The following article first appeared in the March 1989 issue of ARTnews under the headline “Black Artists Today: A Case of Exclusion.” It is reprinted below in full with the author’s permission.
Addressing a 1985 symposium, black artist Beverly Buchanan, a Guggenheim and National Endowment for the Arts fellowships winner, recalled an encounter with a New York gallery in the early ’70s. “I walked into one gallery in SoHo and asked, ‘Are you looking at work?’ They said, ‘Yes, but we don’t show black art.’ I said, ‘Oh, good. Let me show you my slides.’”
Today that same gallery might have turned the artist away more diplomatically or backhandedly, perhaps by rejecting her work for esthetic reasons, but the exchange points up a stubborn myopia that still encumbers much of the U.S. art establishment. Sustained in part by stereotypical assumptions about the accomplishments of American black artists, this narrowness of vision continues to limit opportunities for experiencing and evaluating their work. An ARTnews survey of 38 artists, dealers, collectors, art historians, and museum curators reveals unanimity on one point: the art world is not widely informed about the scope and quality of visual art now being produced by black Americans.
The answer to why this is so is necessarily complex and controversial, since it cannot be isolated from the wide backdrop of social interactions between minority cultures and the country’s white majority. Furthermore, diversity of opinion within each group inevitably produces objections to collective conclusions. Nevertheless, it seems possible to identify certain issues that often help to clarify the positioning of these artists within the art establishment, among them outmoded definitions of’ “black art” and racial exclusionism disguised as artistic judgment.
Lowery Sims, associate curator of 20th-century art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and perhaps the most prominently positioned black curator of contemporary art in the United States, discussed the problems in an article that appeared last year in Atlanta’s Art Papers. Sims points out in the piece that for curators the word “discrimination” can have a double edge. She goes on to explain that curatorial decision-making “is the act of discrimination, making choices that are the expression of our eye, our taste, our sense and standard of quality.” But she notes that discrimination also means to exclude, and both meanings, “exclusionary and choosy, have determined how non-white artists have fared in the art world.”
In today’s mainstream contemporary-art institutions, Sims argues, the two meanings of “discrimination” can be conflated to mask racial exclusion under ostensible judgments about esthetic quality. If many black artists now go to the same schools as white artists, “learn from the same teachers, shop in the same art stores for the same materials, make the same slides and transparencies, frequent the same bars, why are they still on the periphery of the art world?” To discover the answer, she says, one can begin with economics. “The art establishment, as with the American economy as a whole, still seems hesitant or unwilling to admit minority artists into full economic participation in the art world. Even where goodwill exists, there is a distinct difference between the way these artists are promoted vis a vis their white counterparts. An unconscious but definite feeling seems to exist that their work does not merit comparable financial returns as their gallery mates. Economic issues, therefore, are couched in diversionary issues like ‘quality’ or ‘taste’ or ‘talent,’ hence the insidiousness of the situation.”
Although Sims would not elaborate on the economic restraints, she did point out in a recent interview that “people are still calling me when they want a list of black artists. This certainly tells you something is wrong with the kind of information people are getting. … Whether we like to admit it or not, there’s no question that minority artists are being held back by their race….” Double-edged economic and institutional discrimination is likely to persist, in her estimation, as long as “people still believe or act as if the values of Eurocentric culture are universal. This is a very complex kind of prejudice, and it’s not always easy to see how it works.”
This opinion was shared by many of the participants in an unprecedented conference of anthropologists, cultural historians, and art professionals held at the Smithsonian Institution last September. Titled “The Poetics and Politics of Representation,” the conference examined how art and artifacts of various cultures—including American minority cultures—are represented in museums. Among the participants were art historians Michael Baxandall and Svetlana Alpers; literary critic Stephen Greenblatt; curators Jane Livingston and John Beardsley of the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.; Susan Vogel, director of New York’s Center for African Art; and museum directors Peter Marzio of the Houston Museum of Fine Arts and Patrick Houlihan from the Millicent Rogers Museum in Taos.
