Rosen & Binion @ Cranbrook Art Museum

Annabeth Rosen: Fired, Broken, Gathered, Heaped and McArthur Binion: Binion/Saarinen, opens at the Cranbrook Art Museum

Annabeth Rosen: Fired, Broken, Gathered, Heaped (installation view), 2017. Photo by Gary Zvonkovic. Courtesy the artist and the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston.

McArthur Binion, Binion/Saarinen: I, 2018, oil paint stick and paper on board, Courtesy Modern Ancient Brown

Two Cranbrook MFA graduates, Annabeth Rosen (81) and McArthur Binion (73), have returned to the Cranbrook campus at the Cranbrook Art Museum (CAM) as seasoned artists with exhibitions that provide a platform to exemplify their accomplishments. The exhibition opened November 17th, 2018 and runs to March 10, 2019, easily utilizing the spacious galleries, especially the Annabeth Rosen exhibit, which is nothing less than mammoth in its scope.

I’ve written about McArthur Binion before and seen his work representing the United States at the Venice Biennale in 2017, so when this exhibition first came to my attention, I assumed Binion would be my focus.  But the exhibition of his work here at CAM is modest in comparison to the work of Rosen in both the Main and the Larson galleries.  Her work is the artist’s first major museum survey that archives more than twenty years of work. A critically acclaimed pioneer in the field of ceramics, Rosen brings a deep knowledge of the material’s history and processes to the realm of contemporary art.

Annabeth Rosen: Fired, Broken, Gathered, Heaped (installation view), 2018. Photo by Detroit Art Review.

Rosen’s work is curated by Contemporary Arts Museum of Houston’s senior curator, Valerie Oliver, and surveys two decades of her ceramic additive work that has a derivative aspect found in abstract expressionistic art. Her studies at Cranbrook under Artist in Resident Jun Kaneko encouraged her to experiment with non-functional forms and separate her work from the traditional role of ceramics as functional craft. Much of Rosen’s work is assembled with already-fired broken parts which have been reassembled, re-glazed, and ultimately re-fired, adding wet clay to the process.

Rosen says, “I work with a hammer and chisel, and I think of the fired pieces as being as fluid and malleable as wet clay.”

Annabeth Rosen, Fired and glazed ceramic, Bundle, and rubber ties.

The ceramic work is divided up into categories: Mash Ups, Bundles, Mounds and Drawings.  Some of the Mounds are bound together by wire, and others are smaller shapes (Bundles) that have been bound using rubber that might be made from a bicycle inner tube. Rosen began vertically stacking these bundles of ceramic and mounting them on a steel frame set on four wheels.  Rosen has developed an acute interest in non-functional ceramic forms as abstract expressionistic sculpture along with painterly compositions of paint on paper.

Annabeth Rosen, Paint on paper, 2014

It would be impossible to ignore the works on paper as a major force that directly relates to the ceramic work.  These compositions that are constructed with a gestural stroke are both studies and stand-alone work that underpins a philosophical and conceptual driven force behind her sense of creation.  The process in the drawing and ceramic work reveals her hand is symbiotic, where one influences the other.  Rosen seems to muster strength in her drawings as inspiration and influence for the ceramic sculpture work that follows. All the drawings, which could easily be considered paintings, are created without the consideration of color and this seems to this viewer to place the emphasis on the compositional creation of line, movement, shape and space. All the work, ceramic and on paper, is a bi-product of her internal meditations and illustrates a unique utilization and application of materials, techniques and concepts.

Annabeth Rosen, Installation view, Fired and glazed ceramic, and steel baling wire.

Annabeth Rosen studied at Alfred University (BFA) and the Cranbrook Academy of Art (MFA), and has gone on to teach at the Rhode Island School of Design, the University of the Arts in Philadelphia and the Art Institute of Chicago. Since 1997 she holds the Robert Arneson Endowed Chair at the University of California, Davis.

