Blackness in Abstraction

Pace Gallery, New York, USA

The thesis underlying ‘Blackness in Abstraction’ – arguably the marquee gallery show of the season – was first articulated in 2015 by curator Adrienne Edwards, in an eponymous essay for Art in America. In it, she argued that: ‘Blackness, in the fullest sense of the word, has a seemingly unlimited usefulness in the history of modern art.’ For the exhibition at Pace, Edwards draws together early modern and postmodern works – from Louise Nevelson to Fred Sandback – along with more contemporary interventions by Ellen Gallagher, Glenn Ligon, Rashid Johnson and others.

blackness_is_abstraction_2016_exhibition_view_pace_gallery_new_york._courtesy_pace_gallery

'Blackness is Abstraction', 2016, exhibition view, Pace Gallery, New York. Courtesy: Pace Gallery

'Blackness is Abstraction', 2016, exhibition view, Pace Gallery, New York. Courtesy: Pace Gallery

Sometimes, these juxtapositions provide stark studies in materiality: for instance, the reflective black surface of Johnson’s wax, soap and tile work The Collapse (2012), evoking an urban streetscape, hangs near a recent Robert Irwin (Black Painting with Blue Edge, 2008–09), which seems, at once, to attract and repel light. The latter’s ultra-smooth application of polyurethane paint imbues the piece with a sense of aeronautical engineering rather than artisanship. Elsewhere, more sociological and semiotic registers of blackness are brought to the fore. Ligon’s 17 pigment prints (Untitled, 2016) bear text from James Baldwin’s 1955 essay, ‘Stranger in the Village’, about the writer’s self-imposed exile in the Swiss alps. Gallagher’s group of four paintings, Negroes Battling in a Cave (2016), is a direct reference to handwritten marginalia found on the edge of one of Kazimir Malevich’s iconic black square paintings.

_ellen_gallagher_negroes_battling_in_a_cave_2016_enamel_ink_rubber_and_paper_on_linen_1.1_m_x_1.4_m._courtesy_gagosian_gallery_c_ellen_gallagher_photograph_tom_powel_imaging

 Ellen Gallagher, Negroes Battling in a Cave, 2016 enamel, ink, rubber and paper on linen, 1.1 m x 1.4 m. Courtesy: Gagosian Gallery © Ellen Gallagher; photograph: Tom Powel Imaging

 Ellen Gallagher, Negroes Battling in a Cave, 2016 enamel, ink, rubber and paper on linen, 1.1 m x 1.4 m. Courtesy: Gagosian Gallery © Ellen Gallagher; photograph: Tom Powel Imaging

‘Blackness in Abstraction’, then, seeks to address the central conflicts that continue to bedevil abstraction itself: an artistic zone in which purity has long been staged against the imminent or the social; in which dark is pitted against light, good against evil, presence against void. That modernism has always both mined and marginalized the cultural practice of black artists is not a new revelation; but the ways in which such appropriations and revisions are glossed over by formalist discourse is brought into jarring focus by the works on display. This is a genealogical show, one that tracks the history of an idea or a technology; what saves it from arbitrariness is the undeniable symbolic and material overdetermination of the term ‘blackness’ itself.

wangechi_mutu_throw_2016_documentation_of_site_specific_action_painting._courtesy_the_artist_c_wangechi_mutu

Wangechi Mutu, Throw, 2016, documentation of site specific action painting. Courtesy: the artist © Wangechi Mutu

Wangechi Mutu, Throw, 2016, documentation of site specific action painting. Courtesy: the artist © Wangechi Mutu

There are, of course, moments when the rubric is stretched thin. Jonathas de Andrade’s photographs lack sufficient space for their conceptual rigor to unfold; the black and tan flags by the usually excellent Fred Wilson seem merely to update a tired conceit; and it would be easy to mistake Sui Jianguo’s steel cube for a 1960s-vintage Tony Smith. For all the strength of the catalogue, no text appears in the gallery, leaving visitors to encounter the works on a purely phenomenological level (although this is rewarding in other ways). With Jason Moran’s elegiac piano score to Ligon’s The Death of Tom (2008) wafting through the space on a loop, ‘Blackness in Abstraction’ can, at times, feel like a gothic art auction or a bizzaro Robert Ryman retrospective – all meditations on different registers of monochromatic tone and texture.

sol_lewitt_wall_structure_black_1962_oil_on_canvas_and_painted_wood_99_x_99_x_60_cm._courtesy_c_2016_the_lewitt_estate_artist_rights_society_ars_new_york_photograph_ellen_page_wilson

Sol LeWitt, Wall Structure Black, 1962, oil on canvas and painted wood, 99 x 99 x 60 cm. Courtesy: © 2016 The LeWitt Estate / Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York; photograph: Ellen Page Wilson

