Empowered by Innovation, Jazz, Spirituality, Nature, Ancestors, and Experience, Abstract Art Transcends Decades of Pushback in the Black Community and the Canon: Meet the Masters and Emerging Artists Leading the Triumphant Future
By Natasha Gural
Working in abstraction has always been rife with complexity and conflict for artists who are Black and confronted with challenges to represent Blackness, including pressure to address social turmoil and upheaval while navigating global migrations and diasporas. Moe Brooker, Downs, Ronald J. Walton, and Imani Bilal are among the many diverse artists in the United States transforming the marketplace’s perception of Abstract Art. Respectively, they create work that celebrates individual freedom and autonomy, while overcoming racial stereotypes and constraint within the Black community to promote positive imagery that’s explicitly focused on collective struggle.
They’re advancing the journey led by Norman Lewis, who began as a social realist painter ahead of World War II before his robust embrace of abstraction amid brawny backlash by White gallery owners. Lewis’ work is expressive and free-form, while firmly entrenched in African-American identity. Jazz Band (1948) is a masterpiece that marks a seismic shift in art history. Evoking improvisation, the spontaneous invention of melodic solo lines or accompaniment in jazz with an affinity for bebop, Lewis’ calculated scrawls foreshadowed the technique that catapulted Cy Twombly’s career about a decade later. Music, notably jazz, continues to play an intrinsic role in Abstract Art created by artists who are Black.
Brooker’s bold and vibrant abstract canvases invite our gaze to explore ambits of mark-making and recessive space, by layering and juxtaposing patterns that engage and excite the viewer’s eye and mind in a lively narrative.
Originally trained as an academic realistic painter, Brooker created in that style for some 15 years before “some things began to happen to me, relative to color. I would often go to the back of the art museum in the evening, and just look at the sky, and some of the most amazing color relationships and combinations would come. I find nature to be the most wonderful, wonderful colorist in the world.”
Brooker, now 80, first sought inspiration from Black masters who worked in Realism, such as Henry Ossawa Tanner and Edward Mitchell Bannister. Born in Pittsburgh in 1859, Tanner moved to Paris in 1891 and became the first Black American to gain international recognition as a painter, spanning Modernism, Realism, Symbolism, Impressionism, and the Harlem Renaissance. Born in Canada in 1828, Bannister spent his adult life in New England, winning a first prize in painting at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition and becoming a founding member of the Providence Art Club and the Rhode Island School of Design, only to be largely excluded from the canon until after his death in 1901 when institutions like the National Museum of African Art restored his status in the United States.
Brooker broke free by examining the variations in nature’s palette. “There are certain things that I think you discover working, figuratively, and working realistically, and then the sense of space—how do you cause space to exist—is that we all learn perspectives. Perspective, really, is a sense of comparison. And that sense of comparison, aside from the lines that people make, is what causes things to recede, or come forwards in terms of space,” he explained in an interview.
While stationed in Korea for the U.S. military, Philadelphia native Brooker said: “I saw something that reminded me of a passage that James Baldwin wrote about in the 1940s, about bright colors…. I saw a Korean funeral that absolutely struck me right between the eyes. The family (of the deceased) was dressed in red, white, and gray colors, and the body was highly decorated with bright colors.” Raised by a preacher, Brooker, like folks from many cultures living in the U.S., was instructed to wear black to funerals.
“There was a very different situation here in Korea,” he said. “I asked myself: ‘Why were they celebrating? Why were they putting celebratory colors on this?’ When I came back, I began to study color. In graduate school, I wrote a piece about the relationship between African color, where it comes from. Much of their color came from nature, and they all had a purpose. I began to see a relationship between jazz music, particularly and very specifically, call-and-response (an antiphonal pattern common to jazz and all African-American folk music, with a ‘call’ played by a soloist and ‘answered’ by the ensemble), and the kind of relationship that sound had, and how there was an answer and a call. And I began to just sit back and ask myself some questions about color and about ‘what is jazz?’. And I began to think about what color does, and can I make color become almost a jazz composition.”
