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1971: A Year in the Life of Color

Darby English’s 1971: A Year in the Life of Color points to a moment when the self-representation of black American artists working in the wake of modernism manifested in two shows staged during a tumultuous period of cultural, political, and aesthetic change—Contemporary Black Artists in America, at the Whitney Museum of American Art, and The DeLuxe Show, “a racially integrated abstract art exhibition presented in a renovated movie theater in a Houston ghetto.”


Hyperallergic (in a piece by Jessica Bell Brown) has more commentary on what the convergence of these two shows meant for dismantling a homogeneous narrative of black modernist expression:

Enter 1971, which takes as its starting point a most urgent year in aesthetic and racial politics. English’s object of study are two exhibitions essential to the ongoing relationship between black American artists and modernism: The Deluxe Show and the Contemporary Black Artists in America exhibition at the Whitney Museum, preceding Deluxe in the spring of 1971. In his book, English magnifies “an unprecedented brief swell of dissent within black political culture” that year, centering his study on the status and relevance of “color” as an aesthetic and social obsession. For so long, historians of African American art were unable to move past prioritizing representation. This he took up in 2007 with How to See a Work of Art in Total Darkness, a provocation to move away from racialized readings of art. In an email, English likened 1971 to a kind of prequel to How to See a Work of Art in Total Darkness that instead focuses on “historical agents” — artists and curators — who challenged such oversimplified readings in their studios and with the shows that they staged. “Can’t we get clear of these degrading limitations and recognize the wider reality of art, where color is the means and not the end?” artist Raymond Saunders writes in his landmark essay from 1967, “Black Is A Color,” reprinted in full in 1971.

In English’s view, The Deluxe Show and the Contemporary Black Artists in America framed artists’ work in open-ended ways, beyond societal structures of segregation and separatism. It is a chapter in art history that he uncovers with rich and meticulous archival research and a fresh perspective on how this multicultural moment was essentially erased from the story of American art.

For the 1971 Contemporary Black Artists in America show at the Whitney Museum, a really long, sprawling geometric painting titled “WYN…Time Trip I” by Al Loving greeted visitors off the elevator. To English, this was a “completely incomprehensive statement” for an exhibition that, in title, colludes the artist as a racialized subject, pegging the art as an explicit expression of their blackness. The exhibition was not without controversy, and many black artists were apprehensive. Some even pulled their works from the show. The Black Emergency Cultural Coalition, whose members included artists Benny Andrews and Clifford Joseph, protested in January, months before the exhibition was even mounted.

In front of a window of a gallery in the Breuer building, Fred Eversley had planned to install a 72-inch pink acrylic disc, that when refracting light and images from inside the space and the outside world, would fill the galleries with pink, effervescent light. At the talk, English captured Eversley’s proposed plan as an example of art’s capacity to make space “for people to come together and come apart without calamity.” Perhaps the message is that, despite circumstances of racial tension and social upheavals, artists found autonomy in their studios, and even worked collaboratively, across racial lines in the case of The Deluxe Show. However, work like Eversley’s, known for his futuristic, machine-fabricated convex lenses, was not without criticism within the black community. “What is a pink disc going to do to help me get free?” English recalls the political arguments among artists.


To read the Hyperallergic review in full, click here.

To read more about 1971, click here.