White Like Me

John Haber
in New York City

Black Abstraction and Midnight's Daydream

Black artists face more than a few problems, only starting with a history shaped by others. Illustrating black themes puts one in an art-world ghetto—at the 2006 Whitney Biennial, all but physically cordoned off. Refusing to do so may make the art world dismiss them as evasive, self-indulgent, or downright inauthentic. It should already seem a false choice.

Art at its most vital need not face dilemmas head on. Art generally has a way of sneaking up on me, and two exhibitions within a year snuck in through very different doors. At the Studio Museum in Harlem, "Energy/Experimentation" surveys an often-forgotten decade, when black artists tried on another allegedly white role, that of abstract painters and sculptors. It also continues its impressive annual program of studio artists with "Midnight's Daydream," in 2007 with Demetrius Oliver, Titus Kaphar, and Wardell Milan II. Together, they raise tough questions about what constitutes a truly African American art—and why any artist should feel the burden of producing just that. Melvin Edwards's Cotton Hang-Up (Studio Museum in Harlem, 1966)

I had a dream

The Studio Museum in Harlem does something very special: it goes quietly about its business. Not that the museum lacks for guts and ambition. It is, after all, asking for attention to contemporary black artists. Yet its shows often have a modesty others might do well to emulate. They invite one to relax, respond, and settle in, and that is exactly when the creative possibilities start to flow.

Since Thelma Golden took over in 2001, the museum has had two surveys of emerging artists. That keeps pace with P.S. 1, yet she let neither exhibition grow half so frenzied. One could even remember the art. In the same way, when the museum considers "Black Artists and Abstraction," it makes remarkably little fuss about rewriting recent art history. Even a focus on a single prominent artist, Gary Simmons, made its impact with relatively few, large works.

Part stems from space constraints, part from Golden's style and convictions. She and her associate curator, Christine Y. Kim, imply an important and controversial claim: issues of diversity and black identity will emerge best if one does not try to define them once and for all. And they select art accordingly. Part, too, stems from going about the museum's business of encouraging young artists. This includes an annual display of its artists in residence that puts the studio back in the Studio Museum.

The 2007 version sticks to just the rear level, as if taking one behind the scenes. In fact, it feels very much like a studio visit. The title, "Midnight's Daydream," even hints at a reluctance to claim the spotlight. One gets to see three artists playing with ideas, and if they do not quite have them worked out yet, so be it. All three have two or three distinct bodies of work that do not quite converge. All play games with the viewer seeking convergence.

One, a photographer, gets one wondering not just what is going on in his photos, but what has gone wrong with the museum. The other two litter their work with references and withhold a healthy chunk of the footnotes. Hey, they seem to say, anyone can play, so give it your best shot. I know I did, gratefully.

Demetrius Oliver, who also appeared in the 2006 survey of emerging artists, is the last artist one sees, along with props as makeshift as spare tools or a slice of limp bacon. He is, however, the first one hears, with what sounds like a problem with the smoke detector. If his stage sets hint at ludicrous black stereotypes, Titus Kaphar and Wardell Milan II look more directly for role models.

Black history month

That problematic sound persists, just below the level of rudely stealing the show from the others. Only as one gets all the way around the mezzanine does the whistle grow loud enough that one has to pay attention. Right around that time, one spots a tea kettle without either a heat source or water.

A long row of photos, set out like diary entries, further extends Oliver's studio. They show him and his props, not all right side up—and all supposedly reflected in the kettle. Instead of a virtuoso Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, the artist offers a portrait of the artist on the cheap. Less-interesting photos turn animal pelts into constellation charts. They pun on names like the dog star, a hint that Oliver is slyly pulling together his map of the self and world.

Kaphar copies seventeenth- and eighteenth-century paintings before taking them apart. Some portraits, left unstretched, scrunch up in their display cases like the Wicked Witch after a bath. Others come with big holes, because they have lent one figure to a neighbor. An erect white male with perhaps a slight resemblance to Thomas Jefferson falls into the lap of a black woman, and a former slave by Anne-Louis Girodet faces off with an English aristocrat. A count-duke by Diego Velázquez rides off into the floor, and a notably robust black man peeks into Diana's bath by François Boucher.

Kaphar may like the period art for its stiffness, for its sexuality, or for its mix of old money and enlightenment ideals. He may like it, too, for its hesitant discovery of a black person's dignity. It may even point to the origins of a certain slave-holding democracy.

Milan favors more active confrontations, including photo collage somewhere between Black History Month and the cover of Sgt. Pepper's. A church may house anything from a black risen Christ to a Northern Renaissance lament for the more familiar one. Others jumble mystical gardens and urban backyards, Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., young bodybuilders and old ruins. Better toss in a few family albums—with the artist himself never far away.

Cut-up boxing scenes take on the delicacy of paper flowers, and charcoal drawings hover somewhere between epic battles and a dance. Just who is dreaming, and whose masculinity is at stake? Is that really a problem? And who are all those people? Like the show's title, "Midnight's Daydream," the work of all three artists suggests a great deal but may or may not parse cleanly. The good news is that they all want art to mean a lot.

