Art in the United States, Contemporary
Art in the United States, Contemporary
Visual art created by people of African descent in the United States has changed dramatically, both aesthetically and conceptually, since the 1980s. Many factors have contributed to these shifts, most notably everchanging sociopolitical and theoretical forces that shaped the concept of blackness, a term that emerged during the 1960s' push for selfempowerment. Since the 1980s, contemporary African-American artists have critically distanced themselves from the aesthetic and philosophical strategies galvanized during the years of the Harlem Renaissance, the civil rights movement, and the Black Power movement (i.e., from the 1920s through the 1970s). The art of these periods called for the visualizing of an ideal Afrocentric or nationalistic blackness, which in turn became an essential component to resistance efforts. While the term blackness provided a self-empowering means to counteract the negative stereotypes associated with African people living in North America, ultimately it was viewed as limiting by the subsequent generation of African Americans. As a result of the well documented and extremely rich history of black art in the United States, work produced in the 1980s emerged as distinctly self-critical. In this regard, African-American visual artists began to aggressively respond to the intellectual and artistic efforts of this cultural legacy, with the intention of moving beyond the limitations of their predecessors.
Among the most enduring early twentieth-century theoreticians to be revisited by black visual artists and intellectuals in the mid-1980s was the African-American scholar W. E. B. Du Bois (1868–1963). In 1900, at the Pan African Conference held in London, Du Bois stated that "the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line." Even today, his words are largely recognized as a "formulation that is often considered an inauguration for thinking about the significance of race in the modern world" (Edwards, 2003, p.1). The Harlem Renaissance is widely known as a time of cultural awakening and worldwide black allegiances forged under the banner of unity. The New Negro movement, defined by Du Bois and the scholar Alain Locke (1886–1954), functioned in many ways as a manifesto for the social, spiritual, and artistic goals for blacks in America. Locke, in his pioneering critical anthology, The New Negro (1925), captured the bourgeoning "racial attitudes" that articulated a renewed sense of pride, empowerment, and resistance to racial oppression. Both Locke and Du Bois championed the arts as an essential component in the development of a newly empowered blackness. Furthermore, these two pioneers called upon artists to reclaim their African past—aesthetically, spiritually, and politically—and to utilize it as a source of inspiration in an effort to create a uniquely black American voice.
The visualized Afrocentrism that Locke and Du Bois professed dramatically influenced black artists from the Harlem Renaissance through to the Black Power movement. However, it also created a dilemma for African-American artists who wanted to hold on to the freedom of self-expression and simultaneously support the struggle for black self-empowerment. These movements and the visual culture they produced also received criticism for their patriarchal underpinnings. Ultimately, Black Power became synonymous with new forms of sexual repression and gender inequalities. In 1971 a group of black female artists addressed their erasure from the male-dominated black arts movement and formed "Where We At," a collective designed to take on such issues as the black family, African traditions, and contemporary social conditions. Art works concerned with the marginalization of gender and sexuality crystallized in the post–Black Power era, in many respects dominating the landscape of African-American art production from the mid-1980s through the 1990s.
Like Du Bois, the Martiniquan psychiatrist and anticolonial activist Frantz Fanon (1925–1961) is one of the most important black intellectuals ever to ponder the crisis of race. Fanon was particularly adept at unraveling the psychological contradictions, complexities, and pathologies created by a society demarked along the lines of racial difference. Fanon's writings, along with Marxist and neoMarxist theories, influenced black forms of militancy and resistance in the United States. However, in keeping with black intellectual efforts in America, Fanon's writings articulated an often problematic relationship towards gender and sexuality.
The importance of Fanon's writings among contemporary African-American artists—in the post–civil rights, post–Black Power era—provided the impetus to critique the compulsory masculinity of both movements. The ideal blackness professed in the New Negro renaissance reached its logical next phase in the resistance movements of the 1960s. Still, it was perhaps in the 1980s and 1990s that authentic, or ideal, blackness, as a heterosexual masculine mythology came under the most intense scrutiny. Utilizing Fanon's writings on the relationship between fantasy and the construction of race, black artists conceptually reinvigorated the art of the African diaspora. By embracing postmodern philosophical strategies, black gay artists—such as Lyle Ashton Harris and Glenn Ligon, and Afro-British artists Isaac Julien and Rotimi Fani-Kayode—confronted traditional notions of blackness that purported a utopian Afrocentric masculinity. In tandem with black women artists interested in exploring the intersections of gender and race (e.g., Joyce J. Scott, Renée Cox, Adrian Piper, Faith Ringgold, Lorraine O'Grady, Renée Green, Coreen Simpson, Betye Saar, Pat Ward Williams, and Emma Amos), these cultural producers reconfigured and interrogated historical conceptions of blackness, while simultaneously targeting the fetishization of racialized and gendered bodies within popular culture in the United States.