Several discussions raised the issue of an unmediated encounter with a cultural object: do such visual experiences actually occur, or do esthetic predispositions inevitably alter the perceptual act, for example of a white, middle-class art professional with traditional Western art-historical training? Are such “discriminating viewers” deceiving themselves if they believe that they can truly empathize with the artistic intentions of other cultures or of American minority artists? To what degree and on what formal or conceptual terms does such empathy occur?
The calling of the conference was itself an acknowledgment of a growing professional self-consciousness about culturally induced perceptual predispositions, an issue raised with increasing frequency in debates evaluating art of other cultures and about the current status of black artists within the art establishment. To Kellie Jones, a black curator at the Jamaica Arts Center in Queens, for instance, the contemporary-art world has a different configuration than it does for some of her colleagues at larger New York institutions. “Black artists can’t escape the mainstream because they are surrounded by it, but mainstream institutions can choose to look or not to look at minority expression,” she points out. “From my personal experience, I can say that the big museums here don’t do a lot of reaching out, which is why I often see things they don’t. You can find terrific work by black artists at places such as the Longwood Art Center in the Bronx, in SoHo at the Exit Art gallery, and in the East Village at Kenkeleba House. Big museums have their own cliques and networks,” she observes, “and they don’t see these places as fitting in.”
According to artist Al Loving, these institutional patterns persist because “many people in positions of power in the art world do not believe that an American black can have an original thought. This means they have no real need to know your point of view, and so there’s no real reason to make an effort.” Painter and collagist Benny Andrews, who is the former head of the National Endowment for the Arts’ Visual Arts Program, puts the problem of preconceptions about black artists in even stronger terms. “It’s not like this in other parts of the country,” Andrews remarks, “but before there will be any real changes for black artists in New York, some of the older people who run the art world will have to die off.”
Other kinds of assumptions about the work of these artists are held by black viewers, many of whom consider black art to be a distinct category of artmaking. Although far more prevalent in other parts of the country than within the New York art establishment, this viewpoint has a clear art-historical foundation and reflects strong beliefs about the moral and social obligations of black artists to their communities. Lizzetta LeFalleCollins, visual arts coordinator of the California Afro-American Museum in Los Angeles, explains: “From the time of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s until the late ’60s and early ’70s, the figure was a mainstay for Afro-Americans, many of whom concentrated on literal depictions of Afro-Americans in their environments. The influence of Jacob Lawrence and Romare Bearden was very strong, and artists wanted very direct routes to the Afro-American experience. This kind of work, which is still being produced and which people still love and cherish, formed the basis of what many people, both black and white, think ‘black art’ is and should be today.”
During the ’60s, when the Civil Rights movement and a new emphasis on black pride often made headlines, “the figure,” LeFalle-Collins continues, “was still a mainstay, but often it was twisted or contorted or abstracted to express negativity and anger about exclusion. More artists also began working with collage, assemblage, and found objects, sometimes picking up on African folk traditions.”
In the ’60s many museums responded to Civil Rights activism by temporarily increasing their collection and exhibition of work by black artists. According to LeFalle-Collins, this response was a mixed blessing that sometimes gave the viewer a false idea of what was typical in black art. “Much of the artwork that found its way into many of these exhibitions were obvious representations of black figurative work,” she explains. “Some were awkward representations at best.” Meanwhile, many artists who had been working with expressive Social Realist figuration in the early and mid-’60s—artists such as Leslie Price, David Hammons, and John Outerbridge—were moving away from these figurative modes.
While a number of museums and galleries in the ’60s and early ’70s were, in effect, setting the tone for what was to be called black art, many artists were rapidly developing bodies of work that contradicted that tone. Many viewers did not connect this new work with recognized examples of black art, and institutional support was initially rather limited and tentative.
