Black Abstraction: Felandus Thames, Rodney McMillian, Sam Gilliam, and Theaster Gates
-Claudia Rankine, “Citizen: An American Lyric”
This virtual exclusive exhibition explores the intersection of abstraction and race through four artists: Felandus Thames, Rodney McMillian, Sam Gilliam, and Theaster Gates. Art history often associates abstraction with an absence of traits that mark out identity. For example, many minimalist artists like Donald Judd or Sol LeWitt aimed for the reduction of the artist’s hand.
Nevertheless, abstraction does not exist in a vacuum. In the concurrent Heather James virtual exhibitions, “Jewish Modernism Part 1” and “An Invisible State”, evidence identity influencing abstraction abounds. Would Abstract Expressionism, particularly the New York School, exist without Jewish artists and art critics like Lee Krasner, Adolph Gottlieb, Clement Greenberg, or Harold Rosenberg? The San Francisco School of Abstract Expressionism also found influences from East Asia and with many Asian Americans, like George Miyasaki and Emiko Nakano at the forefront.
And it is not just artists of color actively taking part in a field of abstraction which is free of identity. As evidenced by artists in our concurrent exhibitions, as in this one, race, class, and gender can also frame and be framed by abstraction.
In one of the clearest examples of the intersection of abstraction and socio-political history, Felandus Thames’s works delve into the issues of identity and ethnology as reflected through readymades. Posing difficult questions of representation, these artworks present cropped or repeated images of body parts that appear as both themselves and aesthetically pleasing abstractions.
Rodney McMillian shapes his work around the socio-political history of the United States even through abstraction. For the exhibited works, like abstract expressionists of yore, McMillian pours and drips paints. Furthermore, in using household paint, thrift store clothing, and other industrial materials, McMillian mines issues of economy, accessibility, and even temporality as the materials are inherently unstable and non-archival. The “post-consumer item” (e.g. the suit and sheets in “Flag”) further emphasizes the human body, particularly of black bodies, while layering additional meanings of loss, of consumer culture, and of home.
Sam Gilliam’s artwork in the exhibition forms a synthesis of his career, including shaped supports and subtly built up fields of color, suggesting the influence of jazz musicians like Miles Davis and John Coltrane. Here, in its raw and shaped edges and layer of colors, the hand of Gilliam is clear and present.
One of the most important contemporary artists, Theaster Gates also works as curator, urban planner, and project facilitator, all of which form and inform his practice. Gates’s art often takes the formal qualities of abstract art, which he then uses to touch upon issues of race, class, and gender in American society. Thus, his visually beautiful works are also rooted in the wider principle of social action. At first glance, the artworks in the exhibition look like minimalist sculptures. Nevertheless, Gates, through formal technique and the use of certain materials, imbues these objects with questions on labor and race. Unlike other minimalists who choose materials that invoke the impersonal industrial, Gates has chosen his media for the humanistic meaning.
“Convex Concave” repurposes custom-made bricks that Gates had previously used for “Black Vessel for a Saint” at the Walker Art Center. The bricks become a painting-like sculpture that formally looks like Sol LeWitt or Carl Andre but ask us to consider the labor of making bricks, and the original context of the installation at the Walker.
In the other works, Gates has elevated scarred construction material so that minimalist totems brim with questions of industry and of what remains of buildings that have been demolished.
Within the works in the exhibition, the artists posit ideas that history and politics do not just touch art but are ever present and ever influencing. The art history of abstraction becomes recontextualized within socio-political history and visual language, not that abstraction was ever free from these topics. Abstraction becomes a dialect in which to speak to our current and historical presence. As McMillian notes, “History is present tense. It’s present for me.”
“Memory is a tough place. You were there. If this is not the truth, it is also not a lie.”
-Claudia Rankine, “Citizen: American Lyric”