The artists Carrie Mae Weems (b. 1953) and Lorna Simpson (b. 1960) confronted the history of exotic, sexualized representations of the black female body, ultimately asking serious questions about how black women see themselves in the wake of enduring misrepresentations. These artistic efforts—which came to be regarded as "identity-based art"—encompassed a vast array of aesthetic strategies, including site-specific installation, photography, performance art, and activist art. In these works, black, gay, and female bodies were visually foregrounded, allowing the artists to construct their own sense of self and to redress a history of erasure. Further emboldened by the feminist movement, the 1992 Los Angeles riots, and the international AIDS crisis, identity art created a sphere for neglected black subjectivities to be witnessed—and ultimately validated. The 1993 installment of the Whitney Museum of American Art's Biennial exhibition focused its attention primarily on identity-based art, generating a firestorm of intense scrutiny. However, the Biennial—organized by curators Thelma Golden, Elizabeth Sussman, Lisa Phillips, and John G. Hanhardt—ultimately solidified the cultural importance of this form of production.
While identity-based art thrived in the 1980s and early 1990s, other forms of black art proliferated as well. By then, the pressures of cultural nationalism had begun to wane. Simultaneously, Social Realism as an artistic strategy subsided, allowing a multiplicity of aesthetic styles to emerge. Abstract artists such as the painter Sam Gilliam (b. 1933) and sculptor Martin Puryear (b. 1941) articulated a sense of optimism by foregoing traditional conceptualizations of black identity as limited to concerns of racial politics. Hip-hop culture engendered its own brand of visual culture in the form of graffiti art (or "tags"), which emblazoned the urban landscape of most major cities in the United States. The transnational success of rap music was reflected in the sophistication of its visual art forms, ultimately garnering the interest of the art establishment. Manhattan-based painters Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960–1988) and Quattara Watts exemplified this new hybrid form, which infused modernist abstraction and graffiti styles with African and Haitian motifs. Despite moving beyond didactic meditations on black consciousness and overt racial polemics, the work of these artists still reflected the aesthetic styles and culturally rooted emblems of African peoples that make up what has become known as Black Atlantic culture.
Tyree Guyton, primarily a painter and sculptor, has been described as an urban environmental artist. He has waged a personal war on urban blight on Detroit's East Side, transforming first a street in his neighborhood and then two city blocks into a living indoor/outdoor art gallery by using discarded objects—everything from old shoes to bicycles to baby dolls—to embellish abandoned houses, sidewalks, and empty lots.
In the mid-1980s Guyton, a working but unrecognized artist, began the Heidelberg Project, which became his most famous work and the driving force behind a nonprofit community arts project. In his neighborhood, with its abandoned, drug-infested houses, he collected objects from the streets and used them to transform the outsides of houses into urban art and to construct roadside sculptures—such as empty lots lined with rows of drinking fountains and appliances. With the help of his grandfather, friends, and neighborhood children, Guyton painted these objects and surrounded them with everything from tires and toilets to tombstones.
Through his work Guyton has challenged the boundaries between art and life as did French artist Marcel Duchamp and American artist Robert Rauschenberg. Duchamp took ordinary objects and presented them as art; Rauschenberg combined painting and common objects as collages, or combines. Guyton draws from the lives of the urban poor and makes their experiences and human spirit visible to people who have come from all over the world to see his work. He also shows how fragments of city life can be turned into art.
Guyton's so-called "junk art" on Heidelberg Street has been described in the press as controversial, political, and public—in short, the art of a revolutionary. His Heidelberg Project has attracted so much notice that the neighborhood's drug dealers and prostitutes ceased trying to use the vacant houses and lots. Guyton's cityscape art gallery has changed the surrounding area from deserted combat zones into places where people stop and stare with delight. Part of the fascination surrounding Guyton's works, perhaps, is that they are forever changing due to the ever-changing weather, environment, and artist's whims.
In keeping with art of the period, many exciting artists further articulated African-American culture and history beyond nihilism, historical trauma, and dystopic present-day realities. The New York conceptualist David Hammons (b. 1943) appropriated cultural signifiers associated with black culture (e.g., hair, basketballs, wine bottles), transforming them into uplifting and often affirming artistic meditations on inner-city black life in the wake of intense poverty. In a similar vein, the Chicago-based painter Kerry James Marshall's (b. 1955) images of housing
projects envisioned a black public sphere that was a space of uplift rather than despair. The installations of the multimedia artist Fred Wilson (b. 1954) utilized the collections of major U.S. museums, reworking accepted art historical narratives that have traditionally marginalized the African-American past.
