Figuratively Speaking: Decoding Blackness in Abstract Expressionism

by Chenoa Baker

While attending the exhibition, Artistic License, at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, I noticed the setup mimicked the barriers to understanding abstraction. Artistic License sought to mine the Modern and early contemporary collections of the museum, while showcasing the curation by artists rather than staff members. The curators, Cai Guo-Qiang, Paul Chan, Jenny Holzer, Julie Mehretu, Richard Prince, and Carrie Mae Weems, guided the visitor through the space. Noticeably, in the higher floors, the artwork became more abstract. The visitor’s experience mirrors the process of understanding abstract artwork: first, the visitor is in the artist’s head trying to figure out their intention, and secondly, they climb up the metaphorical floors of social and intellectual elitism as they grapple with artwork. Particularly in the floor that Carrie Mae Weems curated, where she showcased abstract artwork in black and white to comment on the binary, I noticed less people on this floor and more general confusion. The confusion was not knowing how to interact with the art. I heard things like “I don’t get it, a three year old could have done this.” The exhibition was wonderful, but it brings to question–who is it for if people have a hard time connecting with abstract art? While this style seems inaccessible, Black artists that embrace this style remove the veneer on their psyche and reveal “aesthetics irrevocably tied to real experience.”

Black art has multiple layers of meaning making–the individual’s thoughts and feelings, as well as the experiences of the collective. Black abstract art is seldom art for art’s sake, which means that it exists solely for the purpose of art made by an individual with no commentary or meaning. This type of thinking came out of modernity and became adopted by white men, who were recognized as abstract expressionists.

Richard Mayhew, Untitled, Oil on canvas. Image courtesy of Artsy.

Interpreting Two-Dimensional Works 

Since our eyes gravitate towards figural and identifiable imagery, abstract art may be hard to understand at first. However, once you master the keys to unlocking this style, you are on your way to loving Black abstract art. These keys to understanding Black abstract art are using context clues to break down the artwork’s composition, social history, medium, and title. This allows you to move past the abstraction and hold onto identifiable themes and concepts. 

For instance, in the artwork by Richard Mayhew, as shown above, notice the vibrant warm palette, the overlapping loose swirling pattern of the brushstrokes, and natural feeling of this image. This painting looks like a colorful landscape. When thinking about the social history, since the medium and title do not provide any context clues, the era, intention, and background of the artist provides the best point of reference for understanding this image. Sometimes this information is on a label, causes you to do extra research, or is inherent in the composition of the painting. In this case, Untitled, requires knowledge of the background of Mayhew. From a label of this work, you can find out that he was born in 1924. This indicates he experienced The Great Depression, World War II, and the Civil Rights Era. The majority of his work came out of the 1970s. Therefore, Mayhew is interested in creating works that represent racial equality in egalitarian landscapes. These paintings emote bold feelings yet have an identifiable softness to them.

Mavis Pusey, Mobile Images, etching. Image courtesy of 1st Dibs.

Contrastingly, Mavis Pusey’s work relies on the interpretation of geometric forms rather than organic ones. First, notice her work (pictured above) that is center-heavy and monochromatic with strong lines, circles, and squares. These shapes resemble a flattened urban landscape because of its busy composition with strong shapes and lines. These shapes and lines may represent building materials, fire escapes, and streets. It helps to find similarities in identifiable elements because it can unlock what the artist is communicating and it makes the image more intriguing. However, remember that the artist’s intention and your interpretation based on your visual comprehension may be different.

Secondly, Pusey’s background is relevant to her work. She was born in 1928 in Jamaica, but as a young adult moved to New York City. Her artwork adopted building construction subject matter she witnessed in New York City. While working in the 1960s and 1970s, her work surely chronicles gentrification and changes in the urban landscape. Usually, the medium that an artist utilizes can provide a hint into its greater meaning. The only hint an etching provides is that it has traces of what the artist puts in the composition rather than it being an easily erasable medium. Thirdly, the title provides the most insight: Mobile Images suggests movement and change of the urban landscape she references.

Ronald Walton, Time Out, oil on paper on canvas. Image courtesy of Black Art In America.

