Can abstract art be about politics? 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. It was a period of intense protest for racial and gender-based equality, and of passionate opposition to the Vietnam War. And in cultural spheres, critics and artists themselves were articulating and resisting the longstanding exclusions of women and artists of color from the art world and its definitions of great art, especially great modern art. How should artists address and participate in these urgent struggles against war, sexism, and racism, and how, and what, should they paint?
Abstraction in the early 1970s played an especially fraught role in these emerging debates. One of the arguments against abstraction was the strong sense that it represented a retreat from politics and protest: an abnegation of a commitment to racial justice and civil rights. Fred Eversley, known for his minimalist sculptures of pastel, machine-fabricated convex shapes, recalled the criticism of his work in the black community at the time: “What is a pink disc going to do to help me get free?” In equally complex ways, women artists wrestled with abstraction and its relationship to gender and the status quo and were forced to “defend” their abstract work against stereotypes that it was too feminine (a charge against Helen Frankenthaler’s color field canvases), or too angry (in the case of Joan Mitchell’s gestural work).
Abstraction, Color, and Politics in the Early 1970s presents ambitious, large-scale works of art by four leading American artists of the era: Helen Frankenthaler, Sam Gilliam, Al Loving, and Louise Nevelson. By exploring their specific aesthetic choices of different forms of abstraction through the lens of the political climate of the period, the exhibition sharpens our understanding of the connections between visual art, hierarchy, and power then, and what we might glean from it now, in our own politically turbulent times.