The Pleasures and the Perils of Abstraction

Choose Paint! Choose Abstraction!, the Museum of the African Diaspora, San Francisco

Jordana Moore Saggese

       It has been 45 years since artist Raymond Saunders famously declared, “black is a color.” In an era of social activism, Saunders argued for his own indifference to the whims of those who placed the burden of politics on black expression. “Art,” he wrote,” projects beyond race and color, beyond America. It is universal, and Americans — black, white, or whatever — have no exclusive rights on it.”   Untitled, n.d. Arthur Monroe, (b. 1934). Courtesy of the Museum of the African Diaspora, San Francisco

       The techniques of abstraction held promise for Saunders, who like many postwar artists, began to look outside of figuration and the explicitly social functions of art in order to explore their own subjectivity. This at first existential and later modernist turn was certainly in line with that of the so-called mainstream. Artists like Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Hedda Sterne and Clyfford Still had already made clear the potential of abstraction to express the human condition (a condition shared by all artists but seemingly dominated by white, male artists on the East Coast). Yet, still in 1967 — the time of Saunders’s emblematic essay –- many critics still considered the techniques and concerns of abstraction and modernism as irrelevant to artists west of the Hudson or across the color line. As a consequence, many histories of abstraction have failed to include the contributions of African American and West Coast artists, despite recent scholarly efforts to document this history. Gone, 2005, Squeak Carnwath (b. 1947). Courtesy of the Museum of the African Diaspora, San Francisco

       Installed in the top-floor gallery of the Museum of the African Diaspora, Choose Paint! Choose Abstraction! presents an eclectic mix of works from the early 1970s to the present by nine artists working along the spectrum of abstraction. According to exhibition curator Lizzetta LeFalle-Collins, the eclecticism of selected works reflects the distinct spirit of West Coast abstraction —a hybrid of East Coast Abstract Expressionism and the Figurative Abstraction more often associated with the Bay Area. The West Coast brand of abstraction complicates the perceived divide between a focus on content and one on aesthetics. WMD: Remembering Sardanapalus, 2004-2006 Robert Colescott (1925-2009). Courtesy of the Museum of the African Diaspora, San Francisco

       The exhibition’s large-scale paintings by Arthur Monroe (b. 1934) certainly reveal the Abstract Expressionist influence on Bay Area painting. Spending his formative years in New York, Monroe was closely associated with many of the great innovative artists on the East Coast in the 1950s. In one of three quotes included in the exhibition, Monroe attests to the impact of the music and the painting of this period: “If I had not been sandwiched between jazz and Abstract Expressionists, I would have lost my way and my chances to paint.” Works such as Untitled (shown here) are marked by his training at the Art Students League and in the studio of Hans Hoffmann. Light Blue, 2007 Dewey Crumpler (b. 1949). Courtesy of the Museum of the African Diaspora, San Francisco

       Monroe’s lively swaths of paint lift boldly off the canvas, giving dimension and texture to its surface. The dense layers of paint in rich hues — grounded by broad strokes in black and white —draw the viewer into the all-over composition. It is unfortunate that the artist’s four paintings seem unsuited to the awkward spaces of the gallery. One work is left entirely to its own dark corner; the others seem too tightly confined by the low ceilings of the gallery. Yet, despite these limitations in scale, these compositions inspire grandeur. His exquisite juxtapositions of color and form position Monroe as one of the standouts of the show. Mirage, 1989, Jay DeFeo (1929-1989). Courtesy of the Museum of the African Diaspora, San Francisco

       The recent works of Squeak Carnwath are also exemplary of the West Coast abstract style.  Five are included in the exhibition.  Trained at the California College of the Arts and Crafts (MFA, 1977) and currently a professor emeritus at University of California, Berkeley, Carnwath brings an existentialist legacy into the present. Sounding overwhelmingly like Jackson Pollock, she claims in a quotation placed alongside one canvas, “If I’m lucky, there will be a painting in there but I’m not worried about knowing in advance. I don’t want to know.” Grape Vine, 2009, Mike Henderson (b. 1944). Courtesy of the Museum of the African Diaspora, San Francisco