The futility of generalizing about black art becomes obvious, however, if one considers the range of styles and mediums associated with some of today’s leading American black artists, among them sculptors Martin Puryear, Richard Hunt, and Melvin Edwards; painters Robert Colescott, Benny Andrews, Raymond Saunders, James Little, Ed Clark, Oliver Jackson, Al Loving, Sam Gilliam, Hughie Lee-Smith, Frederick Brown, and Jacob Lawrence; printmaker/sculptor Elizabeth Catlett: and multimedia artists David Hammons, Betye Saar. Howardena Pindell, and Faith Ringgold. Their work ranges from direct links with the Harlem Renaissance in the case of Lawrence and with the Magic Realism of the ’40s in the evocative images of Lee-Smith, to the expressionistic abstractions of Saunders and Clark, the chromatic explorations of Loving and Little, the eloquent formalism of Puryear, Edwards’ muscular sculptural forms, the irreverent social commentary of Colescott, Ringgold’s multimedia fabric compositions, and the assemblages of Saar.
Less well-known, especially among black audiences, are black artists who have been active in the fields of video, performance, and environmental installation. “Art as a Verb,” an exhibition co-curated by Sims and Leslie King-Hammond, dean of graduate studies at the Maryland Institute College of Art, was conceived to help rectify this art-historical gap. First mounted at the Maryland Institute, the exhibition can now be seen in New York, as a two-part installation—at the Metropolitan Life Gallery through April 16 and at the Studio Museum in Harlem through June 12. This unprecedented show features the work of 13 “first generation” Afro-American artists who have explored video, performance, and installation in their work for the last ten to 20 years. These artists include Ringgold, Hammons, Pindell, Saar, the late Charles Abramson, Maren Hassinger, Candace Hill, Martha Jackson-Jarvas, Senga Nengudi, Lorraine O’Grady, Adrian Piper, Joyce Scott, and Kaylynn Sullivan.
For “Art as a Verb,” Hammons created a six-foot-high portrait of Jesse Jackson with blond hair, blue eyes, and pink skin, drawn directly on the gallery wall. On Jackson’s pale blue suit, stenciled letters read, “How do you like me now?” Saar’s Mojotech is a 24-foot-long environmental assemblage employing electronic junk to express the “usefulness and fragility of both technology and magic and how, in some cases, they are synonymous.” Other contributions range from Hassinger’s expressionistic grouping of tree branches, Piper’s charcoal and crayon drawings on New York Times pages, and Pindell’s video drawings and videotape, Free, White and Twenty One, which reviews harrowing reactions to skin color. The performance program includes O’Grady’s Nefertiti/Devonia Evangelene, which presents striking physical, familial, and psychological parallels between Queen Nefertiti, her daughter and sister, and O’Grady’s sister and her daughters.
“It is probably because full acceptance within the visual arts community is still eluding them that black artists have turned to performance and video in particular,” Sims observes in discussing the show. “Performance and video are so well suited to black expression in the arts that they seem almost stereotypical. All black Americans have to ‘perform’ in some way or another in this society on a daily basis in order to survive.” Sims adds that “too often the black community has been accused of being ‘retardataire,’ ‘timid,’ incapable of contributing anything substantial or ‘new’ to the art dialogue, bogged down as it was in its struggle to gain acceptance by the establishment. l think these individuals demonstrate for both the black and the white community that there are powerful voices out there who will be heard.”
Why haven’t these voices been more widely heard, along with those of other adventurous black artists? ls it primarily because their work is not stereotypically “black”? Obviously more is involved than a shifting of art-historical definitions, as Benny Andrews indicates in his observations about representations of black artists that appear in major newspapers and art publications.