 

McArthur Binion, Binion/Saarinen: I, 2 – 2018, oil paint stick and paper on board, Courtesy Modern Ancient Brown

In Cranbrook Art Museum’s North Gallery, the Chicago-based artist McArthur Binion says that he had a note pinned to his wall for decades that read “Binion/Saarinen”,obviously something that came from his graduate studies at Cranbrook Academy of Art during the early 1970s. This idea is obviously generated from literally living on the campus and being surrounded by the Finnish architecture of Eliel Saarinen who immigrated to America in 1923 after the completion of the Chicago Tribune building in 1922 and who went on to be a visiting professor at the University of Michigan before developing the entire Cranbrook campus for George Booth. Perhaps it was the grids inherent in these architectural structures that made a deep impression on Binion, a Mississippi-born African American who developed his own visual language-based graphic elements, particularly circles and grids.

He says, “My work begins at the crossroads—at the intersection of bebop improvisation and Abstract Expressionism”, and at times he has described his work as rural Modernist.Binion uses oil stick, crayon and, more recently, laser-printed images to create his lushly textured and colored geometrically patterned works. The work in the Cranbrook exhibition is produced on board with small photo printed images as a background field for this tightly knit grid produced with hard pressed oil paint stick. These carefully measured grids and hand-done hatchings cover tiny images that usually have some personal meaning to the artist. In the past, the work often incorporated biographical documents, such as copies of his birth certificate or pages from his address book.

McArthur Binion, Binion/Saarinen: 2018, oil paint stick and paper on board, Courtesy Modern Ancient Brown

These new paintings use autobiographical photo imagery of both Saarinen and himself in their early thirties as a background for his delicate squared-off grid that could be easily described as minimalist abstraction from a distance.  Upon close examination, this personal element attempts to bond the two together, at least from Binion’s perspective.  In addition, the gallery space includes painting, drawings and furniture by Eliel Saarinen.

McArthur Binion’s paintings are largely symbolic and achieve an expressive resonance that defies the reductive materialism of minimalism. They are formed out of an unlikely confluence of influences, including such Modernist masters as  Piet Mondrian, and Wifredo Lam, as well as his own southern African-American heritage, reflected in his mother’s quilts and West African textiles. Persistence and discipline fortifies Binion’s practice and his succinct, richly personal compositions.

His work is included in the permanent collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Washington, D.C.

Binion/Saarinen: A McArthur Binion Project is organized by Cranbrook Art Museum and curated by Laura Mott, Senior Curator of Contemporary Art and Design.

Annabeth Rosen: Fired, Broken, Gathered, Heaped and McArthur Binion: Binion/Saarinen, at the Cranbrook Art Museum runs through March 10, 2019.

 

 

 

 

Art in the Age of the Internet @ UMMA

University of Michigan Museum of Art brings the Boston Institute of Contemporary Art exhibition to its audience.

Penelope Umbrico, 33,930,694 Suns from Flickr (Partial) 9/05/17, 2006-ongoing, chromogenic machine prints. Courtesy of the artist. ©Penelope Umbrico.

In 1969, the United States Department of Defense harnessed groundbreaking technology to relay a message from a computer at UCLA to a computer at Stanford University; it simply read “Login,” but even that was enough to overload and crash the system.  For twenty more years, rudimentary Internet technology remained exclusively in the hands of scientists and government agencies until the creation of the World Wide Web in 1989, which radically democratized the Internet, making it accessible, comprehensible, and useable to anyone. It also irrevocably changed the way we experience the world.  Responding to the thirtieth anniversary of the World Wide Web, the University of Michigan is hosting “Art in the Age of the Internet,” a massive multimedia show which, like the Internet itself, is visually eclectic, immersive, and loud.

Three years in the making, this show first launched in 2018 at the Boston Institute of Contemporary Art, garnering substantial critical acclaim.  As one would expect given the subject, the show liberally makes use of video-art displayed on screens and monitors, but it also includes media ranging from painting, drawing, and photography to emerging technologies such as 3D printing.  The forty works that comprise the show are categorized in five sections: Networks of Circulation, Hybrid Bodies, Virtual Worlds, States of Surveillance, and Performing the Self.  Together they form an impressive ensemble of work by both emerging and established artists, including a few surprise-appearances by artists one might not immediately associate with the Internet, such as Cindy Sherman, but whose inclusion in the show makes perfect sense.

