Abstraction, Color, and Politics in the 1960s & 1970s

Part II 6/1/2019 - 2/20/2020

Artists, critics, and the public grappled with the relationship between art, politics, race, and feminism and, in particular, took artists of color to task for making abstract art that did not overtly display their commitment to civil rights and racial equality legibly enough. As the decade marched wearily on, however, other questions emerged, such as: Was abstraction truly “apolitical”? Might abstraction also carry cultural and historical specificity? The notion that abstraction was a purely formal and American art form, concerned only with timeless themes disconnected from the present, was met with increased skepticism in the midst of the political and cultural upheavals of the 60s and 70s.  

These debates became urgent for the next generation of abstract artists, who embraced conflicting, mutable, paradoxical, and personal forms of expression. Black artists took control of their own imagery, feminist art matured, and black feminist artists emerged—contending with the power dynamics of both race and gender. There was no longer one road to the market, critical ascendance, and celebrity; abstraction and sociopolitical concerns could be examined in tandem and expressed with a new intensity. Women artists and artists of color actively and assertively explored abstraction’s possibilities, including incorporating mathematics and improvisational uses of color, musical rhythms, and poetry. Artists began collaging, cutting, weaving, and punching their materials with a new physicality. An array of options within abstraction materialized: sculptors experimented with printmaking; painters moved from the figurative to the abstract and back; handmade papermaking lost its craft designation; and new media appeared within content that no longer needed to be “pure.” 

The artworks on view demonstrate the radical changes in how artists worked and what they thought their art was about. Their strategies dramatically transformed the practice of abstraction in the 1960s and 1970s in a politically shifting American landscape. 

Vera Grant

Deputy Director, Curatorial Affairs and Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art

UMMA gratefully acknowledges the following donors for their generous support:

Lead Exhibition Sponsors: University of Michigan Office of the Provost, Michigan Medicine, and College of Literature, Science, and the Arts

Exhibition Endowment Donors:  Richard and Rosann Noel Endowment Fund, Herbert W. and Susan L. Johe Endowment, and Robert and Janet Miller Fund

University of Michigan Funding Partners: Institute for Research on Women and Gender, School of Social Work, Department of Political Science, and Department of Women's Studies

Charles McGee
lithograph on paper
30 5/16 in. x 22 3/8 in. ( 77 cm x 56.8 cm )
Gift of the Michigan Workshop of Fine Prints.
David Diao
acrylic on canvas
88 ¼ in x 88 in (224.16 cm x 223.52 cm)
Gift of Dr. and Mrs. Joseph A. Gosman
Richard Hunt
hand-made paper on paper
16 5/16 in. x 21 5/16 in. ( 41.5 cm x 54.2 cm )
Museum Purchase
Beverly Pepper
Abstract Composition
etching on paper
18 7/8 x 25 1/4 in. (47.9 x 64 cm);26 1/8 x 32 1/8 in. (66.2 x 81.5 cm);18 7/8 x 25 1/4 in. (47.94 x 63.98 cm)
Gift of Plunkett and Company
Helen Covensky
color lithograph on paper
22 1/4 in x 30 in (56.5 cm x 76.2 cm)
Gift of Detroit Workshop of Fine Prints
A vast surface of orange yields in the very bottom of the painting to a swath of yellow, under which there is a line of white and green, and under that a thin black line.
Helen Frankenthaler
Sunset Corner
acrylic on canvas
121 in. x 92 7/8 in. x 1 1/2 in. ( 307.34 cm x 235.9 cm x 3.81 cm )
Museum Purchase
An assemblage of wooden boxes painted black. The boxes are mounted on top of each other and each box contains carved pieces of wood in various shapes. 
Louise Nevelson
Dark Presence III
painted wood
97 in x 140 ¼ in x 10 in (246.38 cm x 356.24 cm x 25.4 cm)
Gift of Bobby Kotick
Grace Hartigan
Variations on Clark's Cove
watercolor and collage on paper
28 ½ in x 22 ½ in (72.39 cm x 57.15 cm);35 15/16 in x 31 in (91.28 cm x 78.74 cm)
Gift of W. Hawkins Ferry
Abstract colorful shapes of circle and square with lines.
John T. Scott
Spiders Don't Work on Weekends #2
gouache on paper
6 13/16 x 6 7/8 in. (17.3 x 17.46 cm)
Gift of Dr. James L. Curtis
McArthur Binion
color lithograph on paper
21 15/16 in. x 30 1/8 in. ( 55.7 cm x 76.5 cm )
Gift of Detroit Workshop of Fine Prints
Mary Jane Bigler
22 11/16 in. x 29 3/4 in. ( 57.7 cm x 75.5 cm )
Gift of F. Bruce Kulp in memory of former docent Karlene Daenler Kulp
Howardena Pindell
Kyoto (Positive/Negative)
etching and lithograph on paper
26 ⅜ in x 20 ½ in (66.99 cm x 52.07 cm)
Museum purchase made possible by the David G. Parkes Memorial Fund


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16 Collection Object Sources

Untitled (1976/2.81)
Untitled (1978/2.22)
PP II (1979/2.93)
Untitled (1975/1.54)
Sunset Corner (1973/1.813)
Dark Presence III (2016/2.119)
Untitled (1975/1.53)
Sirocco (1999/2.9)
Elegy #6 (1981/2.189)
Untitled (2016/2.194)
Fire Engine Red (1997/1.136.1-2)
Composition (2000/2.123)

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April 15, 2020 11:47 a.m.


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