Abstraction, Color, and Politics in the Early 1970s
Think for yourself.
by John Carlos Cantu
From the January, 2019 issue
Abstraction, Color, and Politics in the Early 1970s at the U-M Museum of Art is for those who like a little courage to go along with their art. The exhibit has been curated by UMMA director Christina Olsen with a tantalizing ambiguity whose boldness holds the whole thing together in four heroically scaled artworks mounted in the museum's upstairs Taubman Gallery II.
Olsen says in her gallery statement, "Can abstract art be about politics and identity? In the early 1970s, that question was hotly debated as artists, critics, and the public grappled with the relationship between art, politics, race, and feminism."
Olsen then goes through two introductory paragraphs to unpack the implication of her guiding question--and then nothing--no additional commentary. The artworks themselves are described only by title, artist, date of execution, medium, and provenance.
Olsen clearly means for us to think for ourselves--and this may be the single most audacious element of her exhibition. The four artists on display--Helen Frankenthaler (1928-2011), Sam Gilliam (1933-), Al Loving (1935-2005), and Louise Nevelson (1899-1988)--are mid-twentieth-century masters. Two white women and two African American men. That makes Olsen's guiding question fascinating: were these artists working from within social and political perspectives?
Nevelson's massive 1971 "Dark Presence" is a superb three-dimensional assemblage of found wood pieces--manufactured odds and ends--that she painted black and assembled as a totemic, sculptural wall. The monochromatic scheme makes it both dramatic and spooky.
Frankenthaler challenges the supposed masculinity of Abstract Expressionism with her 1969 acrylic on canvas, "Sunset Corner." This magnificent painting is easily the equal in size, execution, and energy level of any abstract artwork crafted during this testosterone-fueled period of American art.
Loving's 1971 acrylic on canvas, "Bowery Morning," has all the sharp-edged geometric heft and intellectual rigor of any artist in this period.
Gilliam's stunning 1972 wall-sized synthetic polymer on polypropylene, "Situation VI-Pisces 4," is a handsome drapery with a subtle hint of nineteenth-century French Chinoiserie mingled with lyrical post-painterly abstraction.
Were these artists oblivious of their social and/or political circumstance? Or were they pointedly using abstract art to subtly communicate these (and other) broader themes? Maybe the best part of this bravura exhibit is that Olsen--like these artists--lets us decide for ourselves.
The exhibit runs through September 29.
[Originally published in January, 2019.]
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