VIDEO: African American Abstraction at Michael Rosenfeld Gallery. Part I

Beyond the Spectrum. Abstraction in African American Art, 1950 – 1975

Part I

We are remarkably lucky to live in a city that not only has phenomenal museums but also some 900 art galleries some of which routinely mount museum-level exhibitions. Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, that recently re-located to its new spacious ground-level exhibition space in the very framed Jean Nouvel building in Chelsea, is one such venue. Over the last 20+ years the gallery focused its programming on American art in the 20th century paying particular attention to African American artists. The latest exhibition, Beyond the Spectrum, Abstraction in African American Art, 1950 — 1975 brings together several pillars of the genre, among them Hale Woodruff, Alma Thomas, Harold Cousins, Norman Lewis, Beauford Delaney, Charles Alston and others.

In Part One of our interview we talked to Michael about the overall history of African American Art in the middle of the 20th century, their path to abstraction, and inspirations behind the artists’ developing their personal language and imagery.

galleryIntell: The average museum goer probably knows quite a few modern abstract painters: Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, Adolph Gottlieb, Helen Frankenthaler, Franz Kline, all come to mind quite easily, but I doubt we could name even one African American painter from that period. So, why don’t we start with the basics. Help us name names.

Michael Rosenfeld: It’s a remarkably small group of African American artists, who chose the path of abstraction from that generation that was born around the turn of the century. It’s Beauford Delaney, Norman Lewis, Charles Alston, Hale Woodruff, the sculptor Harold Cousins and Alma Thomas. They came up as artists, like most of the artists of the New York School — like Jackson Pollock, Rothko and de Kooning, looking at Primitivism, looking at organic abstraction, exploring Surrealism in the 1940’s and defining their personal language of abstraction. The path of abstraction for an African American artist of that generation was very courageous. Whereas artists who are, perhaps, better known, such as Romare Bearden and Jacob Lawrence depicted the black experience. They made a point of painting and making images that would change people’s understanding of the black experience, or make the world aware of the black experience.

GI: Are these themes completely unique, or is there shared ground with some of the themes explored by the AbEx artists?

MR: The evolution of Abstract Expressionism in the 1940’s focused around New York City, and it was an evolution that revolved around exploring Cubism and Surrealism, exploring Primitivism and Myth and these artists are trying to create a more universal language. Depicting a scene with figures on the street in New York, or depicting farmers with a hay wagon in the Midwest, isn’t really universal. Abstractionists were trying to find and develop a language that could communicate universally. [Carl] Jung is of an enormous interest to the abstract artists of this era.

A number of African American artists coming up during that period, like Hale Woodruff and Charles Alston latched on to images that are particular to their heritage. For example Hale Woodruff’s abstractions tend to reference African gold weights. You wouldn’t know that it it wasn’t explained to you,  but that becomes a theme in his work and these beautiful forms of the African gold weights become the subject of his abstractions.

Norman Lewis, who evolved into his language of Abstract Expressionism, which was a calligraphic language, a language of line, was particularly interested in jazz. Jazz, as a theme, was particularly interesting to him, to the African American experience, but also essential to the evolution of Abstract Expressionism. This idea of jazz and improvisation, tapping into the unconscious. This same process that the artists are trying to tap into to create their abstractions. So many artists, African American and not, listened to jazz. It’s what they went to hear, it’s what they played in their studios, for the most part. But particularly for Norman Lewis, it’s not that that’s all that he painted, but it’s a theme in his work from beginning to end that’s hard to miss. His work is also often described as full of little images, or “little people” – his calligraphic line, which fluidly creates the subjects of crowds or jazz quartets. Though without that knowledge of his interest in jazz one might not see that in all the work, but once you do, it’s hard to miss it.

Images provided courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery and are used with permission. This video and interview © galleryIntell. Images of Norman Lewis’ artwork © The Estate of Norman W. Lewis, Courtesy of Iandor Fine Arts, New Jersey.

Charles Alston (1907-1977)
Flowers of Evil, 1952
oil on canvas
50 1/4 x 30 1/4 inches, signed and datedNorman Lewis (1909-1979)
Promenade, 1950
oil on canvas
40 x 30 inches, signed and datedHale Woodruff (1900-1980)
Portal 2, c.1968
oil on  canvas
42 x 32 inches, signed
Hale Woodruff (1900-1980)
Rape of Europa, c.1958
oil on canvas
48 ⅛ x 60 inches, signedHale Woodruff (1900-1980)
Sun, Moon, Star, c.1965-70
oil on canvas
30 x 25 inches, signedJacob Lawrence
Confrontation at the Bridge
from An American Portrait,
Volume II: Not Songs of Loyalty Alone
, 1975
© 2014 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Lawrence Foundation, Seattle
Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York