During the mid-1990s, Africa-American art took on an array of forms, many of which continued the fascination with historical memory. Young black artists, born in the period of post-civil rights optimism, often viewed the past with a cynicism that was not concerned with self-affirmation. The installation artist Kara Walker (b. 1969) received both critical accolades and intense scrutiny for her highly charged depictions of the antebellum plantation. Often violently sexual, Walker's imagery depicts the psychological dimension of stereotypes and the obscenity of the American racial unconscious. According to the artist's many detractors, Walker's work was said to embody a cocky disrespect and a youthful ambivalence towards the historical struggles of African-American people. Walker was not alone in her iconic exploration of racial stereotypes. The renowned figurative expressionist Robert Colescott (b. 1925) received international praise in the 1970s for his large-scale reinterpretations of canonical American history paintings. By replacing beloved historical figures such as George Washington with exaggerated minstrel representations of blacks, Colescott disallowed the comfortable contemplation of a mythical and heroic national past that is sanitized of America's history of racial terror. Often criticized for resurrecting degrading images of blacks, Colescott's work gained renewed currency in the 1990s among younger artists who were exploring similar iconography. One such artist is the painter Michael Ray Charles (b. 1967), whose images most overtly exploit the striking visual potency and political import of racial caricatures. Best known for his searing critiques on the commoditization of the black body in the United States, Charles—like Walker and Colescott—successfully probes the psychic traumas inflicted by an exhaustive history of intolerance and anti-black racism.
From the latter part of the 1990s to the present, an art discourse concerned with African modernity, postcoloniality, and globalization has made its presence felt within contemporary art and academic circles. This discourse—inspired by the writings of Paul Gilroy, Homi Bhabha, Edward Said, Gayatri Spivak, Sidney L. Kasfir, V. Y. Mudimbe, Martin Bernal, Aimé Césaire, Léopold Sédar Senghor, Olu Oguibe, Okwui Enwezor, Salah Hassan, and Coco Fusco, to name just a few—has aggressively indicted Western culture's claims of centrality and modern superiority over the second and third worlds. In many respects this discourse was provoked by the inequities of the 1984 MoMA (Museum of Modern Art) exhibition, "Primitivism" in 20th-Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern. The art historian Sidney L. Kasfir was an outspoken critic, suggesting that "Primitivism," as a fiction of Western desire and imperialist fantasies, was grounded in grossly misleading assumptions about African culture in general. MoMA's exhibition juxtaposed modern European art with African tribal art thought to be authentic on the basis of its primitive origins and qualities. Kasfir, among others, believed that this type of comparison re-inscribed the culturally biased dualism between the tribal and modern, and between the third and first worlds (Kasfir, 1992, p. 88). In the wake of MoMA's exhibition, a greater degree of emphasis was placed on contemporary African diaspora artists living and working in Western metropolises.
Initially, these developments appeared to be potentially unifying, bringing contemporary African and African-American artists together under negotiable common grounds. However, this bourgeoning discourse—while empowering for the postcolonial or transnational black artist—has been seen as an alienating or essentializing space that excludes African-American artistic production. Critics of these developments question whether or not "diaspora" is simply another form of self-segregation to be consumed by the international art market. While African-American artists have historically contemplated the ideological construction and representation of black identity in the United States, global discourses have extended the definition of blackness to encompass an international range of identities. The critically acclaimed though historically overlooked Freestyle exhibition, held at the Studio Museum in Harlem in 2001, successfully launched the careers of a new generation of black artists. However, Freestyle was not concerned with the presentation of a unified articulation of blackness, or with society's prevailing illusions about race. Neither was it rooted in a specific intellectual continuum, as earlier movements were. Curator Thelma Golden labeled her Freestyle progeny "post-black" artists, a moniker designed to emphasize their stated desire to transcend racial polemics. Post-black artists want be just that: artists, free of racial demarcations and the burden of representing a specified identity. Nevertheless, the highly political nature of global art discourses has overshadowed depoliticized efforts such as Freestyle, forcing contemporary black American artists to give up localized nationalisms and to ultimately view themselves as part of the international community that comprises the African diaspora.
Edwards, Brent Hayes. The Practice of Diaspora: Literature, Translation, and the Rise of Black Internationalism. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2003.
Fanon, Frantz. The Wretched of the Earth. New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1963.
Hassan, Salah. Blackness in Color: Visual Expressions of the Black Arts Movement. Ithaca, N.Y.: Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University, 2000.
Kasfir, Sidney L. "African Art and Authenticity: A Text with a Shadow." African Arts 25, no. 2 (1992). Also published in Reading the Contemporary: African Art from Theory to the Marketplace, edited by Olu Oguibe and Okwui Enwezor. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1999.
Locke, Alain, ed. The New Negro: An Interpretation. New York:A. and C. Boni, 1925.
derek conrad murray (2005)