Ronald Walton comments on society while utilizing abstraction. Time Out has elements of identifiable imagery, as well as abstraction. The noticeable keyboard, trumpet, and fractures of other instruments outlined in this painting and the motif of circles and brushed on paint demonstrates the reverberation and movement of the musical instruments that are central in this painting. His work evolves during the Civil Rights era and early 1970s to showcase “cultural pluralism” and the African American experience. Oil on canvas is a medium that takes long to dry, so it is easily manipulated by the artist. We can learn from the medium that it fits the artist’s intention of depicting how Black people customized their experience in America by developing culture out of struggle. The namesake of this work indicates a break and, musically, it signifies rest. It is the intersection of leisure and the birth of culture.

Chakaia Booker, Urban Butterfly, 2001, rubber tires. Image courtesy of Artstor.

Abstract Sculpture 

In sculpture, the formula of extrapolating composition, social history, media, and title are still relevant, but there is an extra emphasis on media. Chakaia Booker’s Urban Butterfly has a rounded composition with the contraction of the material skewed in the center. Booker uses tires with the combination of this work’s namesake to comment about the evolving of urban landscapes. Based on the year this work was created and other works in a similar time frame, the “narrative-driven” sculpture comments on climate change and the environment determining our reality. Her abstract stylization allows the viewer to engage in a dialogue with the work, which exposes the psychological and societal aspects of Black abstract art.

Richard Hunt, Minor Monument #1, 1963, welded chromed steel. Image courtesy of Georgia Museum of Art.

Richard Hunt’s Mirror Monument #1 has a linear composition with twisted perspective and is top-heavy. At the precipice of the work, the rectangular and sharp edges condense. Hunt’s upbringing on the Southside of Chicago and his material preference of welded metal communicates his preoccupation with environmental forms and materials because they are sourced from nearby junkyards. Some of his works possess themes relating to the Black experience in America and the use of the material from found junk to created art imitates how Black culture makes do and transforms scraps. The title suggests a connection to theme of Black culture overcoming through the oxymoronic phrase: Minor Monument. Monument signifies a large sculpture that commemorates a notable history or narrative. Minor suggests that something is small or unnoticed. Viewers of this artwork can explore these concepts while engaging with this artwork.

Melvin Edwards, Steel Life, 1985-1991, Welded steel. Image Courtesy of Columbus Museum of Art.

Melvin Edwards’ composition relies on geometric form and symmetric balance from left to right. The social history embedded in this work is in the steel media in the form of a hammer, a cup, a chain, and other identifiable forms. He signifies tumultuous labor histories behind steel. Black people that created this material often had to do dangerous jobs of cleaning out steel crucibles and they endured mistreatment. This is confirmed by his title that does not separate the commodity from the person’s life and livelihood.

Alma Thomas, The Eclipse, 1970, acrylic on canvas. Image courtesy of Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Critical Conversations Through Black Abstract Art

Abstract expressionism communicates concepts in the rawest visual forms–color, line, shape, and space. By breaking down figural and identifiable imagery, this effectively showcases feelings and concepts that are not bogged down by depicting physical objects. Black Abstract Expressionism is like jazz. It emotes many raw emotions within the inflections and nuances of the composition and its tone is colored by a painful and triumphant social history. At Black Art in America, we encourage you to explore and seek to understand the complex work of Black abstractionists. There are many in our collection for purchase that span Modern and contemporary time periods, such as Shinique Smith, Ronald Walton, T. Williams, Danny Simmons, Deborah Shedrick, Richard Mayhew, Samella Lewis, Jacob Lawrence, Reginald Laurent, and more.


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Chenoa Baker is an emerging curator and arts journalist. She provides curating, advertising, employing Google data analytics in her blog content, and research services. Her educational background in Cultural Studies, Art History, and Museum Studies from Chatham University provides a broad base from which to approach collection stewardship and visual critical studies from a critical race methodology. Her writing skills may be confirmed on Sugarcane Magazine, Pulse@ChathamU, and other publications. She especially enjoys exploring the intersection of art, race, and psychology in her work. You may learn more about her services on LinkedIn, Instagram, or by contacting her at

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