Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 20, 2020
Generations: A History of Black Abstract Art
Baltimore Museum of Art, September 29, 2019–January 19, 2020
Melvin Edwards: Crossroads
Baltimore Museum of Art, September 29, 2019–January 12, 2020
Every Day: Selections from the Collection
Baltimore Museum of Art, July 14, 2019–January 5, 2020
Every Day: Selections from the Collection, installation view, Baltimore Museum of Art, 2019–20 (photograph provided by Baltimore Museum of Art)

Three recent exhibitions at the Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA) reflected an important shift in priorities for that institution. The first and largest, Generations: A History of Black Abstract Art, presented a selection of over seventy works from the Pamela J. Joyner and Alfred J. Giuffrida Collection as well as the BMA’s permanent collection. The exhibition was curated by Katy Siegel, the BMA’s senior research curator and Eugene V. and Clare E. Thaw Endowed Chair at Stony Brook University, and Christopher Bedford, Dorothy Wagner Wallis Director at the BMA. Generations stands out as a significant contribution to the multigenerational history of American abstraction. It showcased twenty-seven artists who have, some more often than not, been omitted from mainstream exhibitions, including Alma Thomas, Edward Clark, David Hammons, Sam Gilliam, Jack Whitten, Barbara Chase-Riboud, Gary Simmons, and Howardena Pindell, among others. There were also installations by Melvin Edwards, Leonardo Drew, Shinique Smith, and Kevin Beasley. Siegel and Bedford explained in the accompanying gallery text that the exhibition served to reexamine the scope of abstract art and present a synthesis of different black voices who each maintain an individual relationship to abstraction.

Generations reflected the new program that Bedford, who assumed his tenure as director of the BMA in 2016, and Siegel have sought to bring to the museum. The city’s population is 63 percent African American, and exhibitions like Generations can express and reflect the museum’s sense of place within the community. Therefore, it is important to note that in a separate wing of the museum, Siegel and Bedford curated another expansive exhibition, Every Day: Selections from the Collection, which featured nearly fifty works by black artists working since the postwar period, some of whom also appeared in Generations. This exhibition figured black artists as central to the BMA’s permanent collection, and Bedford and Siegel’s programmatic overhaul is a crucial first step that begins rectifying historical imbalances that persist in mainstream museum practices.

One of the main themes of Generations was the interrelated concepts of memory and place. Large-scale works by Jack Whitten, Julie Mehretu, Mark Bradford, and Martin Puryear filled the first room of the exhibition. Whitten’s 9/11/01 (2006) consumed an entire wall. Its monumentality memorializes the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, which occurred while Whitten lived in New York. The work’s material composition—soot, ash, tire tread, and glass—imbues it with a tactile, architectural quality and pronounced sense of place. As an abstract, allegorical work it modernizes the tradition of history painting and speaks to Whitten’s relationship to the historical event while symbolizing a collective national identity. Immediately adjacent to Whitten’s work was Julie Mehretu’s Fever Graph (2013), a layered composition that, upon closer inspection, reveals the architectural plan of Tahrir Square and signals the events and uprising of the Arab Spring. Mark Bradford’s My Grandmother Felt the Color (2016) details an abstracted grid of Los Angeles where the artist grew up. Its mostly neutral color palette of creams and tans is punctuated by aggressive sections of red and black. Bradford comments that the work visually manifests the racial violence, riots, and protests now woven into the historical fabric of the city’s topography. Together, these works foreground the importance of place as well as the role of the individual voice, with each artist engaging abstraction to consider social and political concerns. 

The next area of the exhibition featured artists paired thematically, temporally, and stylistically in smaller alcoves. Norman Lewis and Alma Thomas, the two chronologically earliest artists in the exhibition, greeted the viewer first, their paintings aptly positioned in opposite alcoves and in visual dialogue with one another. Lewis’s Abstract Expressionist works and Thomas’s Color Field paintings introduced the viewer to the early history of black artists working in abstraction. Immediately following the two were contemporary artists Glenn Ligon, Jennie C. Jones, and Charles Gaines, a curatorial choice that thrusted the viewer into a dizzying temporal space spanning generations, underscoring the decades of artistic contributions black artists have made in the area of abstraction. It also emphasized, immediately and palpably, how Siegel and Bedford intend to challenge and expand institutional interpretations of abstraction. Aptly, Lorna Simpson and Gary Simmons followed Ligon, Jones, and Gaines. Their additions reinforced the themes of memory, imagination, and the manipulation of time and linearity. Indeed, each artist in this area incorporates temporality in different ways, yet together their works invited the viewer to contemplate the passage of generations of black artists working abstractly.

