Emily Colucci, “Black Is and Black Ain’t in Pace Gallery’s ‘Blackness in Abstraction’.” ARTFCITY.com. August 18, 2016.
“Black is and black ain’t.” Walking through Pace Gallery’s current exhibition Blackness in Abstraction, I began to think about that title line from Marlon Riggs’s final film—taken from the prologue of Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man. Even more than the pervasive “Black is beautiful,” this curiously ambiguous phrase hints at the multitude of meanings, voices, and questions surrounding blackness in the exhibition.
Curated by Adrienne Edwards, the Walker Art Center’s visual arts curator at large, Blackness in Abstraction brings together a multigenerational group of artists who work with the color black. The show also gathers artists of varying races and ethnicities. This leads to a rich juxtaposition between abstract stalwarts like Sol LeWitt, Ad Reinhardt, Robert Rauschenberg, and Robert Irwin with black artists like Rashid Johnson, Wangechi Mutu, Terry Adkins and Carrie Mae Weems who are too often contextualized in relation to their racial identities. In contrast to shows like Radical Presence: Black Performance in Contemporary Art, Blackness in Abstraction argues that identity can be a chapter but it isn’t the whole story. The show depicts what would happen if we looked beyond an artist’s own blackness to, instead, investigate their use of blackness.
Blackness in Abstraction presents a staggering variety of approaches to blackness with sixty multidisciplinary artworks—even more counting the numerous multiples. The show takes up the entirety of Pace Gallery, further expanding its exhibition space with several temporary walls. Fred Sandback’s multi-stranded minimalist yarn sculpture stretches tautly from floor to ceiling, Glenn Ligon’s photographic appropriation of James Baldwin
texts fades to black when high on the wall, and Fred Wilson’s iconic, symbol-laden flag series hangs vertically in the corners. Adam Pendleton’s coded sculptural arrangement “Untitled (code poem Los Angeles)” even provides the gallery staff with some extra anxiety due to its precarious proximity to Pace’s entrance and clumsy visitors’ steps.
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The multiplicity in McQueen’s photographs mirrors the complexity that runs through the most successful works in the show, which embrace the multiple meanings of blackness. Take, for example, Lorraine O’Grady’s video “Landscape (Western Hemisphere).” Entering a separate video gallery, the viewer hears sounds of chirping birds, insects and other surrounding environmental noise. The visuals immediately appear like a wave of flowing grass blown by the wind. Rather than a landscape, O’Grady’s video animates the landscape of the flowing curls in her natural hair.
Here Edwards’ curatorial strength comes to the fore. The video is clearly a powerful embrace of natural hair as a symbol of black femininity and beauty. But it can also be understood in the abstracted context of the rippled textures of Koji Enokura’s minimalistic painting on cotton that slides down a wall outside O’Grady’s video gallery. By combining these artworks, Edwards seems to be demanding more from viewers, art historians and curators. If we look beyond blackness as an either/or category in art—as either “identity” or “color”—what new understandings will we discover?