Abstraction, Color, and Politics in the Early 1970s

Part 1 9/22/2018 - 5/31/2019

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. In the 1960s, the most celebrated African American artists of the time made representational art, often depicting images of African American life and culture. There was a strong push in that decade for African-American artists to create work that uplifted their community, and promoted social and economic equality for African Americans in clear and legible terms. In different but related ways, women artists of the 1960s were required to “degender” their art of references to female concerns in order for it to be taken seriously. Against this background, critics and artists in the late 1960s began to articulate the barriers to success faced by women and artists of color, and the role that gender and race played in how “great modern art” was traditionally defined and assessed. Abstraction in the early 1970s had an especially fraught role in these emerging political debates around representation. To many, the decision by artists of color to make abstract art seemed to signal a retreat from politics and protest: an abnegation of a commitment to civil rights. In equally complex ways, women artists wrestled with abstraction and its relationship to politics, and gender, and were forced to “defend” their abstract work against accusations that it was either too feminine and delicate, or too angry and physical. This exhibition explores four leading artists’ acts of staining, pouring, draping, and taking part the wall itself as a means of enlarging this political and aesthetic conversation and imbuing abstraction with political, sexual, and cultural concerns.

Sam Gilliam
United States, born 1933
Situation VI–Pisces 4
Synthetic polymer paint on polypropylene
Courtesy of the Williams College Museum of Art

Al Loving
United States, 1935–2005
Bowery Morning
Acrylic on canvas
Courtesy of the Estate of Al Loving and Garth Greenan Gallery, New York


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April 14, 2020 9:56 a.m.


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