The Ironies of Diversity, or the Disappearing Black Artist
In spite of what seems to be an acceptance of diversity as a cultural and social fact of life, both in and outside of the art world, black artists are, for the most part, still largely consigned to a narrow conceptual space in which to operate.
This is particularly true if they have any hopes that their work will become a part of the larger critical discourse. This narrow space of expectation is one which both precludes and discourages them from focusing on the vast range of art history and practice as the source of their work, and instead encourages an ongoing, never-endingreexamination of an all too familiar racial terrain, confined largely to the black stereotype and an endless inspection of the forever beleaguered racialized self.
I believe that this 'boxing in' of art-making aspirations is as reinforced in academia as it is within the art world itself. The history of art practice within the last two decades warrants a critical reading if we are to begin to unravel, contest and ultimately change this condition. It is not my purpose here to assert anew the primacy of a high modernist paradigm. Rather my intention is to foreground what was lost when critical and institutional attention became disproportionately lopsided in favor of a limited set of art-making strategies, and a group of artists subsequently disappeared, or were subsequently shielded from public view.
In light of several recent revisionist looks back at the 1980s, it might be instructive to examine this era as it relates to the presence of African American artists, since -- with the exception of perhaps Jean-Michel Basquiat -- they have been largely rendered invisible in these histories.
In the early 1980s, the African American painter William T. Williams, a maker of densely layered abstract paintings -- who early in his career had been a practitioner of hard-edge geometric painting -- was the first black artist to be included in the H.W. Janson text, The History of Art.
This book, which had been the standard academic art history text for several decades, had indeed been exceedingly slow to acknowledge the role of black artists in the making of that history. So, Williams' inclusion was seen as something of a breakthrough at the time. Excluded for so long, Williams now found himself placed squarely within the history of art. But things were changing. No sooner had Williams found himself included in the Janson text than that text itself -- along with much of what had been considered the canon -- began to be questioned by revisionist art historians.
Just as quickly as he had found himself acknowledged, William T. Williams was again relegated to the shadows as this more oppositional and less canonical sense of art history began to exert itself. He became the proverbial baby who got tossed out with the bath water, trapped in the revolving door of art history and deposited squarely on the sidewalk without ever having really gotten a look around at the exalted -- and now devalued -- company he had kept.
In addition to Williams, a host of black artists continued to remain largely unknown. This in spite of the fact that they show in major museums throughout the world, including the Whitney Museum and the Museum of Modern Art, and have works housed in museum collections too numerous to mention here. There were several Guggenheim and National Endowment for the Arts fellowships between them. And more importantly they remained active.
The law of averages being what it is, such a performance is usually enough to ensure an artist at least an occasional a high-profile exhibition, which then hopefully receives a certain amount of critical attention, which then keeps the artist and his or her work present in the current discourse.
Certainly, this absence cannot be chalked up to age and fashion alone, since any number of white artists of a similar position remain very visible on the art-world radar, in spite of the vast range of formal and conceptual strategies that they deploy in their various works and the shifting critical climate that surrounds them. Their works may be variously successful and out of step with whatever the prevailing orthodoxy might be, but nonetheless a space for them at the discursive and critical table is always found, and indeed they never seem to go out of fashion.
Sadly, the same cannot be said for Ed Clarke, a pioneering painter of gestural abstractions; Jack Whitten, whose paintings have also been an ongoing investigation into process and material; Mel Edwards, a sculptor whose "Lynch Fragments" works fuse the tradition of welded sculpture with deep social and political content; and Al Loving, Terry Adkins, Tyrone Mitchell, Stanley Whitney, the late Alma Thomas, Barbara Chase-Riboud, Charles Burwell and other African American artists who still fail to receive their due.
And while Howardena Pindell may have gained notoriety for her seminal video, Free White and 21, and her art-world activism that helped pull the sheets off of the institutional racism of the art world, she is familiar to only a few for her earlier work, which made her one of the breakthrough black conceptual and formalist artists of the 1970s and early '80s.
It is instructive then to look at the various texts that began to both shape and document art production in the 1980s. For while Janson and its ilk had established a canon that was exclusive in the extreme, the new texts, by selectively filling in the racist and sexist art historical gaps, began to inscribe yet another orthodoxy. Most of the work that began to come to the fore proposed a view of art and art production as a largely -- if not solely -- social construct and practice, and thus began to favor those artists who were engaged in the debate around issues of representation.
The field of semiotics became a critical point of departure in art discourse. For artists of color the prevailing discourse came to center almost solely around issues of race and representation. And while these new texts did indeed do much to foreground new and previously excluded voices, I also believe they were terribly disruptive and had a deleterious effect, since they completely eliminated or ignored whole categories of art production that were still taking place among black art practitioners. It seemed that in order to create an unbroken linear progression towards the moment of multicultural postmodernity, any artists whose works that did not fit this unbroken revisionist trajectory were conveniently eliminated.