These epiphanies led Brooker to realize how his ancestors “dealt with abstraction, before I even thought about it. I don’t want to do what they did. I want to use what they did, and begin to use abstraction in a way that celebrates them. That’s really a beautiful thing. I am doing work that’s been inspired not only by Abstract painters, but by my ancestors who were Black and who dealt with abstraction in their patterns.”
Listening to music while creating is essential for Bilal, who said: “There have been times that my paintings have been 100 percent inspired by specific songs. Different genres react with my art in different ways. Jazz stimulates my soul in a particularly special way and helps me to focus. It’s emotional music and I create emotional art so they blend well together. I travel with jazz. I leave and go to a completely different dimension. I’ve created some of my best pieces while listening to Charlie Parker, Coltrane, Miles, Charles Mingus. There’s a song from Mile’s Sketches of Spain (1960) album called “Saeta” that I must’ve listened to over 300 times while completing the same painting. I also love creating to Sun Ra, Bilal, Little Dragon, Amiri Baraka, Asante Amin. Thank God for music.”
Deeply influenced by Wassily Kandinsky, who in the late 1800s became captivated by Richard Wagner’s Romantic opera in three acts, Lohengrin, realizing it pushed the limits of music and melody beyond standard lyricism, Brooker said the Russian pioneer of Abstract Art “impacted me and caused me to continue creating. Jazz remains the poetry of color, for me, and causes me to constantly look at struggles to find those relationships within color itself.”
“A lot of my colleagues, a lot of my friends, would ask me ‘how come, how come you’re doing this stuff?’ And I said, ‘I don’t know what you mean.’” Brooker, who prefers to be identified as an artist who is Black rather than a Black artist, said they’d ask why he wasn’t recreating African sculpture, and he replied that “there’s a lot that I’ve learned from them, but I’m not African, and I don’t want to do what they’ve already done. I want to take what I understand about their life and about them and about myself as a Black person in this country. I want to come up with something that I think may be unique.”
Suffering an unexpected stroke in 2015 was an impetus for Downs, who embarked on his ongoing Conversations In The Abstract series, playing skillfully with shapes and colors to depict the anomalous conversations that erupted in his radically altered consciousness. Doctors didn’t expect him to survive, nonetheless take off on a successful creative voyage, while unable to determine what hereditary factor caused his stroke, as his brother suffered one about a year later and died, and his sister was stricken about three years later and remains immobilized.
“Before I went to bed that night, I was lifting weights and building myself up. I woke up and I literally am a different person,” he said. “I’m very blessed. I don’t take that for granted.”
Growing up, Downs said his siblings were far more talented at visual art, which, after his stroke, served as motivation to reawaken the family tradition. He’d previously planned to become an architect to differentiate his talent from theirs.
“It definitely freed me up,” said California-based Downs, who subverted a near-tragedy into a prolific creative pursuit. “I was on medication, and it was a pretty unusual conversation, so I began thinking about how I can put that into something creative.”
“Usually I just lay down individual colors, and then build on top of that,” said Downs, explaining his process. “I use good material. Every day, I’ll just lay down colors, I’ll put it away, and keep going.”
“Many, many artists react to what’s going on politically, socially, and I understand why, but I see one of the problems is when this comes to the forefront, to the narrative in the mainstream,” said Downs, referring to art reacting viscerally and specifically to the murder by disgraced, convicted White police Derek Chauvin of George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man. Eschewing the political discourse, Downs is committed “Be true to yourself. To make great art.”
Walton doesn’t shy away from the social and political in his new series and in a book exploring the emotion surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement. His colossal collage works on heavy paper burst with energy from a marriage of gel and oil.
This technique “allows me to build layers rather than just paint, on canvas, and gives me a three-dimensional look,” said Walton, 77, who works off of a “feel” for how each work evolves. “Sometimes when I see the work, it changes the terms of the mood. I like to listen to a lot of jazz, so that also determines how I feel in terms of my colors.”
