10.30.17 — Still Bearing Witness

The art of Barbara Chase-Riboud should remind anyone to treat African Americans as critical to the mainstream, even were the followers of Donald J. Trump not determined to shut them out. Like Melvin Edwards, she is grounded in Modernism and resolutely abstract. Yet both in turn ground Modernism in a broader history, from slavery to Malcolm X.

They appeared in “Witness,” a show about the 1964 Civil Rights Act at the Brooklyn Museum in 2014, and both were in their mid-twenties at its passage. Fifty years later they are still bearing witness, in gallery exhibitions on a scale that a museum would envy, only much of what they see lies within. I wrote about them together in 2014 (along with an African American painter, Eugene J. Martin). Barbara Chase-Riboud's Matisse's Back in Twins (Michael Rosenfeld gallery, 1967/1994)Allow me, though, to revise my thoughts considerably in light of an incredible series by Chase-Riboud in memory of Malcolm X, at Michael Rosenfeld through November 4. It has me rethinking completely my hesitancy about her monuments. It also has me appreciating all the more her command of materials, her depth of color, and her play between a monument and its support.

Both artists have worked on public monuments, although Chase-Riboud also intends her series as sculpture for its own sake. Edwards completed his Homage to Poet Léon-Gontran Damas in 1981, for the State University of New York at Purchase. Damas, a founder of the Négritude movement of the 1930s, sought to affirm black identity in opposition to French colonialism. The monument’s circle, touched by uprights of welded steel, quite literally looks to Africa, taking its orientation from the sun. And his most recent work attests to over forty years of engagement with Africa, in his travels and with a studio in Senegal since 2000. He incorporates machetes and shackles in small constructions hung from the wall spanning fifteen years alone.

Chase-Riboud, too, has exhibited two broad bodies of work. Pencil sketches from 1997 proposed public monuments, while steles of bundled silk and bronze from roughly 2007 pay tribute to Malcolm X—as do bolder and larger monuments woven and cast in 2016 and 2017. A patina of black, red, or gold brings a shine to fine threads and thickly knotted cords, which mask the work’s support. Other steles take fabric as their subject as well as material, with a majestic robe for Chairman Mao or the stripes of a golden flag. She called her 2014 show “One Million Kilometers of Silk.” I lost count, but I can well believe it.

Both remain close, too, to late Modernism, much like another African American sculptor, Richard Hunt. Edwards relies on the same processes as Mark di Suvero. He also shares with di Suvero, a founder of Socrates Sculpture Park in Astoria, Queens, a dedication to communities. For all his allusions to Africa and the slave trade, his materials belong to urban America as well. One recent series clusters its welded parts at the center of four-by-four wire grids, another on disks curving outward like hubcaps. They relate both to formalism and to the streets.

Chase-Riboud shares her dark mysteries with white artists herself, like the steles and Surrealism of Louise Nevelson or the craft and knotted fabric of Sheila Hicks—and she has lived in France for much of her career while casting bronze in Italy. Does she assert a woman’s pride as well as an African American’s in exile? Does all that blood red and shimmering gold have something to do with sex? A writer as well as a sculptor, she is best known for a novel about Sally Hemmings, Thomas Jefferson’s mistress and slave. And the subjects of those unfinished monuments run to the Marquis de Sade along with Nelson Mandela. Signs of bondage have more than one history.

Among the LA artists in “Now Dig This” in 2013 at MoMA PS1, Edwards was at his most abstract. Yet the title of his contribution alluded to the Watts rebellion. Chase-Riboud has her share of white role models, with proposed monuments to Lady Macbeth and Oscar Wilde as well as Malcolm X. Yet her overpowering sensuality also parallels African totems in women’s shoes for Willie Cole. Their reshaping of materials brings Edwards and Chase-Riboud closer to one another as well. Her silk takes on the solidity of his steel as if it were the work’s base, while he called a work from 1966 Cotton Hang-Up.

