Saturday, February 29, 2020


Post-war New York City saw the birth of abstract expressionism led by a group of white male artists. Norman Lewis, the only artist of color among them, is now considered the forebearer of African American abstraction. From then on, abstract enriched the vocabulary of artists who had to overcome the indifference, sometimes worse, the rejection not only from the art world but also from their own communities. Two years ago the Ogden Museum of Southern Art premiered a memorable exhibition Four Generations: The Joyner/Giuffrida Collection of Abstract Art. This time, the more intimate display assembles the works of sixteen African American artists, each represented by one piece from the museum's permanent collection. What Music is Within: Black Abstraction from the Permanent Collection complements a solo show Melvin Edwards: Crossroads set in the main gallery on the fifth floor.

Colors hit you when you enter the space. How can such a busy group show fit in the small gallery? A second look reveals the carefully laid out display which includes a large drawing from
Ron Bechet surrounded by wall sculptures from John T. Scott and Kevin Cole facing the entrance, and on the right side, three geometric abstract compositions in conversation with three expressionist paintings across the room. When turning around, the visitor encounters a stunning draped canvas from Sam Gilliam and next to it a smaller "box" in shades of pink constructed by Jeffrey CookClifton Webb's Totem, N.D., completes the show introduced by a wall text, a painting from Horton Humble, the youngest artist, member of Level Art Collective and a sculpture from Martin Payton profiled on the window's light in the hall.

This is a short description of the exhibition which warrants an in-depth look for the occasion to discover less famous artists like Merton Simpson or Moses Hogan who was better known as a pianist, conductor and composer. One can get lost in Forest Party, 1993, from the former, a textured rendition without focal point or look for the spiritual meaning of Turning Wheels, 1984, from the latter. Of course, local artists with their deep-rooted ties to music are well represented. John T. Scott was known to create his work while "jazz thinking" in his studio. His three pieces from the Ritual Cutter  series (1978) hung on the wall evoke instruments of torture, pain, tears, a song filled with sadness, and also of hope with colors bright like the sun. Music is a family affair for Martin Payton, brother of the famed trumpet player Nicholas and his sculptures often bear the name of  musicians, on view here Dexter, 1998, for Dexter Gordon. When I look to Ron Bechet's (related to Sydney) works, I hear Spirituals. Jeffrey Cook was a dancer for a period of time. Sam Gilliam is a fan of  Miles Davis and John Coltrane. Eugene Martin thought about becoming a jazz musician like his father and it shows in his jazzy composition illustrating the correspondence between rhythm and lines, melody and colors. Both Gilliam and Martin were connected in some ways with the Corcoran School of the Arts and Design in Washington, D.C., Robert Reed spent most of his career further North as a teacher at Yale University School of Art and  Arlington Weathers migrated from Guyana. The exhibition stretches not only geographically but also in time, representing fifty years of African American abstract art and its various styles from expressionist to geometric and color field.

Music needs to be heard, visual art needs to be seen and the exhibition is a great occasion to look at pieces of the permanent collection in the context of music. William T. Williams states that he was often asked:"Why are you making abstraction? It's not African American art" and he would answer "Jazz is the most abstract of all music. Music is totally abstract. How can you not say there's a tradition of abstraction."

photographs by the author:

view of the exhibition: 
Robert Reed "San Romano, Monticello, Brick II", 1982
John Barnes "Doe Poppin' II", 2015
Clifton Webb "Totem", N.D.

Eugene Martin "Geometric Abstract", 1999

Sam Gilliam "Drape Work", 1970

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