His Sienna Series, which incorporates acrylic and cardboard on canvas, is a homage to Robert Rauschenberg’s Cardboard series.
“Cardboard can become relevant in Abstract Art, especially when you look at how you tear apart the cardboard, and you look between the cardboard layers, which presents an abstract form all by itself,” Walton said. “If you look at how you can put the pieces together, then you are able to put the colors into it too.”
Walton first gained national attention with his creation of the “Rollcubistic” style of portraying the human form, and his collage work is clearly inspired by Romare Bearden and is featured in a documentary on the late master. He cites Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock as primary Abstract Art influencers.
Walton grew up in Manhattan, alongside Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis, and he frequented major jazz clubs with his siblings and father. “I used to see Monk when he was in town, most of the time walking up the block and hanging out on the corner of 64th Street and Amsterdam Avenue, and I would see Miles Davis, because he lived in the neighborhood about 10 blocks up. I would always see Miles at the dance clubs. He was a delightful person to see and he was abstract in his own way.”
A jazz aficionado, Downs also is deeply moved by the genre, especially Monk.
“I see my work relating to jazz. It gives me a big inspiration, and I also feel the colors in jazz,” said Walton, who also was inspired by the unrivaled New York cityscape. “As my friend, architect Harry Simmons would say, you look at the buildings, and can see the curvatures in the buildings forming into different shapes. It’s one of those things that you just have to look at and kind of study and try to put the pieces together to make it form into a collage, into abstraction.”
“There’s so much happening, and so much going on, and you want to try to put it in perspective,” said Walton. “But most of the time I listen to an abstract thought, just trying to put the pieces together to make it real. It just comes from a little bit of maturity.”
Walton moved from Brooklyn to Petersburg, Virginia, where his son, Eric Walton, directs his gallery that includes abundant studio space downstairs. “Coming to Petersburg allowed me to do museum-sized work in the studio,” he said.
“Art is very fun. It’s very mystical, in the sense that it’s beautiful and gives you a great insight to yourself,” said Walton. “But it can be very temperamental, and you have to move with it. There’s a lot of things that come into play that illuminates the whole situation.”
The lyrical, fluid, boldly elegant work of Bilal, a 37-year-old New York-born, Atlanta-based artist, is deeply spiritual, mystical, and serves to illuminate her worldview rooted in the perspective of her Islamic faith.
Women face far greater obstacles breaking into the art world, and that barrier is magnified for women of color. In 1972, Alma Thomas was the first Black woman to have a one-woman exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Before her death in 1978, at age 86, Thomas gained long-overdue national acclaim as a major woman artist devoted to abstract painting, including inclusion in the Corcoran Gallery’s 35th Biennial Exhibition of Contemporary American Painting in 1977 and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York acquiring a painting for its permanent collection.
Bilal doesn’t view her singular, deeply spiritual abstraction, which blends ink with diluted vinegar and acrylics to develop deeper tones and subtle sheen, in context or continuum with other contemporary artists, though she admires Elizabeth Catlett, Sam Gilliam, and Morris Louis.
Bilal’s first major New York solo show, Behind the Veil: Musings of Muraqaba, referencing the Islamic/Sufi concept of “muraqaba” (meditation), opens July 23rd at Chase Contemporary’s East Hampton gallery. Her first solo show in New York City, Fingerprints of Ruh, curated by Nemo Librizzi, was enthusiastically received, leading to two exhibitions in Atlanta.
“I believe abstraction is everyone’s first language. I remember being a child and my art teacher putting a blank paper in front of me and telling me to paint. He did not tell me what to paint, he simply told me to paint. I painted two harsh black strokes. When my teacher asked me what it was, I told him ‘it’s excited. (sic) It was perfect,” Bilal joyfully recounted. “Abstraction reminds me that there is still part of us who remembers who we were before being told who we should be. It’s nothing. It’s everything. It’s divine and mysterious, as life itself, and my intense curiosity of this primordial force is what keeps me.”
