Black Abstract Expression, Performativity, and Visibility in Art Spaces

5 min readMay 19, 2019
Pictured: Solange photographed by Peter Lindberg

Abstract Expressionism is an art movement that was a began in the 1950s as a response to the post-war climate. This was the first modern art movement that originated in the U.S.

The response to this type of art was divided. Art at the time was representational art, recognizable physical objects such as people, animals, and Norman Rockwell, for example.

Abstract Expressionist art uses shapes to make a point about how art can be made.
Within abstraction is geometric abstraction, using 2-D or 3-D shapes to make a pattern on canvas or a sculpture. Geometric shapes have been a motif since ancient times in various culture.

Abstraction is in the artistic sense is meant to describe is the process of how the unconscious mind formulates the technical ability art requires.

To the public, these concepts come off as nonsensical, that people create art for art’s sake.

Black artists at the time were unable to fully benefit from the success of this type of art unlike their white counterparts.

African American artists in the early 1950s were portraying black life as is, through familiar means in photography and painting. Black artists who were abstractionists towards the 1960s-1980s were viewed as outsiders because their work was perceived to not be politically or socially engaged.

Al Loving Jr.

Al Loving — Courtesy of the Estate of Al Loving and Garth Greenan Gallery, New York

Alvin D. Loving Jr. was an abstract expressionist artist.
Inspired Josef Albers artwork, Loving created works like Septahedron, LB4 which is known to be his signature style, of perfect straight lines and shapes.

Though his abstract expressionist works were well received by museums and critics, he later resented the art that made him well known. Ironically, he felt he felt “stuck inside that box…” by 1968, the whole period of doing this geometric art conflicted with civil rights.
Even though with this type of work was making him much money he was not happy doing that type of art. His discipline in art was formalist — strict interpretation based on the looks/technique — not the feeling. This later changed when he decided to work with the notion of animism, the oldest spiritual belief that anything has a soul or consciousness.

He began producing works later in life through fabric and large paper collages that were more self-reflective of his experiences.

Norman Lewis

Norman Lewis was also an abstract expressionist. He was a member of the Spiral group with Romare Bearden. He uses his work to express the frustration of African Americans during the Civil Rights Movement.

In an interview regarding the element of form in his work,
“This thing of form, I think that much of what happens and what one becomes is definitely an outgrowth of what one feels. Regardless of the establishment that exists, but there is a richness that can be discovered if one has that kind of insight or becoming and searching…It is discovering what one can do in paint, what one can achieve, what visually excites you and what you want to see that hasn’t been done, you know.​​​​​​​”

Finding that intuitive insight and embarking on that personal discovery is the plight of the black artist. These artists are important because much of their work was a part of the rigid environments that made them famous, thus creating abstract work that was more of what they wanted to make. there is a lack of appreciation for abstract expressionists artists.

In the last few years, the earlier black abstract expressionists artists such as Sam Gilliam, Jack Whitten, and Howardena Pindell have been proudly recognized in exhibitions featuring their work. As well as their contemporaries such as Rashid Johnson and Adam Pendleton.

Solange’s Visual Language and Artistic Practice

Her foundation as a musician and dancer proves that she understands that her artistic voice is instrument, literally and figuratively.

In the last few years, Solange has branched off into the visual arts as a form of expression. Her work involves themes of repetition, space, and form.

Solange, Uniqlo — Metatronia, 2018

Metatronia (Metatron’s Cube) is a performance piece created by Solange Knowles-Ferguson.

In Metatronia, Solange explores the intuitive force behind why she creates art. In her interview with Yale University she states how, “repetition is meditation”, as performance piece uses movement, rhythm, and repetition around a physical structure.

What is interesting about this piece is that Solange herself is not physically present. Her artistic voice is present especially, much of the dancing is reminiscent of the choreography in her recent musical works. The sculpture is clearly reminiscent of Alvin D. Loving and Sol Lewitt’s work.

The title of the piece originates from a shape in sacred geometry called Metatron’s Cube, one of the five platonic solids. It is also known as a 4-D square called a tesseract.

Solange posted conceptual sketches of the project to Twitter. In her own words, “Turning dreams into dimensions”, her post shows her process from originating from sketches to 3-D renderings.

In an interview with artist Toyin Ojin Odutola, Solange speaks openly about issues with performativity: entering spaces as an artist whilst being of the entertainment industry. She wants to engage with audience in an honest way in museums and on stages despite certain expectations her being known as an entertainer having to demand the attention spaces she is in.

Not only in Metatronia, but in A Seat at the Table and When I Get Home she comes into her own artistic power as molds her visual language together.
African American artists since the 1960s had to work that much harder to blackness in abstraction. From Norman Lewis to Adam Pendleton to Solange Knowles, the visual continuum of black abstraction has grown into countless perspectives in which people can relate to.

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