The question keeps recurring: is there a uniquely black abstraction, and is it then any less black or any less abstract? These artists move easily between Post-Minimalism and the world, with no apologies for either one. Her monuments may have no obvious relationship to their subjects, but her silk and bronze still trap one in their tangles and their shine. Both artists deserve much more credit alongside their white peers. Now, at last, Chelsea takes note.

Read more, now in a feature-length article on this site.

5.31.17 — From Billie Holiday to Proust

In 1969, fresh out of grad school and a newcomer to New York, William T. Williams entered the collection of the Museum of Modern Art. MoMA must have thought it knew what it got. (Hey, a watchword of late Modernism was “what you see is what you get.”) It did not, for already the African American artist was challenging the mainstream.

Those first broad bands of conflicting color, separated by thin outlines, look straight out of Frank Stella—or do they? Stella had introduced his Protractor paintings just two years before, and they are still among his biggest, brashest, and most recognizable works. William T. Williams's Mercer's Stop (Michael Rosenfeld Art, 1971)Seemingly everyone then wanted to be the next great white hope, and no doubt MoMA was looking for him, but Williams? Hardly. His bands run every which way, straightening out, fanning out, snaking out, or overlapping. Tall, narrow paintings like Harlem Angels from 1968 seem cut off by the edge of the canvas, as if glimpsed through a door.

Sometimes what you see is not what you get. Those thin outlines are white, not bare canvas, because Williams does not derive his image, like a proper formalist, from the art object, but rather from experience. Shows have given pride of place to black abstract artists—like Alma Thomas or Jack Whitten, whose tiles of dark acrylic ran just recently at Hauser & Wirth through April 8. And the door-like paintings are six feet tall but barely forty inches across, like a painter standing tall. Their freewheeling style and flirting with illusion also recall white artists who did not quite play by the rules as well, like Al Held and Jack Tworkov. They may still, though, have other stories to tell.

Born in 1942, Williams remembers quilting in rural North Carolina, and his next series took him to near monochrome built from cross-hatching. (Its metallic colors, while still acrylic, return in the show’s most recent work.) He also thinks of jazz with a title like Strange Fruit, after the Billie Holiday song about a lynching. He must think of race, too, in a series from the 1980s. Its colors build to a greater darkness, and the brushwork resolves into hands raised as if scraping against a wall in the throes of death. Paintings from 1988 to 2002 rely on a patchwork of rectangles, maybe an echo of wood siding.

Better not, though, take anything too literally. Williams had his MFA from Yale and fell into a busy New York art scene. The one remaining past series, from the 1970s, divides canvas into just two or three areas, like early Brice Marden. Some paintings have Marden’s muter tones as well, although deepened by contrasts between fields. Flat areas may lie alongside looser brushwork, richer colors, or more quilting. When it comes down to it, Williams is always setting approaches to art side by side, just as in deconstructing Stella. He calls one painting of hands A Note to Marcel Proust.

He does have at least one thing in common with Stella: each time he takes a series to its next step, it changes altogether. His twenty-eight paintings in Chelsea, at Michael Rosenfeld through June 3, start with his latest—in part to give the largest and squarest early paintings enough space in back. Paintings since 2007 fit comfortably by the entry. Their approach to calligraphy, with dry and broken marks in yellow or white over closely matched fields of blue, almost demands close quarters. Yet the reverse chronology also insists that he did not begin in New York or quit in 1971.

Not every gallery can transform a tight show into a serious retrospective like this one, and not every series has equal weight. The best do the most to explore a vocabulary for painting, a bit like formalism after all. The early band paintings still do it best, like palettes or color wheels flying across the room. The paintings from the 1970s do it more subtly. The paintings spanning the 1990s do it, too, with a return to bright colors and distinct brushwork in every patch. One can see why, by their dates, each took Williams more than a decade.

Read more, now in a feature-length article on this site.