Consequently, as the multicultural movement in the art world continued, black artists ironically found an increasingly narrow space to work in if they wanted to engage in a critical dialogue or simply remain visible. The move towards pluralism, contrary to what it implies, ironically only allowed for a certain kind of black art practitioner.
The closing off of these spaces of expressive and conceptual possibilities has had dire consequences not only for the careers of black artists, but for black art students as well, who then find themselves faced with a set of diminished strategies and references in terms of how black artists are represented within art history. And while one would be foolish to argue against the power that emerges in some of these young and not so young artists work, one can only lament the sense of truncated possibility that work represents in light of the limitless possibilities that actually do exist. The effective erasure of alternate black esthetic role models and strategies has thus led to a very shallow pool from which a narrow set of ideas are dredged.
In spite of this, younger artists such as Jerald Ieans, whose large paintings are filled with undulating biomorphic forms; Louis Cameron, whose brightly colored floor-based works both reference and subvert the Minimalist tradition of Carl Andre and others; and Julie Mehretu, whose large, densely layered "mappings" are just as rooted in a formal tradition of mark-making as they are in the discourse around globalism, have continued to edge onto the map in what is hopefully not only a "post-black" moment, as curator Thelma Golden has described it, but a post-theory one as well; a moment when orthodoxies -- both left and right -- are finally exploded.
Such recent exhibitions of black abstract artists such as "African American Abstraction" at George N'Namdi Gallery in Detroit, "No Greater Love" at Jack Tilton Gallery in New York, and "Quiet As It's Kept," curated by David Hammons at Galerie Christine Konig in Vienna provide a much-needed affirmation that alternate art-making strategies for black artists do and have long existed outside of the dictates of race and representation theory, and are again being recognized.
Likewise the appearance of the Black British abstract painter Frank Bowling in the most recent edition of the Venice Biennale, in the "Fault Lines" exhibition curated by Gilane Tawadros of London's Institute for International Visual Art (inIVA), provides a much-needed sense of historical continuity and context.
For the most part -- with a few notable exceptions -- the critical response to these efforts remains muted at best. It's anyone's call as to why this remains so. No doubt everything from market forces and changing fashion along with a healthy dose of good old American racism come into play here, along with a younger generation of art historians and curators whose collective memories and formal training allows them to feel comfortable consigning anything produced before the 1980s to the torpid dustbin of retrograde modernism.
Factor in the quality issue -- as in, "They haven't succeeded because they're not good or original enough" -- and you've got a real pot boiler of a debate over why black visual artists are not accorded the same creative levity as black musicians. We don't, after all, expect Sade to be Cassandra Wilson, or presume that Black Eyed Peas operates out of a more legitimate musical construct than Roy Hargrove.
What makes this schism easier to perpetuate, perhaps, has to do with the failure of certain artists to acknowledge their own roots in modernist practice. Glenn Ligon, for example, prior to the textual works that established his reputation, was a maker of abstract paintings. That these paintings have never been shown diminishes a crucial historical continuity, a fact that is belied by the densely layered surface of many of Ligon's paintings, which provide evidence, in fact, of a pleasurable material engagement.
For all of this, the art world's table still doesn't appear to be large enough to seat those black artists whose works function within a paradigm of a high-modernism that doesn't obviously foreground race. Apparently such an investment in the high-modernist paradigm is acceptable for black artists only if there is also the attendant dissonance of race, as it is in the racially caustic but formally rigorous work of Ellen Gallagher, whose production has often been compared in its cool understated formalism to Agnes Martin.
Where then are the structures to support true diversity; a diversity that encompasses a complex conceptual vision of black humanity and art practice that takes up the challenge of mirroring early 21st century American hybridity in all of its multifarious glory? For black artists and black art students I suspect that we are going to have to create these structures ourselves, since the art world seems to have little need, tolerance, or understanding for those who continue to work outside of the narrow confines of the art world's intellectual and conceptual coon show.
It's anyone's guess then as to what it will take to lift this collective blindfold off of so many eyes and to recognize a history that while largely ignored is indeed is still very much in the making.
Dawoud Bey began his career as a photographer in 1975 with a series of photographs, “Harlem, USA,” that were later exhibited in his first one-person exhibition at the Studio Museum in Harlem in 1979. He has since had numerous exhibitions worldwide. The Walker Art Center organized a mid-career survey of his work in 1995 that traveled to institutions throughout the United States and Europe. A major publication, Dawoud Bey: Portraits, 1975-1995 was published in conjunction with the exhibition. Dawoud Bey’s works are included in the permanent collections of numerous museums, both here in America and in Europe.