Cindy Sherman, Untitled #463, 2007—08. Cindy Sherman, Chromogenic color print. Collection of John and Amy Phelan, New York. Courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures, New York. © Cindy Sherman

Many works explore the increasingly reality-altering nature of the Web.  A large photograph of the perennially shape-shifting Cindy Sherman seems an apt metaphor for the way many of us might use social media to fabricate idealized narratives about our better selves via Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, or Snapchat (pick your platform) at the expense of authenticity.  Commenting on this photograph of women at a social gathering of some kind, Sherman states that the image “was inspired by the idea of party photos seen so often where people, desperate to show off their status and connections, excitedly pose have their picture taken with larger-than-life-sized smiles and personalities.”  The photograph was taken in 2007, the infant years of social-media, but Sherman’s collective body of work, decades in the making,  prophetically anticipates the way many of us (including presidents and world leaders) painstakingly curate our own images, ideas, and personalities on social media as we present our digital personas to the digital world.

An entirely different commentary on the blurring of digital and actual realities comes from Harun Farocki’s two-channel video Serious Games IV: A Sun with No Shadow, which explores how the US military uses virtual reality technology to prepare soldiers for combat and to treat soldiers who experience post-traumatic stress disorder.  One screen shows soldiers interacting with the technology as another screen relays to us the same simulated combat scenarios the soldiers see.

Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, “Surface Tension”, 2007. ”Trackers”, La Gaïté Lyrique, Paris, 2011. Photo by: Maxime Dufour

The most compelling works in the exhibition are those that address government surveillance technologies; the disclosures in 2013 by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden lend these works considerable weight.  Rafael Lozanno-Hemmer’s Surface Tension is a deceptively playful interactive screen with an eyeball that follows viewers who come within a certain distance; one can’t resist the game of pacing back and forth in front of it, testing its speed and unerring accuracy.  But to work, this installation applies the same military camera used by American smart bombs to pinpoint targets during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  The original iteration of this work was created in 1992, well before the creation of the NSA and the “surveillance state” as it exists today.

Trevor Paglen, “Autonomy Cube”, 2015. Plexiglas box with computer components. (MP# TP—95). Courtesy the artist and Metro Pictures, New York. @ Trevor Paglen

With just under a billion users, more people access the Internet in China than in any other country, but users in China can’t access sites like Google, Facebook, Youtube, Twitter, the New York Times, or thousands of other websites.  Addressing the Great Firewall of China, the country’s censorious implementation of Internet restrictions, artist and activist Xu Wenkai’s Gfwlist is a black, rectilinear monolith which, for the duration of the exhibition, will print out, in encrypted form, a lengthy sheet of  Web addresses blocked by the Chinese government.  In addition to raising awareness of the problem, the artist’s use of encryption suggests a potential way for activists to hack their way towards a solution.  On a similar note, American artist Trevor Paglen’s Autonomity Cube, straddling the boundary between sculpture, technology, and activism, is a functional Wi-fi hub that anonymizes user Internet activity and hides it from surveillance systems.  Though perhaps this work bends more toward pure technology than traditional art, it admittedly recalls some of the work of Bauhaus superstar Maholy Nagy.

Art in the Age of the Internet certainly doesn’t dispiritingly present the Internet as a negative phenomenon, inevitably ushering in a Big Brother State.  Today, anyone with an I-Phone is a potential news-reporter, and social media has been the impetus that has propelled movements ranging from the Arab Spring to #blm.  Driving the point home, a wall of monitors reminiscent of the electronic sculptures of Nam Jun Paik relays algorithmically-sourced footage from the Internet showing police brutality against people of color.  On the one hand, it champions the Internet as a medium that exposes and heightens awareness of the problem, though it also painfully suggests that things haven’t changed much during the interval between the pre-social-media days of Rodney King in 1991 and Tamir Rice in 2014.

