In tones of mustard, chestnut, taupe, royal blue, red and dazzling white, McArthur Binion’s suite of biographical, abstract canvases pulse with narrative. Photocopies of the artist’s birth certificate and the handwritten phone book he kept from 1972 to the 1990s form what Binion terms the ‘under conscious’ and ‘emotional genepool’ of works that are subsequently studded with sepia ink, then gridded with cross-hatching using paint sticks. Fusing oppositions of geometry and biography, original and copy, colour and black and white, the effect is almost op art: vibrationary, powerfully alive. The most successful reveal through concealment, their alphanumeric, calligraphic slivers half-obscured under capillaries of ink. New York art-scene names such as ‘Mary Boone’, ‘Basquiat’ and ‘Dan Flavin’ (as well as others, including ‘Meryl Streep’) are located like crossword puzzles, pieced together as if lessons in cryptography.
‘DNA: Sepia’ is Binion’s first solo exhibition in Europe and coincides with his widely praised inclusion in the Central Pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale. Coming at the age of 71, after more than four decades of making work, the artist’s belated success is testament to the fact that the relationship between talent and recognition is not always straightforward. Binion joins a number of older African American artists – amongst them Sam Gilliam, Betye Saar and Jack Whitten – who have gained recent acclaim in Europe with significant commercial and institutional presentations.
Binion was affiliated to a group of African American painters in 1970s New York who, despite an expectation to make artwork that directly addressed racial politics, chose abstraction. His non-traditional application of lumber yard and steel mill marking crayons on sheets of aluminium was favoured by Ronald Bladen – in 1973, the minimalist sculptor selected Binion to participate in the second show held at Artists Space, co-curated with Sol LeWitt and Carl Andre. Yet, his work was often considered too emotional for minimalism, but too minimal to be understood in terms of identity politics. Binion moved to Chicago in 1991 and between 1992 and 2015 taught art at Columbia College, where his students included Rashid Johnson, who today cites his influence.
The 13 works at Massimo de Carlo are a continuation of ‘DNA’: the series of emotionally charged abstracts that Binion began making in 2013. Applications of sepia ink ramify, energizing the works and mirroring the rhizome-like mark-making of Binion’s earlier works on aluminium such as Circuit Landscape: No.V11 (1973) or Over Nance: Circuit No.2 (1973). On the large wooden board of DNA: Sepia: XIV (2016), blinding white grids obliterate much that is beneath, the painstaking squares emitting a rhythmic force field. The mustard-toned gridding of the smaller DNA: Sepia: VI (2016) is sumptuous as velvet, snatches of white paper gleaming through. Binion’s birth certificate alludes to the unrecorded births of those born, like him, in rural communities. The word ‘colored’ on the certificate is significant because of its irony in being written in black on white. Copies of both documents – cut patchwork quilt-like, glued in four-inch squares and facing different ways – act as autobiographical signifiers: as a child Binion slept beneath a quilt his mother made, which he still owns. The artist is relaxed about his canvases being touched; under skin, cross-hatching turns into a sensory 3D latticework. With their complex interiority, the suite of works here feels controlled and reflective – like an artist who knows himself well, and has more to show.
Main image: McArthur Binion, DNA:SPLOPS:III (detail), 2017, oil paint stick, ink and paper on board, 1.2 x 1.8 m. Courtesy: Massimo De Carlo Milan/London/Hong Kong; photograph: Robert Chase Heishman
Rebecca Swirsky is a writer based in London. Her work has been published in the TLS, The Economist, Icon, New Statesman, the Financial Times and 1843, among other publications. Her fiction has featured in the Best British Short Stories Anthology.