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Collection in Context

The web-based series Collection in Context provides fresh perspectives on artworks in the Studio Museum’s permanent collection. Members of the Museum’s curatorial department draw out themes found within a diverse range of works, providing new ways of looking at Black artistic production since the early nineteenth century. This series will be updated periodically to celebrate the breadth and depth of the collection.

Abstraction

Can changing the visual conditions of one’s environment subsequently change one’s life? This Collection in Context is inspired by the Smokehouse Associates, who from 1968 through 1970 transformed

Can changing the visual conditions of one’s environment subsequently change one’s life? This Collection in Context is inspired by the Smokehouse Associates, who from 1968 through 1970 transformed vacant lots and barren walls throughout Harlem with colorful, abstract murals and sculptures. Founded by William T. Williams and comprising Melvin Edwards, Guy Ciarcia, and Billy Rose, the Smokehouse Associates executed a series of painted walls in pocket parks, above neighborhood grocers, and against building facades. Employing abstraction as a device for community engagement, the collective endeavored to “let the message be the change rather than put information out which said why the world needed changing.”1 At the same time, the Black Power movement endorsed Black figuration as a conceptual and aesthetic tool for Black empowerment. Smokehouse instead embraced nonrepresentational techniques—through abstract geometries and hard-edged forms—to cultivate vibrancy, invite leisure, and, in due course, inspire local residents to borrow painting materials to enhance their surroundings.

Around Smokehouse’s inception, Black artists such as Frank Bowling, Sam Gilliam, Al Loving, Alma Thomas, and Jack Whitten were also forging new directions in abstraction. Frank Bowling’s Blond Betsey (1976) showcases the artist’s technique of pouring paint onto canvas to create washes of color. For William T. Williams and Al Loving, intersecting geometric shapes dominate in Trane (1969) and Variations on a Six Sided Object (1967), respectively, while in Untitled (1968), Betty Blayton-Taylor's entangled collage elements and loose brushstrokes portray a unique three-dimensionality. Among other artists, Ed Clark began experimenting with nonconventional painting tools (a push broom), and, notably, Clark is the first credited artist to exhibit a shaped canvas. And, Alma Thomas’s Space (1966) and Sam Gilliam’s Northwest Winds (1974) offer viewers with abstract representations of the world around us.

Within their refusals of figuration, these artists stirred emotive responses toward—and sometimes away from—the social and political. While Smokehouse’s efforts galvanized the communal potential of abstraction, the individual artists in this collection created a theoretical through-line between nonrepresentational art and freedom, and between blackness and expansion. Scholars and writers like Adrienne Edwards and Eric Booker have articulated this connection, the latter author affirming blackness and abstraction as “fluid and unfixed, it is not bound by a singular narrative or identity.”2 With this in mind, abstraction exists along a movable axis—with aesthetics and protest on either side—generating the opportunity to impact one’s exterior (built environment) and interior (mind).

Abstraction was organized by Habiba Hopson, Curatorial Assistant, Collections.

Endnotes
[1] Melvin Edwards and Michel Oren, Michel Oren interviews with artists, 1979–1991, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, 5.
[2] Smokehouse Associates, ed. Eric Booker (New York: The Studio Museum in Harlem, 2022), 28.

 


Everyday Reconsiderations

In this group, the everyday is abstracted, not erased—materials and objects are reworked, reassembled, repurposed, and transformed. This is not a new premise, as generations of creatives have used

In this group, the everyday is abstracted, not erased—materials and objects are reworked, reassembled, repurposed, and transformed. This is not a new premise, as generations of creatives have used this approach. These works embrace the possibilities of ordinary objects and materials: those that facilitate tasks, those that populate our homes, those we wear, and those we discard. In abstracting the source, artists ask us to consider what associations are tied to their chosen materials, despite the ways they transform them beyond their original state.

The degrees to which these artists manipulate their quotidian materials vary. Altering perceptions is fundamental to Willie Cole. In Untitled Skull (II) (1992), a steam iron becomes a human cranium. The transformation allows us to readily connect the object to the hands that activate it and a history of generations of unsung domestic laborers. Senga Nengudi’s R.S.V.P. V (1973) leans into the properties of nylon stockings, namely their engineered purpose to flex and mold to the needs of a body. The stockings evoke the elasticity of the body—what it can withstand—but also the tensions of its possible limit.

Artists Derrick Adams and Shinique Smith look to fashion for materials, from which they draw out the geometric and organic, respectively. In The Journey (2017), Adams uses clothing patterns as his collage materials, embracing the possibilities of their abstract forms and their geometric essence. Smith layers and molds discarded or surplus textiles in Black and White Floaty (2006). By reinvigorating materials deemed irrelevant, the artist calls attention to the excessive consumption that powers the fashion industry. Lastly, in Stripes (2016), Rodney McMillian uses a post-consumer bedsheet—highlighting its canvas-like qualities—and applies stripes of latex to add texture to the fabric. For the artist, used objects, like bed linens, address matters of intimacy, as they can imply bodies even in their absence.

