African-American Women Working in Abstraction Get Their Due in DC Show
The 2014 exhibition From the Margins: Lee Krasner and Norman Lewis, 1945 – 1952 at the Jewish Museum, complicated traditional notions of Abstract Expressionism—expanding its history to include an African-American artist, Norman Lewis and Jackson Pollock’s wife, Lee Krasner. This exhibition and Procession: The Art of Norman Lewis (2015) at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, curated by Ruth Fine, were watershed moments. There was, however, momentum behind these moments including sales on the secondary market and inclusion in major museum collections. Missing from these landmark exhibitions were women of color.
Magnetic Fields: Expanding America Abstraction, 1960s to Today, curated by Erin Dziedzic and Melissa Messina, on view until 21 January 2018 at the National Museum of Women and the Arts furthers the art world’s reckoning with the exclusion of African-American women artists from the traditional cannon. A multi-generational survey, Magnetic Fields, first exhibited at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, features the works of Alma Thomas, Mildred Thompson, Lilian Thomas Burwell, Nanette Carter, Sylvia Snowden, Barbara Chase-Riboud, Mary Lovelace O’Neal, Deborah Dancy, Evangeline “EJ Montgomery, Gilda Snowden, Howardena Pindell, Maren Hassinger and Mavis Pusey but also Chakaia Booker, Jennie C. Jones, Shinique Smith, Candida Alvarez, Kianja Stobert, Brenna Youngblood and Abigail DeVille.
Mildred Thompson’s triptych, Magnetic Fields (1991), the exhibition’s namesake, is a bright canvas in yellow, red and orange, an expression of magnetic energy. Mary Lovelace O’Neal’s mixed media painting, Racism is Like Rain, Either it’s Raining or it’s Gathering Somewhere (1993), like Thompson’s work, places clouds of bright color in a composition with streaks of velvety deep black, perhaps indicating the overwhelming feeling of racism. Chicago-based artist Candida Alvarez also utilizes bright yellow and black in her painting best friends forever (2009).
The work presented in Magnetic Fields dispels notions that abstract art is devoid of personal or political meaning. Art collector Pamela Joyner noted in a 2016 lecture with Jennie C. Jones and Leonardo Drew at The National Gallery of Art, that “The traditional art world expected the Norman Lewis’ of the world to focus on figuration because that material was easy to unpack.”
Having learned from those who came before them younger artists such as Kianja Stobert, Abigail DeVille, and Brenna Youngblood shine in Magnetic Fields. Youngblood’s brilliant mixed-media collage YARDGAURD (2015) is indicative of California artists and her interest in urban landscapes. This work further emphasizes the influence of abstract artists such as Howardena Pindell and her use of manipulated paper on Youngblood and others, such as Mark Bradford.
Although the press images for Magnetic Fields center on 1990—present, the glory of the exhibition lies in the foundational nature that African-American women artists working in the mid to late 20th century had on American abstract art. Perhaps the exhibition would make a greater impact if organized in a chronological fashion. Nevertheless, the brilliance and diversity of each artist in Magnetic Fields represent a missing puzzle piece in the art world that should be explored in 2018 and beyond.
Magnetic Fields will be on view through January 21, 2018 at NMWA in Washington, D.C.