While Siegel and Bedford’s overarching thematic choices were exciting and intellectually nuanced, how they grouped specific artists in the alcoves warrants particular attention. For example, I was initially struck that Glenn Ligon and Jennie C. Jones occupied the same space. Ligon’s Stranger #68 is part of a series, begun in 1997, in which he duplicates sections of James Baldwin’s 1953 essay “Stranger in the Village” in text-based paintings that from afar resemble soot-covered grids of black bricks. Baldwin writes that white America has “made an abstraction of” blackness, which results in the erasure of African American voices from American history. The work, in which the text is covered in soot and difficult to read, highlights the tension between speech and the efficacy of words. Jones’s use of sound, music, and silence complements Ligon’s paintings: her sculptural works, which include black piano keys mounted on canvas, a noise-canceling instrument cable hung from the wall, and acoustic absorber panels, attest to the ways in which white America appropriated African American music and cultural influences while excluding African American artists. Whereas Ligon appropriates black speech in order to consider and complicate the social construction of race, Jones highlights the ways in which white America’s appropriation of black music reifies the construction of race. Some of the strongest contributions of Generations were the unexpected and refreshing choices that invited the viewer to re-reflect on artists, their works, and their works’ relationship with one another.

Although I found its curatorial approach to abstraction intriguing and important, Generations could have provided narrower boundaries in some instances. For example, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s large-scale portrait paintings occupied an entire alcove and initially stood out as conceptually at odds with the rest of the artists in the exhibition. I would posit that Yiadom-Boakye’s paintings likely contributed to the show’s narrative in that the subjects do not represent real people; they are painted and given life from the abstract space of her imagination. The wall text explained that Yiadom-Boakye is “embracing some conventions of historical European painting and avoiding others.” Thus, in a broader sense, Yiadom-Boakye also abstracts the canon itself. If European portraiture symbolically points to forms of hegemonic power—wealth, status, colonization—then Yiadom-Boakye challenges this power dynamic by engaging with European history through portraiture. While I appreciate the subtle narratives that informed Generations, in a way it became too abstract. I wonder to what extent Generations presented an urgent addition to the mainstream art world but could have been tighter, and thus louder, in its message.

One of the artists to feature in both Generations and Every Day, Melvin Edwards was also the subject of a smaller solo exhibition at BMA curated by Siegel. Melvin Edwards: Crossroads focused on work produced since 1980, a few years after the artist visited Lagos and began regularly traveling to the African continent. A large abstract sculptural work constructed from rusted steel dominated the first full room, and the viewer was invited to walk through and around it. A long narrow room was lined on either side with Edwards’s Lynch Fragments series, creating a sense of actual and metaphorical movement through repetition and seriality. Hung at eye level, the works are composed of chains and other objects of violence that become eerily suggestive of abstracted, decapitated heads. Edwards’s Agricole (2016) filled the final room; its thick chains and menacing hook dangled at torso level. The work signifies a tool of agriculture, yet the hook possesses a sinister undertone and additional reference to violence. In Lynching Fragments and Agricole, Edwards considers the brutality of slavery in American agriculture, while also offering an implicit comment on national identity and how America’s early economy only grew and became established because of slavery.

Crossroads thus figures as a conceptual extension of Generations. It framed Edwards’s sculptures with an introductory documentary film excerpt that depicts the artist working in his studios in Ghana and Senegal. As Edwards narrates, the camera follows his working process and emphasizes his individual art making in both countries. He forges a deeper connection between the memory and violence of slavery, which he communicates through his sculptures, and Africa as both a literal place and a symbolic space that contains this collective history. Through place, Edwards’s relationship to cultural memory and history reminds me of how European modernism appropriated and incorporated African objects into art, an act of cultural violence that willfully ignored colonized people while appropriating their objects. Overall, Crossroads connected viewers to Generations and Every Day, emphasizing recurring themes of place and memory.

Generations was a visually arresting and conceptually nuanced exhibition. In pairing it with Every Day and Crossroads, the Baltimore Museum of Art demonstrated an important ideological shift in museum collecting and curating, one that will hopefully extend beyond its own halls.

Alison Singer
Doctoral Candidate, Department of Art and Art History, University of Maryland, College Park