Everyday Reconsiderations was organized by Zuna Maza, former Joint Curatorial Fellow, The Studio Museum in Harlem and The Museum of Modern Art.


Refusal

“She won’t be no bird in a cage, no black woman at the lectern, no model Negro, no cog in the machine.”

“She won’t be no bird in a cage, no black woman at the lectern, no model Negro, no cog in the machine.”

— Saidiya Hartman, “Notes on Feminisms: The Plot of Her Undoing,” 2019

These works celebrate the right to refuse; to contradict; to say no; to be disorderly, unmanageable, and unruly. They focus on the artist as troublemaker, and look to refusal as a generative and deeply creative process.

What is refusal? Elizabeth Catlett’s Homage to the Panthers (1970) sets the scene as a reminder of the long legacy of refusal and protest at the core of Black radical movements. The Black Panthers’ Ten-Point Program—a set of guidelines that outlined the Party’s platform centered on the liberation of Black folks—embodies this spirit. Refusal can also exist at the individual level, expressed through the body. In Dawoud Bey’s A Boy in Front of the Loews 125th Street Movie Theater, 1976 (1976), refusal turns a barricade into a prop for the studied pose of a boy in dark glasses and fresh white sneakers. Refusal can speak with a quiet intensity, capturing our attention by making us lean in closer. In this way, Bethany Collins and Tony Lewis offer up redaction as a means of refusal, replacing text with thick, black boxes that defy legibility and bring new contexts and connotations to their source material. And in Adrian Piper’s Self-Portrait as a Nice White Lady (1995), refusal is defiant, and sounds like, “What choo lookin at, mofo?” Kalup Linzy’s Untitled (3 of 3) (2005) brings home the idea of refusal. To be mama’s badass child is a distinguished position. The honor comes from living between the two meanings of badass: to be big trouble, and to be truly remarkable.

Refusal was organized by Jordan Jones, former Joint Curatorial Fellow, The Studio Museum in Harlem and The Museum of Modern Art.


On Care

The works here bring us in, offer a hand, and a bit of tenderness—they come together to think about care. They highlight the networks of support that exist among friends, across generations of family,

The works here bring us in, offer a hand, and a bit of tenderness—they come together to think about care. They highlight the networks of support that exist among friends, across generations of family, and between all manner of loved ones, showing how care work is essential. In turn, the artworks may perform a bit of care for the viewer, offering a place to rest the mind and eyes.

How do we take care of each other? We hold space for each other—space to talk, to feel, and to lighten the weight of the world. Untitled (1990/2000), by Carrie Mae Weems, who is known for her sensitive photographs of Black interior life, captures an everyday but intimate moment shared by two figures who lean into a private space all their own. Njideka Akunyili Crosby’s Nwantinti (2012), Malick Sidibé’s Vue de Dos (2002), and Elizabeth Catlett’s Mother and Child (1993) pay attention to the loving actions that link people: a head in a lap, an arm encircling a waist, shoulders gently brushing up against each another, a hand on a back. Sadie Barnette’s drawings offer a genealogy of care, in which a branching family holds each member in place. Leslie Hewitt expands that network beyond the bounds of biological family, inviting the viewer to take part in, and be supported by, a collective family history.

These artworks explore care as a constant exchange, something given and something received. Surveying these works, it is important to acknowledge the Black women at their core, and at the center of so much care work.

On Care was organized by Jordan Jones, former Joint Curatorial Fellow, The Studio Museum in Harlem and The Museum of Modern Art.


Black Wall Street

Inextricably linked, the oppressive structures of racism and capitalism have had a profound impact on Black life to this day. The works here not only examine the entwined history of racism and

Inextricably linked, the oppressive structures of racism and capitalism have had a profound impact on Black life to this day. The works here not only examine the entwined history of racism and capitalism but also imagine ways of existing outside of both. 

Throughout history, Black prosperity has been seen as a threat to whiteness. In the face of this, Dawoud Bey’s Mr. Moore’s Bar- B-Que, 125th Street, 1976 (1976)  is one of many photographs in his “Harlem, USA” series that documents Black businesses throughout Harlem, marking them as vital parts of the neighborhood and local economy. Artists such as Noah Davis examine the moments when Black financial success has come under attack. Davis’s Black Wall Street (2008) reflects on the 1921 Tulsa Massacre, when the country’s wealthiest Black neighborhood, once known as Black Wall Street, was burned to the ground by white mobs.


How might we reimagine our systems of value? Hank Willis Thomas appropriates images from advertisements directed to or featuring Black subjects, showing how desirable these images are, and in turn, how valuable they are to those selling products attached to them. David Hammons and Meschac Gaba ask us to consider new possibilities for how money might exist in the world. In Hammons’s Too Obvious (1996), the cowrie shells, a precolonial West African currency, that fill the piggy bank acknowledge how that system of value was violently supplanted. Gaba’s African Artist with American Inspiration: Citigroup (2004) places images of himself and his artworks on dollar bills, creating an American currency that celebrates African artists and Black cultural production. 


