as in the cases of Edwards and Chase-Riboud, one feels compelled to make reference to African sources. Even though the work involves much more than that, I feel that it is strongly indebted to African and Afro-American sources of experience; these sources cannot be ignored if one is to get a more complete understanding of the artists’ sensibilities. Edwards’s chains and masks (not to mention titles such as Nile Lynch Fragments) evoke the atmosphere of enslavement of the Afro-American and his consciousness of that part of his history. Chase-Riboud’s materials, especially her cords, remind one of qualities of Black people’s hair and hairdos. Put that in association with the way she uses metal, and, for me, the sense of African ceremonial jewelry is inescapable. With the recognition of that context, so, too, follows the irony of the rope as a tool of bondage: that is the other side of her work. Similarly, I feel strongly that the spiritual vision of Puryear’s vernacular sensibility often (though certainly not always) reminds me very much of the spirit of African image-making, such as Baule and Mende forms even in the colors that Puryear often uses. This is not to say that Puryear is doing African-type art. He is not. No more than Henry Moore did Mayan art, for example; But it is to say that Puryear’s work often seems to reflect kinship with certain West African sensibilities about making sculpture. This also seems true of Hassinger’s work, although the analogy seems more vague to me than for Puryear’s work.

Sam Gilliam, is, of course, most known for his drape pieces that often flow over large expanses of not only walls, but ceilings and floors. Gilliam creates environments that undulate spectacularly through alternating shadows of folds and scintillating surfaces of color that often shimmer and actually move, especially when the work is placed out of doors. Gilliam’s works have the quality of that which is tactile yet elusive to the actual touch, like the floating of some ethereal substance. Although the draping and movement contribute, part of that quality comes from the colors, which often camouflage the difference between substance and fantasy, creating a kind of environmental mirage. Recently, Gilliam has extended his work into three-dimensional construction and also has been embedding solid substances such as brick into his canvases. The canvas itself, like the pigment, is not merely the support but an integral part of the substance of his work. He selects heavy sail cloth to work on not only because of its strength as support but because of its body as visual structure. After he has added his paint, he will often wash the surface to bring out the actual tactile relationships between pigment and support. It is as though he were trying to get the tactile quality of sculpture through the materials of painting. It makes sense in this context, then, that he should now be adding other materials to his canvases and making three-dimensional assemblages in paints, for these are extensions of his vision.

I continue to feel that aspects of Gilliam’s work relate to Africanness in ways that have been overlooked. I refer especially to those draped pieces that are evocative of the spectres of garments, of the dramatic gesture that fabric assumes as it becomes more characteristic of movement and personality than any form, human or otherwise, that might be contained beneath it.

When I first saw Gilliam’s drapes, l was reminded of childhood in the most African parts of the West Indies, where one was traumatized by the cat-like macabre gesture of the witchdoctor, who made no sound. You never actually saw him. He was always somehow hidden beneath a cloak, many times larger than life. You saw only the giant spectre of the cloak with its glittering colors which seemed to dance on air, though you were also never sure you saw it move (for so quick it was). Gilliam’s color, with its brilliance and many-faceted hues inescapably reminds one of the bright colors of African and Afro-American clothes and designs.

Color as an aspect of gaudy plumage, as expressive fantasy, a source of spiritual fervor goes back deep into the values of Black people as a group. Many people (I suspect mostly Black) have seen this value as a source of Gilliam‘s work. I am not sure when or how this notion of color originated. Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that because no figurative images are allowed in Islam, many African cultures (as did Middle Eastern ones) relied especially heavily upon color to reveal aspects of spiritualness. Color so used can be structured through; formal discipline (as in the work of Joseph Albers, for example), or it can be used to enhance other images (as in Expressionism); but used as sheer sensation, it often tends to lose its emotional impact, becoming decorative and pretty, appealing not to spiritualness but to the materialistic responses of the eye.

Nevertheless, there remains in Black people (and some others, too, I might add, including some Middle Eastern peoples, some East Indian people’s and some (from Central and South America) the capacity to find spiritualness in sheer bright color, as though they were fascinated with the potential of irrationality. Gilliam uses color in this way very well, not because he ignores academic principles of color, but because he understands color principles and because he sees color not only as hue, but as substance, as material. Gilliam puts colors together not only according to their visual potential but also because of their physical structure. He has therefore expanded his vision of color to become at once a sensation and a material. Hence, he is able cohesively to combine oil, acrylic, metallic, fluorescent and phosphorescent color with bricks, wood and metal in the same totality of perception, where color becomes substance. In many ways, his work breaks down the barriers between the spiritual and the material.

