Blackness in Abstraction

Jan 5, 2015 / by Adrienne Edwards / Art in America

EMBOSSED CIRCLES OF matte black silicone form a constellation through which barbed projectiles burst, extending beyond the limits of the round form filling the 10-foot-square relief. The unwieldy circles come together through a false impression of repetition. In the oxymoronically titled BlackSun (2013-14), artist Adam Pendleton (b. 1984) reimagines a drawing by the late musician/poet Sun Ra, creating a work that is enveloped and consumed in a metaphor of darkness.

Blackness in abstraction, as we find in Black Sun, shifts analysis away from the black artist as subject and instead emphasizes blackness as material, method and mode, insisting on blackness as a multiplicity. In this sense, we can think of what it does in the world without conflating it—and those who understand blackness from within a system that deems them black, that is black people—with a singular historical narrative or monolithic subjectivity. Glenn Ligon was in the vanguard of this shift, and other artists of African descent, including Steve McQueen, Jennie C. Jones, Ellen Gallagher, Rashid Johnson and Samuel Levi Jones, have realized black abstract works. Before them, Barbara Chase-Riboud, Melvin Edwards and Jack Whitten did as well.

Blackness, in the fullest sense of the word, has a seemingly unlimited usefulness in the history of modern art. One need only think of Jackson Pollock and the influence of black culture on his painting through his engagement with jazz music. Within abstract painting made in the U.S., Frank Stella, Robert Rauschenberg, Mark Rothko and Ad Reinhardt have created canvases in shades of black. Perhaps these artists were marking their exhaustion with painting or indicating a turn toward a new phase in their art-making, or perhaps these works were solicitations to the viewer to pursue the illegible and the unknowable.

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