If we are to leave capitalism behind entirely, then perhaps we should look to Pope L.’s Skin Set Drawing: Black People Are the Glory of a Shared Piece of Candy (2004) which calls to mind notions of mutual aid. It envisions an economy based in care, in shared sweetness. This is an ideal to hold on to as we move toward liberation and racial and economic justice. 

Black Wall Street was organized by Jordan Jones, former Joint Curatorial Fellow, The Studio Museum in Harlem and The Museum of Modern Art.


Love as a Practice

As we attempt to strike anew this year, it seems necessary to operate from a place of compassionate, generous love—for our community, for those who’ve worked tirelessly to provide, produce, and care

As we attempt to strike anew this year, it seems necessary to operate from a place of compassionate, generous love—for our community, for those who’ve worked tirelessly to provide, produce, and care for our loved ones, and for ourselves. As says the late bell hooks (1952–2021), the practice of love remains central to social justice work: “The moment we choose to love, we begin to move against domination, against oppression. The moment we choose to love, we begin to move toward freedom, to act in ways that liberate ourselves and others.*” Just as experiences with art can inspire relief from the material world, so can the will to love. This curated selection of artworks present scenes of beauty, prayer, pleasure, and all-encompassing, unconditional love.

 

 

*hooks, bell. “Love as the Practice of Freedom.” Outlaw Culture: Resisting Representations, Routledge, New York, 1994.

 

Love as a Practice was organized by Habiba Hopson, Curatorial Assistant, Collections.


Thresholds

In reflecting on art as a portal between the tangible and spiritual, the following are altars, maps, paintings, and multimedia works that engage ritual and introspection.  

In reflecting on art as a portal between the tangible and spiritual, the following are altars, maps, paintings, and multimedia works that engage ritual and introspection.  

Betye Saar’s triptych assemblage Window of Ancient Sirens (1979) depicts an Egyptian pharaoh's golden head and a framed bird statuette flanked on the left by a figure reminiscent of the Egyptian funerary ba-bird of the Ptolemaic period, its sun disk reflecting cycles of the moon, and on the right by a solar orbit encircling a woman in a red smock. In Naudline Pierre’s painting Guardian (in Green) (2020), a celestial black-winged figure hovers in space as an orb of chartreuse light emanates from their cornrows and braided ponytail. Firelei Báez and Jeff Donaldson conjure an intergenerational and intercultural dialogue, shedding light on Yoruban spiritual traditions in, respectively, Elegant gathering in a secluded garden (or the many bridges we crossed) (2018) and Victory in the Valley of Eshu (1971).  

Sam Gilliam’s Mars I (1974) blends the abstraction of bleeding tones of magenta and navy coupled with the softened texture of rice paper. The pools of rich colors might simulate black holes awaiting to swallow the viewer into deep space. Hale Woodruff’s Portal (n.d.) is believed to be created in the early 1960s—during the conception of the artist collective Spiral—amid the artist’s “Celestial Gate” series, where he explored the theme of thresholds. In Tracey Moffatt’s Invocations (10) (2000), a little girl with deep brown skin in a blue dress and hairbows crosses the threshold between a knotted forest onto a warped desert landscape—the spectral composition encapsulating her in time. We see a similar “hyperlapse” technique explored within Entropia (construction) (2005), as Julie Mehretu layers reconstructed drawings that fold in on themselves repeatedly to lure the viewer into the composition, forming a passageway between audience and object. Charles Gaines’s Randomized Text Drawing #2 (2006) places excerpts from Love in The Time of Cholera (Gabriel García Márquez, 1985) and Orientalism (Edward Said, 1978), below a photo of a night sky. Gaines draws connections between cosmic and literary worlds, emphasizing the impact of human creation through a single luminous star to the left.   

By mapping a world anew, and manifesting reconstructed futures in our image, in art, the divine becomes an extension of our reality. In this selection, each work relishes uncertainty and presents a point of access to the unknown. To cross this threshold is to honor ourselves as guardians of our present and guides for the rest of our way home.  

Thresholds was organized by Starasea Camara, Joint Curatorial Fellow, The Studio Museum in Harlem and The Museum of Modern Art. Listen to Starasea speak more about Thresholds on the Bloomberg Connects app here.


Landscapes

Land has served as a source of inspiration for generations of artists across time—for its beauty, its resources, its embattled histories, its social and economic implications, and its capability for

Land has served as a source of inspiration for generations of artists across time—for its beauty, its resources, its embattled histories, its social and economic implications, and its capability for both destruction and rebirth. For some artists, landscapes offer moments to revel in or contemplate the sublime. For others, landscapes bring the delicate balance of life into focus. Artists have looked to the land to understand society’s place in the world and the many unjust human histories that have resulted from conquest, cultivation, and “progress.” More recently, artists are considering the hand we all play in preserving the land for others by depicting the ecological toll that human industry has played on our environment. Through a variety of media and styles, these works pay deep respect to our lands and invite in reflection and consideration.

Landscapes was organized by Connie Choi, Associate Curator of the Permanent Collection.