“Most of the time media people have no need to write about black artists because, for one thing, they’re not big potential moneymakers,” he says. “An exception is when there are riots in the streets or something like the Tawana Brawley case. Then media people look around for some happy black folks, maybe a happy black artist to show that everything’s really okay. The other time they’ll look for you is in February, Black History Month. Then it’s like Christmas Eve shopping—a big last-minute rush and then it’s all over. Otherwise, black artists become good copy only if they can be portrayed as militants or exotic creatures, like poor Jean Michel Basquiat. Even the Village Voice, which has a certain reputation for writing about minorities, would never write about an ordinary, non-esoteric, mid-career black artist just because he makes good contemporary art.”
The relative invisibility of black artists in New York art publications, for example, is a reflection of their low profile in major New York galleries and museums. Many artists agree with Sims that today exclusion of minority artists from these institutions tends to be accomplished indirectly, through judgments about artistic competence and quality. Since the negative experience of one artist, however, can always be viewed as an exceptional case or the regrettable consequence of less-than-first-rate talent, attempts to document double-edged discrimination often flounder over the problem of convincing evidence.
Acknowledging this difficulty, artist Howardena Pindell, a former curator at the Museum of Modern Art, compiled a seven-year statistical report on museum exhibitions and current New York gallery representation of the 11,000 black, Asian, Hispanic, and Native American painters, sculptors, craftspeople, photographers, graphic designers, and architects who live and work in New York State. As of mid-1988, according to data cited in the report, 39 galleries in New York City, including nearly all of the most prestigious spaces, represented only white artists. Only the artists in ten galleries out of a total of 64 surveyed throughout the state were less than 90 percent white, and one of those ten was in the process of closing.
Queried about representation of minority artists, New York gallery officials often provide two kinds of responses. One is exemplified by Pierre Levai, director of the Marlborough Gallery, which represents Frederick Brown and several well-known Latin American and Spanish artists, such as Rufino Tamayo, Fernando Botero, and Antonio Lopez-García. To inquire about the racial identity of his gallery artists, says Levai, is to ask “a racist question. We don’t have any kind of moralistic policy. The quality of the work is what concerns us.”
Ronald Feldman, whose gallery, according to Pindell’s report, is 94 percent white, offers a more tenuous point of view. “What something like this report tells you is that there is a serious problem, one I’ve been trying to wrestle with myself. The fact I’ve come to face is that as a white American male, my background hasn’t given me the tools to penetrate certain artistic worlds. I’d like to have those tools, but I’m not certain how to get them. … A lot of us, without thinking about it, expect artists who are not white males to know, adopt, and then come back to us with something that relates to our historical framework, when they may be coming from another place entirely.
“The most obvious next step for me is to do a lot more looking, and harder looking, at work by non-white artists,” Feldman continues. “Yet in practical terms, this is very difficult to do with a gallery such as mine that is inundated with art.” He goes on to suggest that it “would help a lot to have more up-to-the-minute research and places for exhibitions that put the work in context as opposed to single-artist shows.”
But, as Kellie Jones points out, opportunities to see a wide range of current work by minority artists are not in fact lacking in New York City. In the view of Mary Schmidt Campbell, who was director of the Studio Museum in Harlem for ten years and is now New York City’s cultural affairs commissioner, “the problem is not a lack of exhibition spaces but a lack of intellectual will. We don’t need more appendages to the structure we already have, where there are very well-known institutions that have distinguished themselves for their quality, like the Studio Museum and El Museo del Barrio. I can’t tell you how infuriating it is to have these places, in effect, ignored or dismissed when people complain about not being able to see enough work.”
While artists express respect for the professionalism of institutions like the Studio Museum, not all agree with Schmidt Campbell about the sufficiency of existing structures. Painter James Little, for instance, argues that “the idea that there is such a thing as ‘black art’ hasn’t entirely disappeared in New York City, and that’s partly due to the exhibition program at the Studio Museum, which is generally pretty conservative. They want to appease the black community as much as they want to show contemporary art. If they were really focused on art, they would bring shows by artists like Jennifer Bartlett or David Salle out to the people in that neighborhood. Artists that the Whitney shows should be shown in Harlem, and people shouldn’t have to go all the way to Harlem to see a painting by James Little.”
