Last year, researchers at Moscow’s Tretyakov Gallery examined Malevich’s Black Square (1915) with an X-ray. Beneath the surface layers of paint they found some Cubist compositions, as well as a faint inscription in the artist’s hand: “Negroes battling in a cave.” Black Square had been admired for decades as a radical and primordial picture of emptiness, ground zero for a new approach to abstraction in art. Had the idea for it come not from a utopian nihilism, but a racist joke?
Maybe it could be both—or at least, the confluence of the two offers a strange opportunity for thinking them through. The first work that greets viewers at “Blackness in Abstraction”— which is surely the most ambitious and beautiful group show in Chelsea this summer—is Ellen Gallagher’s series “Negroes Battling in a Cave” (2016), a quartet of canvases that responds to and exceeds the inception of Black Square. Unlike Malevich, Gallagher doesn’t give blackness a white border. The surfaces of the big paintings are dominated by the hard sheen of a coat of enamel. Occasional white spots peek from collaged cutouts of old cartoon drawings of black people—the whites of their eyes, the shine on their shoes. But the curve of Gallagher’s scissors makes those figures nearly unrecognizable as human. They seem as amoebic as the rubbery curlicues that press outward from the canvas into the veneer—whispers of a subjecthood that rejects representation but also refuses to be swallowed up in oblivion.
Adrienne Edwards, who organized the show for Pace, wrote in A.i.A. last year that “[b]lackness in abstraction. . . shifts analysis away from the black artist as subject and instead emphasizes blackness as material, method and mode, insisting on blackness as a multiplicity.” She has emphasized the plurality of blackness’s meanings by including works in black by white artists—Louise Nevelson, Sol LeWitt, Fred Sandback—alongside works by black artists of several generations. A striking leitmotif is Fred Wilson’s “M” series (2010). Flags of countries in Africa or with African diaspora populations are rendered in black on unprimed canvases. Stacks of the modestly sized rectangles span corners of several rooms at Pace. Wilson abstracted these national symbols to signs where blackness is the bare minimum of communication, the opposite of negative space. —Brian Droitcour
Pictured: Laura Lima: Sem título (Ágrafo), 2015, black tissue, dyed ropes and secret material, 67â?? by 89 by 9½ inches. Courtesy Galeria Luisa Strina, São Paulo. Photo Edouard Fraipont.