Art historian Darby English is celebrated for working against the grain and plumbing gaps in historical narratives. In this book, he explores the year 1971, when two exhibitions opened that brought modernist painting and sculpture into the burning heart of black cultural politics: Contemporary Black Artists in America, shown at the Whitney Museum of American Art, and The DeLuxe Show, an integrated abstract art exhibition presented in a renovated movie theater in a Houston ghetto.
1971 takes an insightful look at many black artists’ desire to gain freedom from overt racial representation, as well as their and their advocates’ efforts to further that aim through public exhibitions. Amid calls to define a “black aesthetic” or otherwise settle the race question, these experiments with modernist art favored cultural interaction and instability. Contemporary Black Artists in America highlighted abstraction as a stance against normative approaches, while The DeLuxe Show positioned abstraction in a center of urban blight.
The power and social importance of these experiments, English argues, came partly from color’s special status as a racial metaphor and partly from investigations of color that were underway in formalist American art and criticism. From Frank Bowling to Virginia Jaramillo, Sam Gilliam to Peter Bradley, black modernists and their supporters rose above the demand to represent or be represented, compromising nothing in their appeals for racial reconciliation. At a time when many debates about identity sought closure, these exhibitions offered openings; when icons and slogans touted simple solutions, they chose difficulty. But above all, as English demonstrates in this provocative book, these exhibitions and artists responded with optimism rather than cynicism to the surrounding culture’s preoccupation with color.
- 1971 : A Year in the Life of Color
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