Artists like Little are not well represented by other major New York museums either, as Pindell’s report indicates. Based on exhibition lists provided by the institutions themselves, the study concludes that from 1980 to 1987, 97.11 percent of the exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art were devoted to artists from Europe or of European descent. At the Whitney Museum of American Art, the comparable statistic was 92.95 percent; of the total number of artists shown at Whitney Biennials from 1973 to 1987, 4.4 percent were artists of color. From 1981 to 1987 there were no one-person shows of black, Hispanic, or Native American painters or sculptors at the Whitney. Lists provided by the Guggenheim Museum indicated that the exhibition program from 1980 to 1985 was devoted entirely to artists from Europe or of European descent.
Confronted with such statistics, major museum curators are almost unanimous in denying that their collection and exhibition decision-making is negatively affected by the race of the artist. Patterson Sims, former curator of permanent collections at the Whitney Museum of American Art and now chief curator at the Seattle Art Museum, for instance, stresses that “in my experience at the Whitney, the choices of artists to be exhibited were based on esthetic issues, and questions of race, religion, and sex were subordinated to that end.” Sims also points out, however, that “the curatorial staff was entirely white when I worked there. From the vantage point of New York City, art museums appeared to be among the most all-white environments left in America in the aftermath of the Civil Rights movement.”
“The statistics are a little misleading in our case,” says Museum of Modern Art director Richard Oldenburg. “Our exhibition program covers the whole history of modern art. … But I don’t question the bottom line conclusions of the report. Issues of minority representation have lain somewhat dormant in the Reagan era, and there’s no question that we need more effort. But in my experience, if the race of the artist is even mentioned here at all, as it occasionally is in acquisition meetings, for example, it’s in a positive and constructive sense. … I do think one of the biggest problems these artists face is the opportunity for curators to see exhibitions of their work,” he adds. “Among other things, we do rely on a gallery network where minority artists are not well represented.”
What about artists of color who have not been excluded from the mainstream art world? Does their success deflate Pindell’s data by demonstrating that major institutions do in fact make judgments based solely on artistic quality?
A case in point might be Martin Puryear, a highly respected artist who has shown at nearly all of the country’s most prestigious contemporary-art museums. The 47-year-old sculptor is represented by major galleries in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, and his shows generally receive substantial and glowing reviews. This year he will represent the United States at the São Paulo Biennale. His rapidly ascending career is apparently unaffected, it would seem, by the fact that he happens to be black.
Puryear himself views his São Paulo selection with a certain equivocation. “Black artists have been making art throughout this country’s history,” he points out, “but it’s been very difficult for us to achieve visibility, not to mention recognition in the society as a whole. So the fact that I’m the first Afro-American artist to represent the United States at the São Paulo Biennale can be seen as a triumph, especially when it is considered against a long history of exclusion and denial. Speaking as an artist, though, it would be sad if the most exciting thing about my inclusion were the color of my skin and not the work I do. I think there’s something to be angry about as well as pleased,” he says.
To help counteract the low visibility of American blacks in the visual arts, several black art dealers in major U.S. cities have opened galleries in recent years to promote and showcase some of the most adventurous, sophisticated, and solidly accomplished artists. One of these dealers is June Kelly, who operates a two-year-old multi-ethnic gallery in New York’s SoHo district. “When I first opened,” Kelly remembers, “people kept asking me who June Kelly was. It just didn’t occur to them that the black woman behind the desk might be the owner of the gallery.” Kelly represents, among other artists, Loving, Lee-Smith, and Little, and is philosophically opposed to the concept of “black art.” “There is no such thing. My gallery is about art, not about color, and most artists want it that way.”
