Exhibition Spotlight: Black Abstractionists: From Then 'Til Now

Sometime a few weeks ago, mindless scrolling on Instagram brought me to a wonderful photo of contemporary artist Odili Donald Odita with his work titled The Power of X. Suddenly, my empty-headed scrolling was not so “mindless” at all.

Odita wrote, “I am honored in the utmost to be included in “Black Abstractionists: From Then ‘Til Now” at the Green Family Art Foundation in Dallas, Texas. This fully packed exhibition is mind-blowing, and my pictures only begin to illustrate the show’s power when seen in person.”

The artists in the exhibition include Alma Thomas, Hale Woodruff, Beauford Delaney, Charles Alston, Norman Lewis, Thornton Dial, Jack Whitten, Ed Clark, Sam Gilliam, Frank Bowling, Daniel LaRue Johnson, Virginia Jaramillo, Melvin Edwards, David Hammons, Howardena Pindell, Mary Lovelace O’Neal, William T. Williams, McArthur Binion, Fred Eversley, Stanley Whitney, Glenn Ligon, Leonardo Drew, Rick Lowe, Kevin Beasley, Spencer Lewis, Oscar Murillo, Reginald Sylvester II, Rachel Jones, Vaughn Spann, Gabriel Mills, Jadé Fadojutimi, and Michaela Yearwood-Dan.

While unable to make the trip to Dallas to see the exhibit in person,, I took a closer look at the show using The Green Family Art Foundation website. Alongside a variety of high-resolution images, the exhibition statement reads that the show, “brings together a multigenerational group of 38 pioneering, mid-career, and emerging Black artists… While the older artists presented in this exhibition were often marginalized by the art world power structure of museums, galleries, and collectors for most of the 20th-century… The artists that followed created abstract art inspired by the embers of those flames, with more social consciousness and Black community flavor. Put plainly, the exhibition highlights abstract art specifically created by Black artists over the course of the 20th century. 

But there is nothing plain about this exhibition. 

Installation View. Photo by Chad Redmon

The works embody a dynamic sense of movement, rhythm, and sometimes chaos by way of intense brushstrokes, jutting geometric shapes, sharp corners, and abstract symbolism. This abstractionism takes the place of a kind of figurative painting that curator of the exhibition Dexter Wimberly describes in his recent accompanying article titled Black Abstractionists: From Then Til Now as having a style that embodies the traumas of racism. Wimberly’s statement goes on to say that, historically, figurative painting like this has been a more accepted art form created by Black artists within the institutionalized art world.  In other words, in order for institutionalized art organizations  to recognize art made by Black people, it most often portrayed violent or trauma-filled images of Black people. 

While the artworks speak loudly on their own, I highly recommend reading Wimberly’s article, Black Abstractionists: From Then Til Now in full. It provides a deeper understanding of why the abstract art is so powerful in this context and demonstrates how, in one way or another, the show truly embodies Alma Thomas’ quote, “Through color, I have sought to concentrate on beauty and happiness, rather than man’s inhumanity to man.” These abstract works are beautiful, and given the opportunity, whether online or in-person, I hope you take a moment to see the ways in which this show highlights this form of abstract beauty.

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