A show like this could easily veer toward envisioning a bleakly Orwellian vision of the future. But Art in the Age of the Internet wisely refrains from suggesting that the Internet has been bad for humanity– to do so would be equivalent to railing against the printing press on the grounds that there’s been much bad literature.  After all, while the term “fake news” has only recently gained currency in modern political discourse, propelled largely by the ease with which (dis)information transmits over the Internet, readers can easily find rollickingly laughable gaffs without much difficulty in the Historiesof Herodotus and Pliny the Elder.   Rather, this exhibition dispassionately presents the Internet as an irrevocable facet of modern life, and, for better or for worse, the medium though which we increasingly look, learn, love, and live.

 

Art in the Age of the Internet is currently on exhibition at the University of Michigan Museum of Art through April 17, 2019

Larry Cressman @ K.Oss Contemporary Art

Larry Cressman, Installation, Fieldwork, All images courtesy of K.Oss gallery

Larry Cressman: Fieldwork Exhibition at K.Oss Contemporary Art

Like a straightforward black and white film liberated from the distractions of color and spectacle, the “Larry Cressman: Fieldwork” exhibition at K.Oss Contemporary Art, given its elemental hues, might have been titled “Black and White.” Upon entering the snug, spartan gallery, Cressman’s reductive, purified palette, content (“fieldwork”), and elemental format (rectangles abound) immediately cue visitors: striking displays lie ahead. Whether framed and portable or installational (bare branches hovering an inch or two in front of a wall), the dozen and a half compositions, essentially shallow reliefs, proffer a bevy of intricate, engaging configurations.

Birthed, as they are, from excursions into the fields near his home and studio, Cressman collects the raspberry cane, dogbane, and dried daylily stalks that initiate the process of gestation. Then, as the slender, fragile branches and twigs are joined one to another with nearly invisible wires, dusted with graphite, and mounted on the walls with thin, sturdy pins, his “linear landscapes” fill out and mature. As many as 200 or more conjoined branches may be necessary to scale up to an easel size armature.

Larry Cressman, On Line, raspberry cane, powdered graphite, matte medium, wire, pins, 60 x 90 x 12 inches, 2017-18

In One Line, for instance, a zig-zagging single line, fabricated from a gross of raspberry canes, begins or terminates at upper left or lower right. Swiftly, it carries the eye, body, and psyche some five feet across (and to heights of nine feet) along the jerky, twitchy pathway, like a marathon runner, rock climber, or artist. Further enhancing the journey are the myriad shadows thrown upon the wall that seem to double or triple the length and aesthetic thrum of the journey. Such adrenal feats, like a host of durational endeavors, literal or figurative, both exhaust and exhilarate participants.

Larry Cressman, Podcast IV, dogbane with seedpods, powdered graphite, matte medium, wire, pins, 60 x 36 x 19 inches, 2018

Podcast IV, another large installation drawing, measures six feet in height, and rather than composed solely of branches, incorporates intact the delicate seedpods of the dogbane plant. The seedpods, intended by nature to be wafted to the four corners of the earth, add a decided note of ephemerality to this singular structure. The way a podcast links listener and speaker, albeit fleetingly, is evoked by the flanking vertical forms to either side. Their charged and electric bond, suggested by the overlapping branches and seedpods in tandem with the whiplashing shadows cast on the wall the length of the central section, is delicate and intimate. This ecstatic, sensual interlacing projects from the wall fully 19 inches, the farthest of any of the works in the show. Such animated liaisons between two entities, albeit reciprocal and intense, may however be short and fleeting. So goes the way of all flesh.

Larry Cressman, Gathering Lines, Raspberry cane, powdered graphite, matte medium, pins, 13 x 41 x 2 inches, 2018

Another striking work, distinctly different in kind from others in the show, is Gathered Lines, an ultra- simple constructed drawing (Cressman’s term for framed vs. installation examples of his art). Here, a densely packed, horizontal sprawl of tightly packed, five inch raspberry canes, thirty-three inches in width, floods one’s peripheral vision. Its concise, dark form seems to belie its “soft” title: gathered lines (as in a family gathering/a gathering of friends). Little breathing space or respite is allotted an observer, as the tug toward the tiny, self-protective cluster envelops one’s whole being, effectively obliterating everything on the margins.

This potent, powerful work, like others in the exhibition, embodies the resonance and spectrum of readings that the artist’s “fieldwork” sets into play, while simultaneously offering aesthetic forms and pleasures. Perhaps Cressman’s summary statement, in which he describes “imagery reflective of the structure, randomness, and fragile nature of the constantly changing Michigan landscape” might be amended to embrace the “changing world” in lieu of the “Michigan landscape.”

