Soul of a Nation: A Report from the Age of Black Power
We made it to the de Young in a little over an hour via BART and Lyft. Golden Gate Park was beautiful, cool and sunny, with far fewer people than we’d expected, even for a Thursday afternoon. We’d heard this show was great and had been looking forward to it. Our first impression did not disappoint: a dynamic, typographic mural spelling out “UNITE,” with raised fists superimposed, stood at the entrance to the museum. The mural turned out to be a detail from a large screenprint on paper by Barbara Jones-Hogu, a founding member of the Chicago artists’ collective AfriCOBRA, or the “African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists.” The group’s manifesto, authored by Jeff Donaldson, proclaimed as follows:
It’s NATION TIME and we are now searching. Our guidelines are our people – the whole family of African people, the African family tree. And in this spirit of familyhood, we have carefully examined our roots and searched our branches for those visual qualities that are more expressive of our people/art.
A set of amazing collages by Romare Bearden kicks off the show. Group portraits of people living their lives in the city bear close, patient viewing. The composition of collaged fragments mirrors the composite nature of the human being: We are made of many. In Pittsburgh Memory, the man in the foreground is too close, his face exploding into incommensurate shards. The man on the right regards us with skepticism, hand on chin. The stairs lead up to a public housing structure.
In her catalog essay, curator Zoé Whitley writes of “[a] synthesis that reconciled abstractions and figuration in Bearden’s oeuvre not as two opposing positions but as a compositional continuity.” The abstraction inherent in collage may possess a transformative power. As Bearden himself wrote, “I feel that when some photographic detail, such as a hand or an eye, is taken out of its original context and is fractured and integrated into a different space and form configuration, it acquires a plastic quality it did not have in the original.”
Such transformative reconfiguration is emblematic of the Black experience. Perhaps Ralph Ellison said it best when he wrote, “Bearden’s meaning is identical with his method. His combination of technique is itself eloquent of the sharp breaks, leaps in consciousness, distortions, paradoxes, reversals, telescoping of time and surreal blending of styles, values, hopes and dreams which characterize much of Negro American history.”
A number of artists included in Soul of a Nation have preferred pure abstraction to symbolic or narrative structures, among them, Alvin Loving, Joe Overstreet, Howardena Pindell, Jack Whitten, Martin Puryear, Sam Gilliam, and William T. Williams. Many faced censure from Black Nationalists who accused them of selling out to white aesthetics. Yet all insisted on what Whitten termed a “Black sensibility.” Sam Gilliam, whose multi-colored, tied, folded and draped canvases beg the difference between painting and sculpture, had this to say: “Figurative art doesn’t represent Blackness any more than a non-narrative media-oriented kind of painting, like what I do.”
Whitten, who died just last year, used rubber and metal squeegees to create large paintings such as The Eighth Furrow, in which the painted surface is scraped and scored, as if the artist were working a field, revealing under layers suggestive of buried histories.
Born in 1909, Norman Lewis was part of the abstract expressionist generation, and by the mid-1960s he had been painting abstractions for almost twenty-five years. Despite his strong preference for aesthetic values over social or political meanings, during the period of the Civil Rights Movement he began to connect an aesthetically chaste black-and-white palette with the realities of Black life in America. This moment is exemplified by America the Beautiful, which at first may strike the viewer as a handsome, abstract composition of white, almost calligraphic, brush strokes on a jet-black field. Only these white figures are human forms with peaked hoods, pikes, and a cross, emblematic of the Ku Klux Klan. The jarring double take performs a frame shift from the aesthetic to the political. There is no way back.
Roy DeCarava is a modern master of the art of photography. The pictures here are all in mid-range gray tones, often fading toward darkness. Within that narrow range, human surfaces — and depths — are exposed to a dim light. The result is a surprising intimacy. DeCarava is known for his candid photos of jazz musicians, here including John Coltrane, Elvin Jones, and Ornette Coleman. His magnificent portrait of Malcolm X is an image of dynamic leadership in a moment of crisis. On view as well are several images of urban environments that border on abstraction, such as Staircase tracks and doorway, c. 1965.
