As a black artist and writer, I have often asked myself: what does it mean to make black art? Is my art required to reflect my blackness? I went into the presentation of 1971: a Year in the Life of Color on Sept. 25 with these questions on my mind, and left with even more questions that I’ve asked myself in the following weeks.
In the talk, Mark Gibson, the Yale School of Art’s Assistant Dean for Student Relations engaged in a discussion with Darby English, an art history professor at the University of Chicago. English’s book, 1971: a Year in the Life of Color was released last year by the University of Chicago press, and the two talked about abstraction and art in relation to the Black Experience and the cultivation of a Black Art Aesthetic.
The audience was mostly composed of students from the Yale School of Art who all looked artsier than I did and who were well-versed in the jargon of museums and art movements that English threw around in his presentation.
A large portion of the beginning of his talk focused on the intricacies of black abstract art in the 1960s and 1970s — who was making it, what museums were showing it and what black artists were doing to counter the invisibility of their work. English recounted the story of the formation and work of the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition (BECC), an organization founded in 1969 by a group of African-American artists in response to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibit entitled “Harlem on My Mind,” which failed to include a single black African-American painter or sculptor. As a result, the BECC published a list of 12 demands of every major art institution in New York, calling them out on their lack of representation of African-American art.
English emphasized the “aesthetic integrity” and “moral courage” it took to be a black abstract artist at a time when “black artists were expected to make art that looked like it was made by a black person.”
Later on the conversation, I was struck by English’s anecdote about the history of an art exhibit in Houston (my hometown) that was known as The Deluxe Show. Peter Bradley, an American painter and sculptor, was asked by the de Menil family (a prominent Houston family of art patrons) to curate a black art show for them in Houston. In English’s words, Bradley told them that he didn’t “do” black art shows; he would make them a good art show.
Bradley hired a black contractor to renovate a rundown movie theater in a historically black and impoverished neighborhood and convert it into an arts space. The exhibit that resulted was The Deluxe Show, which opened in 1971 as the first racially integrated abstract painting and sculpture exhibition of significance in the United States.
The account struck me for two reasons. The first was Bradley’s commitment to bringing black art to black people, and giving it the same respect as white abstract artists in a community that likely would not have access to such art otherwise.
The second was English’s follow-up to the anecdote. The Deluxe Show, despite being groundbreaking and one-of-a-kind, went unnoticed by the art world at large.
“It was an amazing show that no one saw, really,” English said. New York art critics refused to fly out to Houston for the show. The reporter for Time, the only publication of note that was going to cover it, got sick; the magazine didn’t send anyone in his place.
Even though the stories that English features in his book are nearly 50 years old, the relegation of black art to the sidelines is one that continues today. Black artists are pressured to make art that reflects the “black experience,” or, more often than not, a white preconceived notion of the black experience. And while representations of the black experience are necessary, abstraction is a liberating space in which artists can be anything and tap into the universal. Through color and abstraction we are free from the restrictions of our physical color. We can make art for art’s sake.
Blackness is a question with myriad answers. There are as many forms of blackness as there are forms of expression. As consumers of art, we have to recognize and uplift the stories and forms that fall outside of the mainstream. And as artists? We just have to let ourselves be free.