One-Dimensional Abstraction

Darby English, 1971: A Year in the Life of Color. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016. 312 pp.; 47 color ills., 26 b/w. Cloth $40, ebook $10 (9780226131054)


Darby English’s polemical account of black abstraction, 1971: A Year in the Life of Color, has arrived right on time. In the last twenty years or so, those of us working in North America and western Europe have witnessed an explosion of market, critical, and exhibitionary interest in the abstract work of a number of primarily male African American artists who emerged in the 1960s and 1970s. From an economic perspective, this renewed interest may be nothing more than a symptom of the contemporary art world’s rampant speculation; abstract paintings are, after all, some of the most prized commodities available. One might even argue that the move to recuperate black practitioners working nonrepresentationally is simply the market’s way of providing a greater variety of product, now crafted by long-neglected artists whose revelatory work is implicitly “blackened” by their identities yet still wonderfully appealing, thereby delivering alterity in safely consumable and relatively inexpensive forms.

To understand the discursive forgetting and recovery of such work, it is helpful to recall photographer Dawoud Bey’s important 2004 Artnet article “The Ironies of Diversity, or the Disappearing Black Artist.” Bey aimed to interrogate the ways in which the grounds of aesthetic appraisal, in particular since the 1980s, have constantly shifted under the feet of black artists. So, just as the abstract painter William T. Williams became the very first African American to be included in that once ubiquitous survey text, H. W. Janson’s The History of Art, poststructuralist discourses forced a revision of such teleological narratives that concluded with high modernist painting in favor of a semiotic approach, which emphasized the deconstruction of the sign as opposed to the formal analysis of the object. In these schemas, Bey argued, African American artists were desired as signs of diversity, but the diversity of their practices could rarely be countenanced, with particularly deleterious effects for work and thought on abstraction produced by black hands.

Of course, folks in the black US art world and its institutions have been thinking about these quandaries and advocating for abstract work by African Americans for decades, arguably none more so than the Studio Museum in Harlem, whose inaugural exhibition in 1968 featured the light sculptures of Tom Lloyd, the first in a consistent string of solo exhibitions devoted to major African American abstractionists.Art historian and curator Kellie Jones revisited these legacies in her 2006 show Energy/Experimentation: Black Artists and Abstraction, 1964–1980, which also looked back to April Kingsley’s pioneering 1980 exhibition Afro-American Abstraction at New York’s MoMA PS1. Yet vital as these and many other interventions have been in raising the profiles of African American abstract artists, they have tended—as even the phrasing of Jones’s subtitle, Black Artists and Abstraction, suggests—to see the two terms as in need of conjoining rather than as always already belonging together, despite the contrary evidence offered by, say, the extraordinary nonobjective modernist craft work produced by the quilters of Gee’s Bend.1

From one perspective, this bifurcation makes a certain cultural sense: as literary critic Philip Brian Harper reminds us in his recent book, the black US aesthetic tradition has often, paradoxically, been framed as one that, in the words of poet June Jordan, “abhors all abstraction.”2 Indeed, is not a form of abstraction key to those very processes of racialization and stereotyping—think Samboes, Mammies, and all their riotous offspring—that have rendered the visual itself what critic Michele Wallace once famously called “a negative scene of instruction,” in which African Americans are ceaselessly caricatured within representation at the same time that their contributions to modern artistic practice are made effectively invisible?3 Confronted with this impasse, writers—at times quite convincingly and at others significantly less so—have developed approaches that seek out black referents buried within abstract visual languages, that compare painting to jazz in order to license the unfurling of nonrepresentational form, or that throw their hands up altogether by relying on the identity of the maker to solve the problem. How, then, to develop further critical frameworks for thinking about the work of African American artists who keep abstraction alive as a political site for imagining the world otherwise, especially in relation to ostensibly figurative work that seems to more directly address the unfolding of black life?

This is the aim of English’s 1971, which takes up and attempts to untangle the discursive knot that Bey identified.4 As such, the book promises to add a much-needed historicizing dimension to the spate of recent exhibition catalogues focused on black abstract artists as well as a welcome corrective to African American art historiography, which has tended to focus on representational practices, usually framed as imbued with political intent, whether direct or implicit.5 Rather than focus on works whose visual forms can be linked clearly to those of black vernacular textural traditions like quilting—as in the cases of Williams, Sam Gilliam, Al Loving, and, to a certain extent, Howardena Pindell and Barbara Chase-Riboud—English homes in on canvases by the likes of Ed Clark in which the autonomy of color, now virtually freed from the onus of description, takes center stage.