Howardena Pindell, whose work often straddles a thin line between painting as illusion and fabric as fetish; object, holds some things in common with Gilliam. Pindell’s work makes us want to decide whether we are looking at a painting or a piece of cloth. It is a quality that might be seen in attitudes toward painting that many Black artists seem to follow (though most probably do it badly, allowing us to resolve the tension by dismissing the work as painting while admiring it as an interesting piece of cloth). I suspect that the involvement with fabric that is at once fantasy and substance evolved inadvertently among Black artists. The origin of the idea might have to do with the cultural discomfiture that many Black artists have traditionally had with painting. Africa has no had strong painting traditions except in Egypt, some parts of East Africa, and among the paintings of the isolated caves of the Tassili. Put another way, the closest approximation of painting that most slaves brought with them to the new world was probably in the dyes and other materials of their garments. When they relied on memory, they recalled what was painted in West African tribal societies—mostly materials, architecture, sculpture and garments. And so, I feel that to a very large degree, there probably has been a tradition of discomfiture about the possibilities of painting among Black people. Much of the good painting that has evolved in this regard, such as Pindell’s (and Gilliam’s too, I might add)seems to contain the seeds of this discomfiture as part of its being.

In Pindell’s, as in Gilliam’s work, the concept of painting as illusion is one and the same as the tangibility of the material. However, in Pindell’s the material takes on-the quality of a decorative fetish. Pindell’s Brazil, Feast Day Imanja, shown at P.S. 1, dazzles in surface glitter, seems to become a kind of magic cloth with qualities of a two dimensional sculpture. One is captivated by the jewel like surface, with its endless shimmering, and one is irresistibly urged to examine every precious detail inch by inch, as though in contemplation of a rare sort of jewelry. Yet at the same time, one cannot lose consciousness of the totality as illusion. So one flows between fact and fantasy.

Ideas that hold you between fact and fantasy.would seem to be a part of work by a number of Black artists whose works I have seen recently. Works of this sort frequently employ fiber, an idea that must be explored in more depth at another time. However, for now, I might state that the idea of using fiber (especially in sculpture) is a long-standing one for Blacks (as it has been with the people of Oceania). ln addition to Chase-Riboud and Hassinger, David Hammons, Napolean Henderson of Boston, Dexter Feurgeson of New York and Joyce Scott of Baltimore are some of the best artists that l have seen to be working with fibers. Henderson is now doing a large piece for the new Atlanta airport. Scott, who has studied in Central America and Africa, is involved with fiber but incorporates a wide range of materials including glass, beads, mirrors and photographs. She has developed a fibrous approach to sculptural form, an approach that relates to concepts of fiber sculpture of ancient Central West Africa. Nevertheless, her work does not look traditional but is really very challenging to newer concepts of perception. David Driskell, better known for his painting, has become involved with three—dimensional structures. His recent work, Rain Maker is done with a variety of fibers, woods and plastic, the latter with a sense of the found- object used in conjunction with the wood and assuming the vernacular presence of the materials whose visual history belongs to Afro—American folklore.

Alvin Loving’s works contain another strong direction in art by Afro-Americans—a peculiar sense of pattern. I say peculiar because difference between ideas of pattern of many Afro-American artists and that of other, now prevalent pattern painters, such as Cynthia Carlson. Whereas other artists use repetition in harmonious relationships or bring contrasting patterns to harmonious crescendoes, the sense of pattern characteristic of many Black artists is one of continuing dissonance. I think that this discordance develops because each of the individual shapes or characters in the works vies selfishly for liberation, for individual recognition apart from the whole. The result is that each individual shape or character tends to take on the qualities of a symbol. This would seem to be contradictory or at least antithetic to a cohesive vision, since pattern suggests multiplicity and symbolism suggests individuality or, at least, specificity. For example, Loving does wall hangings, made from pieces of cloth sewn together and hanging down toward the floor in a great variety of directions. The individual pieces in Loving’s paintings force us to contemplate them individually because of their specific nuances of color and tensions of length, and direction. The elements do not flow into one another so much as they fight for existence against one another. In addition, the spatial extension of the shapes varies unpredictably. Thus, what we tend to perceive is not a totality of form, not an orchestrated group in harmony, out multiple individuality vying for prominence, as shapes and colors continually establish counter-thrusts. against one another. Each thrust. is confronted by its antithesis in an endless pattern of encounters which suggest the totality of a dialectic rather than a harmonic resolution.

What I have said about Loving may be echoed in other ways about Gilliam because of his color counterpoint and endless organic contrasts. Some similar qualities might be found in the lithographs o fJohn Dowel with their mercurial thrusts and proliferated nature. William T. William’s recent paintings are calm in color but rich with subtle tonal nuances and personal motifs in progressive counterpoints.