“Larry Cressman: Fieldwork” is on view at K.Oss Contemporary Art, 1410 Gratiot Avenue, Detroit, through Dec. 29, 2018. Cressman, who received his BFA and MFA degrees from the University of Michigan, is a Professor Emeritus of the university. An Ann Arbor resident, he has lived and worked in Michigan throughout his career, while exhibiting his works across the United States and Europe.

 

 

 

 

Zacarias and Meyohas @ Wasserman Projects

Marela Zacarias: Coatlicue’s Return and Sarah Meyohas: Speculations

Installation view of Zacarias/Meyohas exhibition at Wasserman Projects.   All photo images: PD Rearick courtesy Wasserman Projects

In her recent talk at the College for Creative Studies, Mexican artist Marela Zacarias explained her shift from figurative mural painting to abstract sculpture.  While painting a scarf on a female figure in a commissioned mural, she realized she was much more interested in the abstracted folds and arabesque shapes of the scarf, and its relationship to the history of textiles and women, than in the figure she was painting. Up until then, Zacarias had been painting mostly murals. She explained that the social and political climate when she went to college, particularly at Kenyon College where she was in art school, led her to the political activism of painting murals. Ultimately she combined the sculptural abstract form inspired by textiles, as well as architecture, to create what are essentially abstract sculptural wall reliefs or murals, and unlike a mural, enwrap an object rather than use it as a support.

Marela Zacarias, “Coatlicue’s Return,” 2018, Acrylic on plaster and wire mesh, wood, and milk cartons, 74”x 74”x 74”

In keeping with her site-specific practice and her interest in Diego Rivera’s Industrial murals at the Detroit Institute of Arts, in creating “Coatlicue’s Return,” the title of her suite of sculpture/murals at Wasserman Projects, Zacarias researched Detroit’s material culture through its architecture, landscape and museum collections. She imbued her sculptures with objects and abstract painting that reference a few of Detroit’s monumental icons. Having grown up with and studied the Mexican Mural movement in Mexico she of course engaged with the Rivera’s Industry murals at the Detroit Institute of Arts. The center-piece then of “Coatlicue’s Return” is a large, free-standing undulating sculpture (enwrapping plastic milk crates, artefactual debris from Detroit life, and suggesting Coatlicue’s nurturing identity.) Composed of nine separate interlocking parts, symbolizing the myth of Coatlicue’s ultimate murder and dismemberment perhaps, they nest together like a puzzle. Referencing both the Aztec myth of the Coatlicue, the Earth/Mother goddess of both Creation and Destruction of Aztec culture, and Rivera’s painting of Coatlicue as an enormous anthropomorphized machine, that both creates (cars) and destroys (the worker). The abstract painting on the sculpture suggest Rivera’s decorative Aztec trim in his Detroit mural.

Marela Zacarias, “South Wall,” 2018, Acrylic on plaster and wire mesh, Detroit mirrorized window, 49” x 46” X 33”, “North Wall,” 2018, Acrylic on plaster, wire mesh, Detroit mirrorized window, 69” x 62” x 19”

Composed of wood and screen armatures, manually coated with plaster, Zacarias’ sensuous forms take shape through an arduous sculpting and sanding process. Before being painted, they already have a lively, biomorphic presence reminiscent of French surrealist sculptor Jean Arp. Stretching the definition of mural painting, Zacarias, drapes her sensuous forms over architectural details such as locally found window frames and objects like hanging tire swings, recovered from Detroit neighborhoods. Like Mexican women’s use of rebozos, which are lengthy, multipurpose fringed, shawls, employed during child birth and for nurturing and carrying their babies, the draping sculptures suggest the long association of women and draping textiles and by association, the creation of the world. In a sense, all of Zacarias’ sculptures are images of giving birth or of creating the world.