        Like many of the 36 works on view, Carnwath’s mixed-media canvases are a fusion of color, pattern and image. The 2005 painting Gone, for example (shown here), includes a pattern of laureled heads in black paint (a frequent motif for Carnwath) repeating horizontally across the bottom edge. These heads are bisected — three on the left and four on the right — by a large patterned band of color. The randomly alternating blocks of orange, purple, red, yellow, blue, grey, black and green divert attention from the black-and-white palette of the remainder of the canvas, their bold rectilinear shapes contrasting with the black circles painted to either side on the white ground.        Carnwath’s composition is an evocative exploration of both pattern and color. Yet, Gone also suggests an epistemological interest. The initials above each of the identical heads along the bottom (“A.T.,” “V.F.”, “I.P.”, and so on) imbue them with individuality; yet, smears within the paint obscure several of the faces, making them both strangely specific and anonymous simultaneously. Yellow Dog Walking Along SF Street, 1972, Joan Brown (1938-1990). Courtesy of the Museum of the African Diaspora, San Francisco

       Carnwath’s concerns also include the linguistic, as demonstrated by the text that runs vertically along the sides of her 90 x 80-inch-canvas: "ABANDONED NEVER GONE NEVER FAR LOSS HAUNTS WILDERNESS OF EMOTION…” Each poetic phrase conjures an emotional subjectivity that runs counter to the cool abstraction made paradigmatic by postwar modernist criticism. Winter on the Grove, 2004, Leslie K. Price (b. 1945). Courtesy of the Museum of the African Diaspora, San Francisco She Thought She Could Fool the Zebra With Powder and Paint Trying to be Something She Just Ain’t, 2007, Mary Lovelace O'Neal (b. 1942). Courtesy of the Museum of the African Diaspora, San Francisco

       In fact, while LeFalle-Collins’s selection illustrates the spectrum of abstraction, one could claim that the lack of context rehearses a formalist bias. Aside from a gallery guide that includes biographical sketches of the artists and short curatorial statement, the majority of text included in the show comes from the exhibited artists in the form of quotes placed alongside their works. Unmoored from any other specific context (personal, art historical or social), however, these labels might be more distracting than didactic. Perhaps we are suffering from an identity politics burnout? Or does abstraction truly transcend issues of identity, as Saunders claimed nearly half a century ago?

       The fact that Carnwath is one of three white artists included in Choose Paint! Choose Abstraction! –that is, in a museum explicitly dedicated to the African diaspora –- certainly seems worthy of discussion. On the one hand, such diversity in artist selection attests to the ability of abstraction to perhaps transcend bodily limitations. It also creates a larger potential audience for the museum. Yet, to be honest, I could not help but wish for more explicit engagement of the issues of race within the exhibition. Certainly the large Robert Colescott composition that greets the viewer upon his or her entrance to the exhibition inspires such discussions.

       Hung on the wall directly opposite the entrance, alongside a diptych study in watercolor, Colescott’s A Stroll Through the Neighborhood (1986) possesses all the hallmarks of the painter’s distinctive style. Dark-skinned figures in brightly colored clothing pack the visual space of the composition. Known for his dark satirical paintings of African American life, here the late painter (a native of Oakland) took on the subject of economically depressed black neighborhoods and the entrenched violence of these areas. At the very center of the composition we see a gun, held against the cheek of one black man by another. This violent act undercuts the joviality of the scene, but also complicates the seeming neutrality of abstraction.

       Colescott’s accompanying quote emphasizes the form over the message of this particular scene. “I like to make paintings that look good,” he claims. “If they have that quality, one day, when the subject matter is completely worn out, people will stop responding in shock. They might not even know what these paintings are about . . . . I want these paintings to be valued because of the way they look as paintings.”

       Colescott makes clear here his distaste for privileging the subject at the expense of its form; to do so would certainly place many painters at a disadvantage. Yet, to ignore Colescott’s subjects completely is a mistake. One certainly could not argue that the issues of poor black neighborhoods or black-on-black violence have become irrelevant.

       As LeFalle-Collins recognizes in her curatorial statement, the paintings speak “to the engagement of the artists in the private space of each painting’s picture plane.” The resulting isolation means that Choose Paint! Choose Abstraction! is not a very cohesive exhibition in terms of chronology or theme. But it does succeed as an open exploration into the practices of Bay Area abstraction. I can only hope that it inspires a more critical and prolonged discussion about the pleasures and the perils of abstraction in the 21st century.

       Choose Paint! Choose Abstraction! was on view at the Museum of the African Diaspora through September 23, 2012. Other artists in the exhibition include Joan Brown, Dewey Crumpler, Jay DeFeo, Mike Henderson, Mary Lovelace O’Neal, and Leslie K. Price.

 Jordana Moore Saggese, Ph.D., is assistant professor of Visual Studies and Affiliated Faculty for the Graduate Program in Visual & Critical Studies at California College of the Arts.