Now, I am not saying that Black artists invented visual counterpoint or Baroque sensibility, but rather that a term such as “Baroque” is not all-inclusive and that some Black artists’ works suggest ideas which, through parallel to Baroque sensibilities, seem to have Sprung from elsewhere. This seems to me to be a continuum of African ideas. Even more figurative Black works show schematic counterparts that are not dissimilar in this respect. This seems true of much of the work of some of the very best-known Black artists, such as Jacob Lawrence, Romare Bearden, Raymond Sanders, Emilio Cruz and Ralph Arnold. It perhaps then should not seem surprising that many Black artists say that they find schematic kinship for their work in jazz or in the rhythmic language of the drum or in the speech patterns of many African languages, which are compatible with patterns of the drum.

As I said earlier, some aspects of painting seem to cause discomfiture for some Black artists, perhaps because of absence of a West African tradition in painting. From what I know of many Black artists, their guiding spirit in the formation of their visual patterns have been the rhythmic principle of the drum. I deeply suspect that African drum rhythms (even when played through other New World instruments) have been the strongest inspiration for much visual-design by Black artists on both sides of the Atlantic and that this factor is pivotal to the better understanding of the preoccupation with pattern by many Afro-American artists. Visually, the indigenous African counterpart to the rhythm of the drum is, it seems to me, the rhythmic patterning painted upon African sculptures and masks and the rhythmic proportions intrinsic to their carving. I think that many of the earliest Black artists in America   sensed this relationship between African art and African music. Their first impulse was to realize the feeling through copying African sculpture or making realistic paintings in the manner of African sculpture.

As their ideas have evolved, Black artists seem to have come to realize (sometimes consciously, sometimes not) that what they feel in affinity with African art is not its “look” but its character. For example, traditional West African sculpture moved; therefore, the painted surfaces took on a different quality to what was first seen in museums. In stasis these works lose much of their dynamism. I think that it is partly with the recognition of African art in motion and with sounds as part of its context, that many Black artists have “broken through” to a vision which realizes the spirit to which they feel kinship and have evolved a sense of visual structure based on the psychology of the schema’s character, rather than the actualness of its look. This sense of rhythmic structure, characteristically involving pattern through counterpoint, is,I feel, an indelible part of the “Black Diaspora.” I have met very few Black people, in different parts of the world, who did not feel strong kinship to African rhythmic structure. This has been more apparent in music, perhaps because music being non-material, can be projected to more people than painting or sculpture, which require a physical presence. Nevertheless, I have known few Black artists anywhere who have escaped the urge to translate the rhythmic experience into visual form.

One noted artist who has evolved a personal vocabulary that includes a feeling for rhythmic counterpoints is Emilio Cruz, who at present lives in Chicago. In fact the present large-scale involvement with abstract infinitude resembles ideas that Cruz explored some ten years ago when he did some really beautiful field paintings. Recently Cruz has been working figuratively, with flat shapes on shallow ground or in sharp silhouetted contrast to the ground. While Cruz’s ideas involve highly intellectual metaphors, I feel that his approach to space usage and shape-making relate to the flat forms of ancient Egypt and to the rock paintings of the Tassili. Cruz’s ideas are not subservient to any culture, but he does seem to assert foundations of his African past through a sophisticated pictorial language that challenge: some of the outer limits of our sensibilities today. In a previous article (NAE, February 1979), I explored ideas of silhouetted form characteristic of a Pan-African abstraction. While Cruz need not be seen as part of that tradition, his work might, nevertheless, serve as a major example of two-dimensional possibilities, evolved to some degree outside an immediate European-American tradition.

There are, of course, many outstanding Black artists who have not been here discussed, since this can be but a sampling. I have not discussed at all aspects of the already well-documented “Afro-American-ness” of artists like Lawrence, Bearden Crichlow, Woodruff and company.

Moreover, many Black artists’ works seem to have no significant or tangible relationships to an Afro-American experience. For example, although I know of a number of people who have written of the African aspect of Richard Hunt, especially as to his vernacular use of metal, it is not a quality that I have yet perceived. However, I know his work well and join the legion who believe that he is one of the finest artists of our time.

Hunt may be a great artist, as I believe, thous I feel quite comfortable talking about his work entirely outside of an Afro-American framework. So it should be with many other Black artists; may they thrive. But if and when their work reflects African or Afro-American tendencies, these should be fully taken into account if we hope to do justice to a totality of the artist’s vision.


KEITH MORISSON has written art criticism for several journals including the New Art Examiner. A painter who has exhibited internationally, he is a professor of art at the University of Maryland, College Park.