A big discovery for us was Ming Smith, a marvelously dramatic photographer of the Black musical demimonde. Her candid portraits of Grace Jones and Sun Ra are fantastic: Sun Ra is caught on the bandstand, a diaphanous spray of cosmic vibrations emanating from a moving, otherworldly figure; Grace Jones appears at a more reflective moment backstage. Smith’s self-portrait reveals her to be one of her own most arresting subjects.
We learn that “Melvin Edwards began the Lynch Fragments shortly after the 1962 murder of Ronald Stokes, an activist and member of the Nation of Islam killed by a Los Angeles police officer.” Edwards used recycled industrial materials to create totemic figures, like Afro-Phoenix #2, which signifies new life rising from the ashes of the old. The artist’s customary use of steel recalls the importance of iron in West African music and art. Iron invokes the Yoruba orisha Ogun, deity of warriors, hunters, and blacksmiths. Cuban popular music celebrates iron whenever the bongo player puts down the drums and picks up the bell. Iron in Edwards’ work also invokes slavery. Curtain (for William and Peter), 1969, is a conceptual sculpture made of strands of barbed wire and chain.
Noah Purifoy’s Untitled (66 Signs of Neon) immediately assaults the viewer with the aggressive visual presence of a foregrounded made of burnt wood; black with organic deterioration, it has a pungent visual feel. On continued viewing this burnt shape appears as a tree, with three horizontal forms describing ground, lower branches, and upper branches. In the background we glimpse a pop landscape of broken signage; washes of color hang above, finely drawn grass below. The eye returns to the charred remains in the foreground. Withal the painting evokes the terror and resistance of a burnt-down house.
After a career as a designer in Los Angeles, Purifoy ran the Watts Towers Arts Center, protecting the landmark built by the Italian immigrant Simon Rodia. In 1965, sparked by an incident of police discrimination, six days of riots broke out in Watts resulting in thirty-four deaths and widespread damage to shops and other buildings. Purifoy saw the Watts rebellion as not only an insurrection against discrimination but also a rejection of consumerism. He gathered debris from the riots and created abstract assemblages for a touring exhibition called 66 Signs of Neon.
“The ultimate purpose of this effort,” Purifoy wrote, “was to demonstrate to the community of Watts, to Los Angeles, and to the world at large, that education through creativity is the only way left for a person to find himself in this materialistic world … Art of itself is of little or no value if in its relatedness it does not effect change.”
References to African art and cosmology appear throughout much of the work in Soul of a Nation. For example, Bettye Saar presents a masked icon representing Eshu (a.k.a. Eleggua), the orisha of the crossroads who guards the boundary between life and death. The use of natural materials — leather, wood, straw, and feathers — calls forth a people at home in nature, where art and life are not separated by commercial categories. Rather, they interpenetrate to represent a culture where spiritual values are expressed through ceremonial practices and daily chores are performed with consummate artfulness.
Shown in an AfriCOBRA exhibition at the Studio Museum in Harlem, Wadsworth Jarrell’s Liberation Soldiers depicts Black Panther leaders Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale through a kind of psychedelic pointillism in red, yellow, orange, mauve, and black. The images flicker in and out of focus as they vie with luminescent zigzags and exploding auras of concentric ovals and dots. A reduction in dot size brings focus to faces and fists. Silver foil worked into the canvas unites the two central figures and adds flash to an already sizzling composition. Here abstraction and representation coalesce in an alternating electrical current that combines revolutionary iconography and expressionistic flamboyance.