THE FUTURE IS ABSTRACT
“I have friends who say to me ‘you’re old timey at this point, because you’re doing abstract,’” said Brooker. “I think abstraction is going to come back in a big-time role, perhaps differently. There is going to be a newness to what the abstraction is going to be. I can’t tell you what it’s going to be, but I know that it’s in the wings. I believe that the group who is going to cause that change is artists of color. I don’t know what it is, but I know it’s coming.”
“One of the things that intrigued me when I was working in New York was these trains that would go around the city; they were painted with all kinds of graffiti,” Brooker fondly recalled. “I talked to a few people, these kids. And I asked: ‘Why do you do this?’ They told me: ‘We can’t get out of the Bronx. Our names travel all around New York. They may not know me, but this train goes around New York, and people see my name and markings.’”
A master of Abstract Art, Brooker, who earned a B.F.A. from the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and a M.F.A. from the Tyler School of Fine Arts at Temple University, has been on the faculty of the Cleveland Institute of Art, Parsons School of Design (as chairman of the Foundation Department), the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and, since 1995, Moore College of Art and Design, where he is currently professor and chair of the Foundation Department. He’s earned many distinguished awards and recognitions, his work can be found in public or corporate collections such as the Studio Museum in Harlem, Montgomery Museum of Art, the Musée des Beaux-arts de l’Ontario, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. He continues to shape the future of abstraction, both through his own practice and his students’.
Downs, who regards himself as old school, offers advice to younger artists: “Maintaining authenticity and staying away from digital work.”
Walton dispenses timeless advice: “If you’re going to be an artist, you have to do something different. You have to be out there and you have to be exposed to a lot of different artists, but you also have to be different.”
“The new artists, like Rashid Johnson and Mark Bradford, are the new spokesman on the block. I think they’re very interesting in terms of their approach to their work,” said Walton.
Bilal’s breakthrough is a major catalyst for Black women artists.
“For a long time abstraction among Black artists in America has been an intentionally muted song in a room blaring with the artistic voice of white males. The erasure of Black contribution throughout art history is a problem, but it’s not a Black problem,” said Bilal. “Our job is only to continue to push boundaries by creating authentically and fearlessly, while also establishing platforms that showcase the art we want to see recognized. Unfortunately, Abstract Art has also been labeled as not purposeful enough, not revolutionary enough, not Black enough, within the Black arts movement. In my world, Black art is any piece of art created by a Black person. Are things shifting? Yes. But we still have a lot of work to do. The future is bright, and talented abstract artists that were created Black will be recognized for their skill and their undeniable genius as simply amazing artists.”
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Natasha Gural is a multiple award-winning journalist, writer, and editor with 30 years of editorial experience, including executive roles at The Associated Press, Dow Jones, and Markets Media. A student of literature, art history, and studio art, Natasha has learned from leading scholars at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, Oxford University, Clark University, and the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. Natasha has been writing about art since 2002, for multiple publications, including The Associated Press and Forbes. She has traveled extensively to cover major art fairs and events, interviewing a wide array of world-renowned and emerging artists, as well as curators, art historians, collectors, scholars, and aesthetes. Her last contact with the global art world was covering TEFAF Maastricht in 2020. Natasha enjoys observing every level of the creative process, from inception to installation, in studios, galleries, and various spaces. Passionate about the art world, Natasha embraces every opportunity to engage key players to better understand and explain the changing dynamic. She seeks to accurately portray the art ecosystem in an ongoing process that immerses her in the art world. A first-generation American, Natasha was raised bilingual and has always been drawn to the innovators, rebels, and outsiders who break down boundaries and strive to broaden the continuum of art history. Her goal is always to fairly and accurately represent the accomplishments of artists in an effort to collectively celebrate the arts.
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