Sol LeWitt, Wall Structure Black, 1962, oil on canvas and painted wood, 99 x 99 x 60 cm. Courtesy: © 2016 The LeWitt Estate / Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York; photograph: Ellen Page Wilson

The show is most compelling when it asks the viewer to see earlier works – often outliers in the field of individual careers – in light of new trajectories, or when it pushes blackness beyond the associational and into deeper psychic channels, as in William Pope L’s unsettling Blind (2015), a dark window cut from the gallery wall, like a literal aperture or escape hatch. The most powerful moment is the pairing of a diminutive black totem – Sol LeWitt’s rough-hewn Early Wood Structure (1962) – before a massive wall that serves as substrate for a performance piece by Wangechi Mutu. For Throw (2016), Mutu blended paper with tea, ink and clay, allowing it to ferment. This living material draws the abject into an otherwise fastidious space, and the resulting encrustation on the wall is at once entropic and uncanny. Ultimately, Edwards attempts (and largely succeeds at) a reckoning between deep formal and cultural legacies that are often at odds. It is no small feat to behold. 

Main image: Glenn Ligon, Untitled (detail), 2016, 1 of 17 screenprints, published by Axelle Editions, New York, each: 91 x 66 cm. Courtesy: the artist, Luhring Augustine, New York, Regen Projects, Los Angeles, and Thomas Dane Gallery, London © Glenn Ligon; photograph: Farzad Owrang

Ian Bourland is a critic and an art historian at Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, USA.

Most Read

Ahead of ARCOMadrid this week, a guide to the best institutional shows in the city
At La Panacée, Montpellier, Nicolas Bourriaud’s manifesto for a new movement and attempt to demarcate an artistic peer...
A report commissioned by the museum claims Raicovich ‘misled’ the board; she disputes the investigation’s claims
In further news: Jef Geys (1934–2018); and Hirshhorn postpones Krzysztof Wodiczko projection after Florida shooting
If the city’s pivot to contemporary art was first realized by landmark construction, then what comes after might not...
Ignoring its faux-dissident title, this year's edition at the New Museum displays a repertoire that is folky, angry,...
An insight into royal aesthetics's double nature: Charles I’s tastes and habits emerge as never before at London’s...
In other news: Artforum responds to #NotSurprised call for boycott of the magazine; Maria Balshaw apologizes for...
At transmediale in Berlin, contesting exclusionary language from the alt-right to offshore finance
From Shanghai to Dubai, a new history charts the frontiers where underground scenes battle big business for electronic...
Hauser & Wirth Somerset, Bruton, UK
Zihan Karim, Various Way of Departure, 2017, video still. Courtesy: Samdani Art Foundation
Can an alternative arts network, unmediated by the West's commercial capitals and burgeoning arts economies of China...
‘That moment, that smile’: collaborators of the filmmaker pay tribute to a force in California's film and music scenes...
In further news: We Are Not Surprised collective calls for boycott of Artforum, accuses it of 'empty politics'; Frida...
We Are Not Surprised group calls for the magazine to remove Knight Landesman as co-owner and withdraw move to dismiss...
Paul Thomas Anderson's latest film is both gorgeous and troubling in equal measure
With Zona Maco opening in the city today, a guide to the best exhibitions across the Mexican capital
The question at the heart of Manchester Art Gallery’s artwork removal: what are the risks when cultural programming...
In further news: Sonia Boyce explains removal of Manchester Art Gallery’s nude nymphs; Creative Scotland responds to...
Ahead of the India Art Fair running this weekend in the capital, a guide to the best shows to see around town
The gallery argues that the funding body is no longer supportive of institutions that maintain a principled refusal of...
The Dutch museum’s decision to remove a bust of its namesake is part of a wider reconsideration of colonial histories,...
At New York’s Metrograph, a diverse film programme addresses a ‘central problem’ of feminist filmmaking
Ronald Jones pays tribute to a rare critic, art historian, teacher and friend who coined the term Post-Minimalism
In further news: curators rally behind Laura Raicovich; Glasgow's Transmission Gallery responds to loss of Creative...
Nottingham Contemporary, UK
‘An artist in a proud and profound sense, whether he liked it or not’ – a tribute by Michael Bracewell
Ahead of a show at Amsterdam’s EYE Filmmuseum, how the documentarian’s wandering gaze takes in China’s landscapes of...
In further news: Stedelijk explains why it cancelled Ettore Sottsass retrospective; US National Gallery of Art cancels...
With 11 of her works on show at the Musée d'Orsay, one of the most underrated artists in modern European history is...
Reopening after a two-year hiatus, London’s brutalist landmark is more than a match for the photographer’s blockbuster...
What the Google Arts & Culture app tells us about our selfie obsession
At a time of #metoo fearlessness, a collection of female critics interrogate their own fandom for music’s most...
A rare, in-depth interview with fashion designer Jil Sander

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

November - December 2017

frieze magazine

January - February 2018

frieze magazine

March 2018