Faith Ringgold’s work is often bitingly satirical. Stars and broad stripes are superimposed on a trio of cartoon characters, a Black man in a dark turtleneck, a white woman in a pale dress, and a white man in suit and tie, their arms linked. Red blood drips at random from the stripes and from the hearts of the two men. The Black man holds his right arm over his heart while his left hand holds a knife. What’s going on? Good question, but it doesn’t look good. In a self-portrait, Ringgold arranges circles and ovals in a limited palette of reds, greens, and blues to represent herself within an abstract design that might easily appear on a piece of fabric or the side of a drum. Her forearms are cupped in a gesture of containment, while her facial expression is clear-eyed, resolute.
On their surface, Martin Puryear’s sculptures are purely abstract. Yet the thinking behind them can be quite specifically worldly. For example, his sculpture For Beckwourth appears to be a peaked mound of dry, cracked earth on a square wooden base. The work projects a singular, commanding presence but no immediate story. We learn, however, that the sculpture “re-imagines a mountain or burial mound to memorialize legendary pioneer James Beckwourth (1798—1866). The son of a white man and an enslaved African-American mother, Beckwourth became an explorer, mountain man, fur trader, tribal leader of the Crow Nation, and US Army scout. Puryear later reflected, ‘I often think of his migration from the humblest origins to a kind of kingliness.’”
The representation of the Black body reaches an apotheosis in the work of David Hammons. His painting features prints made by greasing up bodies, often his own, and pressing them onto paper before coating the paper with pigment and sometimes adding collaged materials such as wallpaper or cardboard. Black First, America Second (1970) features facial and body prints of two identical males clinging to the folds of an American flag. Bag Lady in Flight (1975) comprises a series of greasy shopping bags fanned out to represent the wings of a mythological bird, striped feathers spread wide, while also gesturing toward Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase (1912). Later Hammons began to string clumps of Black hair onto wires to create “hair gardens” in his studio, in snowy fields, and on the beach.
In a profile of Hammons in The New Yorker, Calvin Tomkins describes the ways in which the reclusive artist is embracing, albeit on his terms, a world he has evaded for much of his career. A major retrospective at Hauser & Wirth’s big new gallery in Los Angeles opened in May; the Whitney Museum will soon unveil “Day’s End,” a monumental tribute to conceptual “anarchitect” Gordon Matta-Clark, whose 1975 work by the same title involved massive cuts in the walls, roof, and floor of Pier 52, an abandoned pier shed on the Hudson River. “Uncreated” on the sly, Matta-Clark’s work was demolished in 1979. Hammons’ tribute will be an immense structure of stainless-steel rods the length of a football field. Under the direction of the Whitney, the estimated seventeen-million-dollar project has been authorized by the city, the state, and the Army Corps of Engineers.
“Jazz is the most abstract of all music,” wrote William T. Williams in response to criticism to the effect that abstraction is counter to the historical prerogative of Black culture. His densely layered, hard-edged, brightly colored, rectilinear forms display a kind of improvisational rigor that emulates the cascading sounds of some of his favorite musicians, including Coleman Hawkins and John Coltrane.
The show closes with a series of photographs staged by Lorraine O’Grady, a controversial performance artist who styled herself as Mademoiselle Bourgeoise Noire. Her previous work conveyed an institutional critique of both white-dominated museum culture and Black alternative art spaces.
In September 1983 she entered a parade float in the Harlem African American Day Parade. O’Grady hired fifteen male and female dancers to carry gold frames, disembark from the float, and interact with the crowd. The performance lasted eight hours. Out of more than four hundred photo images the artist selected forty. In this work, O’Grady breaks down the barriers between abstraction and figuration, between the artist and “the people,’” and between art and life.
Whether through radically charged abstraction or a fervent celebration of the Black body, the artists in Soul of a Nation share a common ground in both the legacy of colonialism and the persistence of African culture. Their work speaks to us, through the intervening decades, of a spirit of resistance and a vision of liberation. In these dark times, such art conveys the courage of the undefeated.
Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power is on view at the de Young Museum in San Francisco through March 15, 2020. All quotes in this essay, unless otherwise noted, are from the exhibition catalog.