English’s 1971, then, is not merely a project of recovery, though this is surely one of its accomplishments given the historiographic precarity and visual interest of the artistic formations English aims to describe in what is a beautifully produced volume peppered with previously unpublished archival images and materials.6 He holds out these practices—perhaps above all those of the black Color Field painter Peter Bradley and his white predecessor Jules Olitski—as offering vital alternatives to the black nationalisms that, to his mind, both saturated the cultural field and delimited imaginings of aesthetic and political possibility. As English puts it, “by mobilizing modernism as a politics, these figures (and the experiments they factored into) illuminated the crisis of artistic freedom precipitated by the black liberation movement” (27). In his telling, “color paintings,” their makers, and the exhibitionary structures crafted to frame them become models that allow us to truly glimpse chroma—beyond the overdetermined structural antagonism signified by black and white—thanks both to the facture of the works themselves and to the mixed social gatherings that enabled them to be undertaken, thought, and displayed, if not successfully promoted or canonized.

To make the case, English focuses on two exhibitions of abstraction featuring interracial casts of artists mounted in the book’s titular year: Contemporary Black Artists in America at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, organized by the white curator Robert Doty, in part as a response to protests at the institution’s lack of diversity by the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition; and The DeLuxe Show in Houston, curated by Bradley and installed in a converted movie theater in “a southern black ghetto,” in part so that the school groups of African American children who visited the show might begin to see color and themselves differently (1). The monographic chapters devoted to these exhibitions are preceded by an introduction and an overview of the conceptual terrain in which the author aims to situate his critique. In its integrationist ambitions and its sympathy for appeals to the future—which, as Lee Edelman teaches us, should always be suspect since they typically mobilize sentiments on behalf of the child as an alibi for continued repressions in the present—English’s project is very much that of a progressive individualist. However, as quickly becomes clear, he has other targets in his sights.

For, in order to critically advocate for the specialness of abstract art by black practitioners, English feels compelled not only to denigrate contemporaneous politicized modes of figurative African American art and their advocates, but also to dismiss his scholarly antecedents, from Jones to Ann Eden Gibson, whose shortcomings, by his lights, are emblematic of those of African American art history at large, which “appropriates abstract art to a racialist cause” (13).7 In so doing, rather than aiming to understand the political ambitions and rhetorical complexities of these writings in their historical context, he cherry-picks words and phrases from black artists, theorists, and art historians that suit his argument despite his warning to avoid “caricatures” of the most vaunted lights of white high modernism (7). Indeed, as Helen Vilalta notes in her commentary on 1971, English proverbially bends over backward to defend Doty’s overall project, despite the implicit racism of his Whitney catalogue essay, an interpretation that stands in stark contrast to the interrogation of the curator’s position takings offered by Susan Cahan, whose much more readable and archivally robust Mounting Frustration: The Art Museum in the Age of Black Power was also published in 2016.8

Something similar must also be said of English’s surprisingly narrow engagement with Clement Greenberg, who worked on The DeLuxe Show with Bradley and maintained friendly relationships with a number of black artists such as Frank Bowling; the recently published correspondence between the American critic and the Guyanese artist is, in fact, rife with highly evocative racial speculations that 1971 leaves unremarked.9 Instead, English begins by examining two black-and-white photographs that, taken together, show that Greenberg and Bradley once shared a cowboy hat, “a casual statement of affinity between the races” (3), though he has nothing to say about the fact that Greenberg, to my knowledge, never published a single word, positive or negative, on the work of a black artist during his lifetime. Thus, even as it attempts to resuscitate the perception of abstract art by African American practitioners, 1971 reproduces the very modes of erasure that structured the nation’s segregated art world and that played no small part in the attempt, by the very artists and thinkers whom English most disdains, to move beyond both “mainstream” institutional sites and aesthetic criteria.

