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In a June 1967 letter inviting artists to a meeting of the Organization of Black American Culture,1 Chicago-based artist Jeff Donaldson posed a series of questions, the first of which was: “Do you consider yourself a Black visual artist, an American visual artist, or an artist, period?” It is a question that the 60 or so artists included in Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power, 1963–1983 can be seen grappling with in vastly different ways, presenting a heterogeneous portrait of Black American art reflecting the radical social, cultural, and racial upheaval of the period.
The exhibition begins in New York, with the Spiral Group, who formed in 1963 and mounted only one exhibition, featuring work pared down to a black and white color palette. Stylistic variance greets the group’s collective query—“Is there a Negro Image?”2—from Romare Bearden’s collaged images of African-American life, to Norman Lewis’ Abstract Expressionist canvas America The Beautiful (1960). Look closer, and Lewis’ seemingly abstract jagged white forms scattered across the black canvas become a procession of cross-bearing Klansmen in hoods.
Befitting the show’s title, there is an abundance of defiantly radical, even revolutionary, work included in the exhibition. Emory Douglas’ bold graphics for The Black Panther newspaper attack the “pigs” while also calling for solidarity with other dispossessed people around the globe. Fred Hampton’s Door 2 (1975) by Dana C. Chandler references the 1969 murder of Fred Hampton, a Black Panther leader shot to death in his sleep by police. Painted red and green, colors of the Black Liberation Flag, the door is riddled with small holes as if from a shotgun blast. A red and green U.S. map by Faith Ringgold titled United States of Attica (1972)—after the 1971 prison uprising—lists scores of incidents of American violence beginning with slavery and the Native American genocide. Inviting viewers to “write in whatever you find lacking,” she presents these not as historical moments of the past but as a continuum of injustice that extends to the present day. These range from the Battle of Little Bighorn in 1876 to a 1712 slave revolt in New York City, that resulted in 38 deaths.
A particularly engaging section is devoted to the Chicago-based group AfriCOBRA, or the African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists, of which Donaldson was a founding member in 1968. Using vibrant colors, repeated bits of text, and an almost decorative approach to form, their paintings emanated a frantic funk- infused energy, incorporating both celebration and protest.
In Los Angeles, assemblage artists like Noah Purifoy and John Outterbridge picked through the rubble of the 1965 Watts rebellion, using the charred ephemera of racial unrest as their raw material. A few examples of their work are on view here alongside Daniel LaRue Johnson and Betye Saar, who gets her own gallery at the show’s close. Although it is mentioned in wall text, a section devoted to the Brockman Gallery is unfortunately lacking in Soul of a Nation. The legendary Leimert Park gallery that championed several artists included in the show, specifically black Angelenos, would have been a meaningful addition, especially to The Broad’s staging.
The exhibition then diverges from these geographic groupings to arrange works thematically. The inclusion of artists dealing with portraiture suggests that even the representation of the black body can be seen as a radical act (considering the historical dominance of white subjects in Western Art). David Hammons takes a more literal approach, incorporating prints of his own body into his works as in Black First, American Second (1970). The title offers a straightforward response to Donaldson’s inquiry. In his realistic, life- size portraits, Barkley Hendricks confers a cool dignity to his black subjects.
On the other end of the representational spectrum are artists who engage with abstraction and minimalism, including color field painter Sam Gilliam and performative sculptor Senga Nengudi, who still maintain a reflection of African-American identity. Painter Frank Bowling— represented here by luminous, large-scale abstractions onto which he has stenciled ghostly outlines of the continents—felt that black artists were able to “reroute fashion and current art convention to ‘signify’ some- thing different to someone who grew up in Watts.”3 Jack Whitten’s Homage to Malcolm (1970) might reflect Bowling’s sentiment. On the black triangular canvas, which exhibits a play of effects and paint handling, he used an Afro comb to striate a central triangle, revealing layers of red and green underneath. Here, geometric abstraction becomes a symbol of black liberation. In Melvin Edwards’ Curtain (for William and Peter) (1969–70), strings of barbed wire hang, united by a length of dangling chain that weighs them down at the bottom, melding strands of minimalism and seriality with the brutality and violence of everyday life as lived by African Americans.
Soul of a Nation is not an encyclopedic take on black art of the era, nor should it be. Rather, it provides just enough insight into each locus of activity to inspire further exploration. Originating at the Tate before travelling to the Brooklyn Museum and Crystal Bridges, the installation at The Broad is solid and well-organized by curator Sarah Loyer, who beefed up sections on Los Angeles artists. Still, the question lingers: why here? The Broad was founded to showcase the collection of mega-collectors and philanthropists Edythe and Eli Broad. Of the 2,000 works by 200 artists in their collection, none were included in Soul of a Nation, pointing to a larger issue of artists of color being largely absent from this blue-chip collection, aside from contemporary art stars like Mark Bradford, Kerry James Marshall, and Kara Walker. Although L.A.’s California African American Museum’s galleries may not have been able to accommodate an exhibition of this size, it’s worth noting that CAAM was the single biggest lender to Soul of a Nation, contributing seven loans.
This is not to say that The Broad should not be recognized for making the work available to the thousands of visitors that flock to the museum from around the world, in addition to organizing a substantial programming series. However, hosting a traveling show is not the same as acquiring works for their collection—one supports artists of color in a sustainable way, while the other could be seen as a superficial display of inclusion. According to a 2018 study by In Other Words and artnet News, only 2.3% of all acquisitions and gifts at 30 prominent U.S. museums since 2008 have been of work by African-American artists.4 Real change means adding these works to permanent collections, making an institutional commitment, so they can be seen and valued alongside the Koonses and Kusamas long after Soul of a Nation has closed.
Matthew Stromberg is a freelance arts writer based in Los Angeles. In addition to Carla, he has contributed to The Los Angeles Times, The Guardian, KCET Artbound, Hyperallergic, Artsy, Frieze, Terremoto, and Daily Serving.
This review was originally published in Carla issue 16.