Two sculptures inspired by Rivera’s murals, “South Wall” and “North Wall,” have a very immediate sense of playfulness and giving birth. Both windows, recovered from Detroit’s landscape, have mirrors wrapped in Coatlicue’s birthing textiles, that reflect the beholder, implying that, even now, Coatlicue is at work creating us, the viewers. Both are painted in the respective palette of Rivera’s walls. On her explorations of Detroit, Zacarias visited the Guardian building, the Art Deco office building totally based on Mayan design elements. Painted with the graphic design and colors of the Guardian Building, the wall relief “The Guardian,” suggests the notion of a textile metamorphosing into that space.

Marela Zacarias, “The Guardian,” 2018, Acrylic on plaster and wire mesh, 47” x 40.5” x 15”

Bookending “Coatlicue’s Return” in the Wasserman Project galleries is New York artist Sarah Meyohas’ project, “Speculations,” which is, judging by her past artistic endeavors, driven by her engagement with the workings of the economy and the organization of the world’s trading and financial market. Once a student at the prestigious Wharton School of Business, her multimedia visual experiments are often beautiful, always slick, and uncertainly, critiques of the vagaries of time and money. “Speculations,” includes four tantalizing photographic images of mirror images reflecting mirror images of mirrors, and so on, into the darkness of infinity. Each photograph of the “Speculations” series is differentiated by an enticing decorative tableau, which is multiplied, and its attractiveness enhanced, by the mirrors. “Pink and Yellow Speculation,” 2015, reflects a coral colored wall into the darkness of infinity, the coral slowly darkening into black, into the unknown metaphorical future. Foregrounding the image is a branch of brilliant yellow flowers that tints the overall image and is magnified, and made even more enticing, by the repetition of the mirrors. Metaphorically, it could be a commentary on the aleatoric nature of financial speculation or specifically on the speculative and illusory nature of beauty and the art market. “Flaunt Speculation, 2018, is the same arrangement of mirrors but surrounded by, presumably, Meyohas own nude body enhanced, comically, by sprays of purple flowers. Most interesting is that in each of the “Speculation” series there is a slight offset to the mirrors, like a winding snake, which in the calculus of the interpolation, in following the arc of mirrors, would come back and bite the ass of the beholder.

Sarah Meyohas, “Pink and Yellow Speculation,” 2015, Framed Chromogenic Print, 91.75 x 61.75” x 2”

The piece de resistance of the whole exhibition is “Generated Petals Interpolation,” Meyohas’ video installation that employs an engaging room of mirrors and a mesmerizing, computer generated program of an evolving, ever changing grid of rose petals. Meyohas hired a pool of temp workers to pick through thousands of roses, picking the most “beautiful” from each bouquet and photographing a single petal from it. Those photographs were digitally entered into a computer and an algorithm created to select and create an infinite number and variety of petals that are projected onto the wall. The mirrored environment, like the fitting room at Nordstrom’s, reflects a room full of infinity and titillating, pulsating images of rose petals. Like the infinity of repeating images in the “Speculations” series, it suggests and tests the technological generation and replication of beauty and its economy of labor and production.

Sarah Meyohas, “Generated Petals Interpolation,” 2018, Video Production, mirrors.

While both Zacarias and Meyohas engage in a spectacular use of materials and technology there is an equal engagement with ideas formed with a kind of visual literacy (both live in and develop visual ideas) that suggests many compelling contemporary issues. Especially interesting is the engagement that each artist has with time. Meyohas’ images confront the nature of beauty through manipulated technology. In “Speculations” and “Generated Petals Interpolation,” the repetition of the imagery, creates its own seductive beauty in a warp of a circuitous infinity. Time becomes a dizzying and perplexing existential quandary. Zacharias employs a convincing and at once beautiful and frightening Aztec myth to explain the cosmic and local creation of everything.