English disallows consideration of these structural conditions to avoid making further racial complaints and to create a space for his chosen artists within a now largely discredited canonizing schema, but the effect of this refusal is to engender a double standard of evaluation that not only discursively reinscribes the divisions between black and white he ostensibly aims to undo, but that also seals the book within a nearly hermetic frame. While the University of Chicago Press website identifies 1971 as intervening in “Black Studies”—a dubious proposition for a book that claims that black culture resists “radical creative subjectivity” (24)—in addition to the fields of history and sociology, there is strikingly little sociohistorical grounding to be had in 1971. This is particularly true with regard to contemporaneous understandings of color, let alone how they may have intersected with notions of race, sexuality, class, or gender (the works of women artists, from Betty Blayton to Alma Thomas, are given relatively short shrift, though English certainly makes use of their rhetoric when it suits his ends).10 In other words, the political stakes of art and representation as embodied by color painting in this moment remain unclear; by book’s end, it is by no means apparent what, in fact, color was circa 1971 as either a racio-chromatic trope, a site of material production, or a technology of capital that increasingly came to mold both art and popular culture (it was in 1970–71, it should be noted, that color TVs first outsold black-and-white ones in the United States).

Ultimately, the narrator of 1971 is unreliable at best, and due to the strenuousness of his polemic, neither black nor white artists come out particularly well: while the book is punctuated with compelling moments of formal description, the reader, by and large, must proceed with care and a healthy dose of skepticism. On the one hand, in the course of his admittedly “chary” treatments of Lloyd, English repeats an account—based on a single uncorroborated source—that black audiences attacked the artist’s sculptures on the occasion of the Studio Museum’s first opening (37). On the other, while he shines fresh light on Olitski, his analyses rely heavily on Rosalind Krauss’s 1968 catalogue essay on the artist and, as Barry Schwabsky notes in his review of 1971, make little effort to defend the painter’s work from the subsequent critical discourse that damned it to near obscurity, a vapid form of decor for corporate suites rather than a spur to what Sampada Aranke has called “politicized looking.”11

Perhaps the greatest limitation of the book, however, is its myopic understanding, based on the tradition handed down by Greenberg and Michael Fried, of what constitutes an abstract modernist painterly practice, which, historically, has toggled uncomfortably between abstraction and figuration, rather than fully settling on either: just think of Helen Frankenthaler’s plays on landscape and its atmospheric effects or of Kenneth Noland’s near flirtation with the visual logic of the corporate logo. And, of course, blackness itself is nothing if not an endlessly labile abstraction, one imposed on peoples of African descent only to be redeployed as the motor for any number of avant-garde gambits, such as Malevich’s Black Square of 1915, recently shown to have a racist joke underneath its apparently blank surface. Reckoning with such dialectics—of abstraction as sign and secret, process and product, generalizing and specifying, racial and recalcitrant, of the work and out in the world—would have enabled the author to nuance his conceptions of aesthetic autonomy and to recover the bodily within the art of his chosen “color painters.” Just as important, such an approach would have allowed us to see both the complex engagements with politics in the work of Chase-Riboud, renowned for her “abstract” sculptural homages to Malcolm X, as well as the commitment to abstraction manifested in the “figurative” pictures of a black nationalist artist like AfriCobra member Nelson Stevens.

While highlighting a blind spot within art historiography and modeling an ostensible commitment to the multiplicity of African American expression, 1971 forsakes its own promise, instead exclusively advocating for a singular mode of color painting through a strong antipathy toward blackness under the cover of a weakly articulated formalism.12 In this sense, the book both reveals and extends the project of English’s How to See a Work of Art in Total Darkness (2007), which likewise circumscribes the messy entanglements of blackness in order to preserve the sanctity of hegemonic aesthetic categories, as if to make the work of African American artists a stable site from which to extend the discipline’s role in what I have elsewhere called “the social reproduction of white supremacy.”13 Nonetheless, his most recent effort is a productive inducement to begin imagining what a truly integrated and gender-balanced accounting of American painting and sculpture of the 1960s and 1970s might be, one that, rather than taking sides, might hold in tension the work of Bradley and Stevens, Chase-Riboud and Eva Hesse, Emory Douglas and Andy Warhol in considering the ties that link art and politics both despite and because of the divisions of identity, medium, and affiliation that prized them apart in life and in representation. With a bit of time and a heap of luck, the account of 1971 that we deserve may well arrive; in the meantime, the story that English tells here is not one to pass on.


Huey Copeland is Arthur Andersen Teaching and Research Professor and associate professor of art history at Northwestern University. A contributing editor of Artforum, chair of the board of advisors at the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts, and a 2019 Cohen Fellow at Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research, Copeland is the author of numerous publications, including Bound to Appear: Art, Slavery, and the Site of Blackness in Multicultural America (University of Chicago Press, 2013).


