Carrie Mae Weems: String Theory, 2016, archival pigment print on textured rag paper, 30 by 40 inches; in “Blackness in Abstraction.”

More than halfway through “Blackness in Abstraction,” an austere photograph by Carrie Mae Weems posed a Mies van der Rohe leather daybed—conjuring a truant psychoanalytic patient, perhaps—against a wall of empty rectangles delineated by thin black cord. Is it Weems’s own oeuvre, predominantly comprised of photographs and videos addressing inequities of gender, class, and race, that has been evacuated from display? The work, String Theory (2016), invites reflection on the power of institutions to affirm or reject certain histories, and, as the chaise suggests, the deep-rooted repercussions of those choices. The image acted as a cipher for the exhibition as a whole, raising urgent questions about the structural, personal, and often idiosyncratic constructs through which we frame race. 

As curator Adrienne Edwards wrote in these pages last year, in the essay from which the show evolved, her concept of blackness in abstraction responds to “the demands placed on black artists for social content in their art” and “shifts analysis away from the black artist as subject and instead emphasizes blackness as material, method and mode.” In forestalling a facile or automatic equation of blackness with monolithic or overdetermined notions of identity, her approach urges us to rethink abstraction’s entrenched fault lines between (on one side) purity, autonomy, and opticality and (on the other) transgression, embodiment, and a capacity to incite social action. The upshot: a gallery full of mostly black, mostly abstract artworks in diverse mediums, including sculpture, photography, film, performance, and painting, by twenty-nine artists, not all of whom are black. Over a third of the sixty-one works were inspired by and created for the occasion. Parsing the show demanded from the viewer a disciplined commitment to the specificities of each work’s manufacture, materiality, and temporality. Blackness emerged as an extreme against which even the subtlest of differences could be measured and investigated. 

Making a black monochrome entails a set of formal parameters that sets the work in dialogue with antecedents. This is, perhaps, what the show did best: it reshuffled the deck of art historical comparisons and argued that a work by an artist of color should resonate just as intuitively with those by Frank Stella or Robert Rauschenberg as with those by Kara Walker or Bob Thompson. 

Pieces ruminating on accumulation as formal operation and mode of inquiry were installed at the show’s opening. Ellen Gallagher’s gleaming quartet of paintings, Negroes Battling in a Cave (2016), mines abstraction’s fraught relationship with blackness: its title derives from the racist joke that, as has recently been revealed, lies concealed within Kasimir Malevich’s storied Black Square (1915). In Gallagher’s works, the congealing of medium—black enamel over pieces of paper cut in amoebalike shapes that resist figuration—echoes the accretion of histories, those subvisible narratives of power and ideology. Nearby, Wangechi Mutu’s hauntingly beautiful Throw (2016), a spray of fermented black paper pulp against wall and floor, simultaneously recoded action painting and drained the hubris and monumentality from Richard Serra’s landmark corner pieces, replacing such qualities with the delicate ephemerality of a water-soluble medium and offering a troubling meditation on the implications of fragmentation and dispersal. 

While many of the works tended toward a consideration of race, Edwards was careful to include those that didn’t. Robert Irwin, Fred Sandback, and Sol LeWitt recalled Minimalism’s crucial lesson: the viewer is foundational to the work. (Irwin, for instance, exhibited Black Painting with Blue Edge, 2008–09, whose ultra-reflective lacquered surface literalizes this idea, by reflecting the viewer standing before it.) Edwards addressed blackness as subjectivity only within the specificities of a given artwork. Race was not explicit to casual viewers or to readers of the press release or catalogue introduction. Under other circumstances such withholding would be grounds for criticism, but here the labor it demanded was productive. As I write, police brutality has taken two innocent lives in as many days and, just five blocks from the exhibition, Dread Scott’s banner stating A BLACK MAN WAS LYNCHED BY POLICE YESTERDAY hangs outside Jack Shainman Gallery. Where another show might have permitted bystanders or witnesses, this one urgently forged participants. Activists, even.