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‘We’re a part of American art too’: Black artists speak on their roles in art history

A new book surveys four generations of abstract art in the Joyner/Giuffrida Collection

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Partway through a press lunch last week in honour of the publication of Four Generations: the Joyner/Giuffrida Collection of Abstract Art, the abstract painter Sam Gilliam reflected on his distaste for the demand that black artists make work that transparently speaks to their race. “You don’t want to be part of a corner,” he said. “You want to be universal.”

Gilliam was joined by fellow artists Jack Whitten, Charles Gaines, Melvin Edwards and William T. Williams for an event at Le Bernardin restaurant that sometimes felt like a gathering of old friends at which reporters were merely present. Gaines, at one point, said it felt “almost, for me, like a high school reunion”. Although the discussion included input from others, like Courtney Martin, the art historian who edited the book, and Christopher Bedford, the Baltimore Museum of Art director who is one of its contributors, it was more an opportunity to hear these artists speak to their sense of the art historical narrative and their various places in it.

“People said, ‘You black artists, you don’t have a movement,’” Edwards recalled. “On the contrary. We always had a movement. But it was never one style, one thing.” The artists present made Edwards’s case for him. Gilliam, Williams and Whitten—the painters in the group—share a sensibility for abstraction, but not for process or style. Edwards, strictly speaking, is the lone sculptor in the group and Gaines is the resident conceptualist. Altogether, their work illustrates an array of perspectives in contemporary art. “The story of these five artists is a very American story,” Williams said.

That narrative and its development in the public consciousness is all-important for the collectors. Before the lunch, Joyner stressed to The Art Newspaper that the book was meant to encourage more scholarship and exhibitions on the artists present and others like them. The book documents a collection that spans mid-century art, with examples by artists like Norman Lewis, through late works by Jacob Lawrence (one, Supermarket Flora, was painted in 1994, six years before his death), all the way to very recent work by the youngest of artists, like Kevin Beasley, who was born in 1985.

The fourth generation mentioned in the book’s title refers to artists of the African diaspora, like the South African Nicholas Hlobo. Mark Godfrey, a senior curator at Tate who also contributed to the book, noted that we should all look forward to “how these four generations will lead to the fifth, sixth generations” and beyond. Of course, there are always arguments about who gets to carry the torch. Gilliam, for example, expressed some reservations with the work of Mark Bradford.

It is unfair to any of the artists present at the lunch to say that their work is only now being esteemed; they have long been known, if still under-recognised. “We’re a part of American art, too,” Gilliam said. But each in his own way imparted a sense last week that they appreciated the attention brought to them by Joyner and Giuffrida. “I want to thank those two patrons over there,” Williams said, pointing to the couple, “who have made our lives better and who have confirmed that what we do has meaning.”

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