Lab manual

Any attempt to recover black artists for abstraction, or vice versa, all but begs for one to argue back. "Energy/Experimentation" sticks to years when experimentation seemed to many to have lost its energy, although Norman Lewis was still alive. In the late 1960s and the 1970s, abstraction still dominated in theory and practice, but the years before Postmodernism long appeared a dead end. If older artists like Willem de Kooning got along just fine, thank you, and younger models like Elizabeth Murray and Gladys Nilsson pushed against Modernism's limits, no one could deny that those limits existed. Or could they?

I had heard of only a few artists at the Studio Museum, with such "new black heavies" as Melvin Edwards and Sam Gilliam, and it omits Martin Puryear, Richard Hunt, and Stanley Whitney. None of them breaks the mold, at least not too overtly. A title here and there—such as Trane or Free, White, and 21—alludes to the real world, but so does Frank Stella when he picks New York neighborhoods for Stella's early paintings. Perhaps only Gilliam can suggest the diversity of materials and the disruption of formalism in abstraction today, when artists can cover almost any surface, play with the ambiguity of image and object, quote the past as past, or weave in almost any allusion. For the most part, they embrace the constraints, especially when one notices their breaking the rules.

One could almost mistake any of them for someone more familiar, except that something always seems ever so slightly askew. Edwards adopts welded constructions out of David Smith, but they descend like creatures of the night rather than rise like totems. Haywood Bill Stevens has the caked paint and simple geometries of Alfred Jensen, except for the white that keeps shining through. The acrylic dabs of Alma Thomas suggest the light touch of Joan Mitchell or Helen Frankenthaler, but with the density of Pattern and Decoration. Frank Bowling pours his verticals like Morris Louis and gives them the formless ground of Jules Olitski, but up close they appear surprisingly opaque.

The betrayals extend to white artists of much the same generation. Al Loving plays with the illusion of solid geometry, but his Septahedron occupies a space too confined and conflicted for Al Held. William T. Williams could pass for Stella, but without the deductive logic. Consider that refusal of deduction the real theme. Instead of cutting-edge experiment, the show lets one watch a science experiment blow up in one's face, and I relished the explosion. It does not reflect a more considered dialogue with the past in abstract art now, but it suggests an impatience with abstraction then—and right at its supposed peak.

One could keep citing examples without doing justice to everyone. I hate to make the artists seem like copycats or, conversely, forgotten greats. Rather, one encounters a decade dying to copy others and feeling the strain. Plenty left me cold, like Fred Eversley's translucent geometric sculpture, not unlike LA Minimalism. However, it may take black artists as outsiders to remind one now that abstraction never entirely belonged to insiders.

Does the Studio Museum tempt one to give up asking who speaks for black America? Surely it should. Political art is not going away anytime soon, and neither are themes of identity and the disenfranchised. Yet who gets to speak still depends on who is paying. And when it comes to art, people are paying a lot. Consider, though, the possibilities when artists do not simply follow the market, and many do not. They hold out hope for seeing work as African American without cutting it off from shared dreams.

Voices and choices

When Kara Walker looks at America, she sees it, literally and figuratively, in black and white. And she seeks the roots and varieties of that division in the aftermath of a civil war as well as the Trump era. When young artists today or abstract artists of the 1970s look, they look almost entirely to the moment and to art itself. When Chris Ofili looks to his roots as a black man, he ranges from Africa to Trinidad, but he has no obligation to see how black Africans once made a dark passage to the Americas. Can any of these artists claim to speak for art or race in America now? Should they bear that burden in the first place?

Authenticity went out with the avant-garde. Why blame artists who look at and create multiple, shifting identifies? Why blame David Hammons for indeed embracing a black artist's invisibility? Besides, color has too many associations of its own when it comes to art anyway. Who can even say that a black artist has avoided the issue? And yet those very associations give black art a still richer potential, so why not let artists explore it?

No one truly can speak for others, not even Kara Walker, much less for race in America. Who, then, can call black artists to account if they do not? And yet artists give voice to others all the time. Who can complain if they try? Artists and viewers encounter the world quite well as individuals. Why worry if black artists are finding their own voice?

Sure, false choices embody contradictions, but art thrives on contradictions. With "Freestyle," "Frequency," "Flow," and "Fore," the Studio Museum explored how identity itself emerges obliquely for young black artists. The first included Julie Mehretu. an artist who, like Gary Simmons, spins fantasies across a wall. She appeared as well in what the Whitney has called "Remote Viewing."

The choices, too, come down to the position of the artist between the personal and political, and that position has always given new life to political art. I have myself asked whether Jean-Michel Basquiat meant it when he played the outlaw for a largely white audience, but in a recent show pairing him with Jean Dubuffet, the Frenchman's primitivism looks phony by comparison.

There is no easy way for a black artist. In their different approaches, these exhibitions turn that choice into art. Can a white man criticize reductive histories and abstraction's step outside history without adding to the racism, or should they even put me in the position of asking? Those questions, too, may merely add to art's pressing and heady mix.

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"Energy/Experimentation: Black Artists and Abstraction: 1964–1980" ran at the Studio Museum in Harlem through July 2, 2006, "Midnight's Daydream" through October 28, 2007.


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