Still, a growing proportion of Kelly’s clientele consists of young black professionals like Dennis Franklin, who is an investment banker at Goldman, Sachs & Company. “It was Romare Bearden’s 1980 traveling retrospective that hooked me on art,” Franklin says. “I was in the Navy then, and I fell in love with the work and wanted to know more about it. That led me to June Kelly, who represented Bearden, and she introduced me to a whole world I didn’t know anything about. I bought one of Bearden’s collages on time and kept on reading and going to shows and talking to people until I developed an eye for what I liked. I’m an infant collector, and most of what I buy is in the $2,000 to $3,000 range. My most expensive buy was a still life by [the 19th-century American artist] Charles Ethan Porter.”
George N’Namdi in Detroit, whose gallery includes Pindell, Loving, Hunt, and Edwards, defines part of his mission as campaigning for a commitment to art on the part of black professionals. “We have an affluent population here that didn’t necessarily grow up with art, and they need a lot of encouragement. My clientele is predominantly black, but mixed—about 60 percent to 40 percent. Many of the black collectors started out primarily with the idea of supporting black artists, but as they gain more experience they think more in terms of just collecting art. l try to bring a certain style of art into the gallery that people will associate with me. I look for a very energetic style, very colorful, mostly abstract work with an emphasis on collage and multimedia painting—partly because I want to break down the automatic association people have between ‘black art’ and a certain kind of figurative work.”
The Malcolm Brown Gallery is also located in an affluent suburb, Shaker Heights, Ohio. Brown is one of three black members of the American Watercolor Society, and the gallery holds regular exhibitions of Society work in addition to shows by established painters such as Lee-Smith. Ernestine Brown, who runs the gallery, recalls that their first collectors were almost exclusively white, “but there’s been a definite growth in the number of black collectors. The key is education, exposure, and, above all, perseverance. To be convincing in this position, you have to have staying power, and you can’t get that without a real commitment and quality work.”
Chicago’s Isobel Neal Gallery, which has been in business for the past two years, shows only black artists, many of whom, such as Calvin Jones, Geraldine McCullough, Robert Dilworth, and Willie L. Carter, are from Chicago. “Until other galleries start picking up some of these people, I think I have to keep it exclusive,” Neal says. A major marketing obstacle, she stresses, is the low level of response to well-trained black artists by local and national museums. “Everyone in the business knows that for many collectors, museum exposure is necessary to establish credibility. What doesn’t seem creditable is that we have what is supposed to be a major museum of American art in this city [the Terra Museum] that has only a single work by a black artist.”
In Boston the Liz Harris Gallery shows African art and work by over 20 contemporary black artists, including Loving, Little, and Oliver Jackson. “Something we had to overcome,” says Harris, “was the term ‘black art,’ which so many people associate with representational images of urban bliss or misery or political protest work of the 1960s. One of the goals of the gallery is to broaden the term ‘black art’ until it becomes meaningless.” Like Neal, Harris is frustrated by the slow pace of recognition many black artists encounter from the museum establishment. “It seems to me that the museum system resists dealing with black artists at least in part because their existence threatens curator expertise,” she says. “To confront these artists is to confront their ignorance of something they should know about. l suspect there just hasn’t been a lot of looking.”
Due in part to the efforts of such dealers and curators as Kellie Jones, a number of younger black artists, among them Lorna Simpson, Alison Saar, Joe Lewis, and Lisa Jones, are now joining their more established peers in shaping the pluralistic contours of American contemporary art. Their forward momentum is one element in a disparate but multilevel system of change: a monolithic conception of black art is slowly fading in the country’s major cities, thanks in part to the education and exhibition programs such as the California Afro-American Museum’s. Dealers like N’Namdi report steady progress in the campaign to initiate a commitment to art on the part of affluent black professionals. Postmodernist critical theory has encouraged productive reexaminations of majority-minority relationships, which may help broaden the critical climate for “alternative” forms of expression. In all these undertakings, however, the idealism that inspired optimistic assessments about social change in the art world in the ’70s seems conspicuously absent. “What we insist on is to be looked at levelly without condescension,” says artist O’Grady. “But this demand comes up against white culture at its most dug-in.”