Wasserman Projects: MARELA ZACARIAS: COATLICUE’S RETURN and SARAH MEYOHAS: SPECULATIONS, through December 15, 2018

 

 

Abstraction & Politics @ UMMA

Sam Gilliam, Situation VI—Pisces 4, ca. 1972, polypropylene painted multiform. Williams College Museum of Art Museum purchase, Otis Family Acquisition Trust and Kathryn Hurd Fund. Courtesy of Joseph Goddu Fine Arts, Inc., New York. © Sam Gilliam

Visitors stepping out of the University of Michigan’s Taubman Gallery (currently paying host to a punchy and politically-charged exhibition of art of the African diaspora) who then wander in to the adjacent show, Abstraction, Color, and Politics in the Early 1970s,will perhaps find themselves in a gallery space austere by comparison, containing four allusive abstract paintings and sculptures.  It’s a highly conceptual micro-exhibition comprising works by Helen Frankenthaler, Al Loving, Sam Gilliam, and Louise Nevelson.  In spite of the show’s title, as political statements, their significance isn’t self-evident (something perhaps tacitly acknowledged by the interrogative opening line of the show introductory text: Can abstract art be about politics and identity?), but what the artists in this tactfully assembled ensemble have in common is their defiant refusal to conform to the art-world’s expectations of what their art should be.

Viewers first encounter a geometric abstraction by Al Loving (one of Detroit’s own, though he later lived and worked out of New York City). Influenced in the 1970s by the hard-edge color squares of Josef Albers, Loving’s Bowery Morning is a simple yet disorienting network of shapes which could be read variously as an ensemble of polygons or cubes.  Loving created the work in 1971, the same year he participated in the Whitney Museum’s highly controversial Contemporary Black Artists in America, a show which acquired notoriety when fifteen artists withdrew to protest the decisions made by the show’s mostly white curatorial staff.  But conspicuous by its absence in Loving’s work was any commentary on the social or political issues of his day.

Al Loving, Bowery Morning, 1971, acrylic on canvas. Courtesy the Estate of Al Loving and Garth Greenan Gallery, New York.

The same could be said of the work of Sam Gilliam, who in the 1970s began experimenting with abstract fabric constructions (as Al Loving himself increasingly began to do). Inspired by seeing laundry hung out to dry, Gilliam liberated his canvasses from their wooden frames, transforming his paintings into fully sculptural objects which hung elegantly from the wall like giant curtains, sails, and banners, a contribution to Abstract Expressionism that occurred long before Frank Stella began producing his own sculptural paintings which burst from the wall and crashed into the viewer’s space.  Here, Gilliam’s attention-grabbing Situation VI-Pisces 4,an abstract painting displayed like a massive banner incised with with deep drapes and folds,nearly fills an entire gallery wall with a blaze of crimsons and yellows, and it’s hard not to consider this as the show’s visual centerpiece.

Sam Gilliam, Situation VI—Pisces 4 (detail), ca. 1972, polypropylene painted multiform. Williams College Museum of Art Museum purchase, Otis Family Acquisition Trust and Kathryn Hurd Fund. Courtesy of Joseph Goddu Fine Arts, Inc., New York. © Sam Gilliam

Directly across from Situation VI, Louise Nevelson’s stately and characteristically enigmatic Dark Presence seems subdued and restrained in comparison.  Dark Presence is exactly that, a mostly rectilinear scaffolding of individual wooden forms which, all painted black, coalesce into a unified whole.  A work by the second-generation Abstract Expressionist Helen Frankenthaler completes this ensemble.  Her Sunset Corner is a representative color-field painting applying her “soak-stain” method, for which she covered the canvass in nearly translucent washes of water-thin paint.

Abstraction and Politics is a challenging exhibition that certainly doesn’t patronize its patrons, and the political applications of these four works is admittedly difficult to find without the helpful explanatory text which introduces the show.  But what these diverse artists have in common is their shared refusal to adhere to expectations regarding what African-American art or Feminist-art (choose your hyphenation) ought to look like.  Nevelson’s works in particular– in part because of their imposing scale and subdued color– gleefully bucked pervading stereotypes of sculpture by women, even eliciting sexist reviews by stunned critics, incredulous that such work could be executed by a female.  The show’s theme certainly works if we view self-determination as a political act, and if we approach these artists’ defiant refusal to conform to expected narratives as a reaction against the cultural climate in which they lived, then it’s possible to view these works as an understated form of protest.  To borrow a phrase from Sylvia Plath: through their art these artists simply asserted their right to live and work on their own human terms.

University of Michigan Museum of Art   Abstraction and Politics –  Through September 29, 2019