  1. I am not the first to make an observation along these lines in recent years: see, for example, Hilarie Sheets, “Black Abstraction: Not a Contradiction,” ARTnews, June 2014, 62.
  2. June Jordan, “Nobody Mean More to Me Than You and the Future Life of Willie Jordan,” in On Call: Political Essays (Boston: South End, 1985), 129, quoted in Philip Brian Harper, Abstractionist Aesthetics: Artistic Form and Social Critique in African American Culture (New York: New York University Press, 2015), 69.
  3. Michele Wallace, “Modernism, Postmodernism, and the Problem of the Visual in Afro-American Culture,” in Out There: Marginalization and Contemporary Cultures, ed. Russell Ferguson et al. (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1990), 41.
  4. English’s critical approach to the narration of black abstraction in 1971 is presaged by his “Review: Kobena Mercer, ed., Discrepant Abstraction,” caa.reviews, October 7, 2008, http://www.caareviews.org/reviews/1171#.XFm1_C2ZPOQ. He makes clear his debt to Bey in “Darby English and David Breslin on 1971: A Year in the Life of Color,” January 9, 2017, https://whitney.org/WatchAndListen/516?series=45.
  5. One recent exception to this tendency that provides a highly compelling model for countenancing the subject of black abstraction is Naomi Beckwith, “Body Optics, or Howardena Pindell’s Ways of Seeing,” in Howardena Pindell: What Remains to Be Seen, ed. Naomi Beckwith and Valerie Cassel Oliver (Chicago: Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, 2018), 87–108.
  6. English reproduces, in its entirety, Raymond Saunders’s 1967 pamphlet Black Is a Color as an appendix to his main text; Saunders’s writing—as well as that of Frank Bowling—provides an important precedent for the arguments that drive 1971.
  7. Strangely, English sidesteps Ann Eden Gibson’s essay in The Search for Freedom: African American Abstract Painting, 1945–1975 (New York: Kenkeleba Gallery, 1991), in which Bowling published his “Some Notes Towards an Exhibition of African American Abstract Art.”
  8. See, respectively, Helen Vilalta, “Review: Darby English, 1971: A Year in the Life of Color,” caa.reviews, April 12, 2018, http://caareviews.org/reviews/3207#.XFoIDC2ZPOQ; and Susan E. Cahan, “Contemporary Black Artists in America at the Whitney Museum of American Art,” in Mounting Frustration: The Art Museum in the Age of Black Power (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016), 109–70.
  9. See “Correspondence—Frank Bowling and Clement Greenberg, with an Introduction by Rose Jones,” in Frank Bowling: Mappa Mundi, ed. Okwui Enwezor (Munich: Haus der Kunst and Prestel Verlag, 2017), 220–47.
  10. In devoting most of its attention to male artists, 1971 is, in many ways, symptomatic of the larger discourse on black abstraction, though several recent exhibitions suggest that this oversight may soon be corrected. On this score, I think both of monographic volumes such as Beckwith and Cassel Oliver’s Howardena Pindell as well as the revelatory group exhibition and catalogue Magnetic Fields: Expanding American Abstraction, 1960s to Today, ed. Erin Dziedzic and Melissa Messina (Kansas City, MO: Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, 2017).
  11. On these scores, see, respectively, Barry Schwabsky, “Reader’s Diary: It Was a Colorful Year,” Hyperallergic, February 12, 2017, https://hyperallergic.com/357836/readers-diary-1971-a-year-in-the-life-of-color-darby-english/; and Sampada Aranke, “Fred Hampton’s Murder and the Coming Revolution,” Trans-Scripts 3 (2013): 116–39.
  12. Harper’s book (see note 2) might be characterized in inverse terms: its strong pro-black politic becomes an alibi for weak formal analyses, particularly of visual art, which lead the literary scholar to advocate, unsurprisingly, for the prose-poem as the most efficacious form of black abstractionist aesthetics. In both volumes, aesthetic evidence is marshaled toward a foregone conclusion rather than interrogated on its own terms.
  13. See Huey Copeland, “Unfinished Business as Usual: African American Artists, New York Museums, and the 1990s,” in Come as You Are: Art of the 1990s, ed. Alexandra Schwartz (Berkeley: University of California Press and Montclair Art Museum, 2014), 32.