African American Abstract Masters

New York

at Anita Shapolsky


This show of 10 African-American abstract painters—Betty Blayton, Frank Bowling, Ed Clark, Herbert Gentry, Bill Hutson, Sam Middleton, Joe Overstreet, Thomas Sills, Merton Simpson and Frank Wimberley—highlights the work of a group of underknown senior practitioners, many of whom are still working today. Born in the first four decades of the 20th century, they, like so many other abstract artists of their generation, were eclipsed by the movements of the ’60s and ’70s. Race of course played a role in their neglect, but also pertinent is the fact that many of these painters (as well as a good number of black writers and musicians of the peri­od) spent considerable time in the more welcoming atmosphere of Europe, primar­ily in France and Scandinavia, and missed opportunities to cement their reputa­tions in New York. This is not to say that they labored in obscurity: their résumés include significant museum shows and collections, gallery exhibitions, prestigious grants and desirable teaching positions—in short, they had the sort of respectable professional career that is standard for (or sought by) working artists.

The show offers much visual gratifi­cation and quite a few surprises. I was particularly impressed with the work of Herbert Gentry (1919-2003). Born in Pittsburgh, Gentry grew up in Harlem, served overseas in World War II and lived a good part of his professional life in Paris, Copenhagen, Göteborg and Stockholm. He actively participated in the advanced art and jazz scenes of those cities before returning to New York in 1972. Green Twins (1963), a relatively small painting (391⁄4 by 32 inches), sets vigorously brushed apple-green passages against a loose scaffolding of linear ele­ments briskly rendered in blacks, browns and luminous cobalt blue. There is a good deal of white ground showing, which gives the painting an appealing sense of air and light and a feeling, abstractly rendered, of figures moving gracefully and energetically in the landscape.

Ed Clark is another strong painter, with muscular works that command their pic­torial space. Born in 1926, Clark attended the Art Institute of Chicago, completed his studies in Paris and spent many years in France. He is well represented here by paintings like Louisiana Series (1978), whose bold horizontal brushstrokes simultaneously evoke the landscape and speak to paint’s materiality, and Red, Black and Blue Movement (2009), with its two giant, nearly colliding brushstrokes separated by a triangle of luscious pink.

Frank Bowling is probably the best known of the 10. Born in Guyana in 1936, he studied in England and has had a suc­cessful career in both the U.S. and the U.K., where he was elected to the Royal Academy in 2005. Unlike the others in the show, Bowling is more closely associ­ated with Color Field painting than with Abstract Expressionism. His Thank You Graham Mileson (1987), a tall, red and gold vertical rectangle, has the expansive feel, the glowing acrylic tones and thickened swipes of paint characteristic of the post-’60s work of that school of abstraction.

[The exhibition, organized with the Wilmer Jennings Gallery at Kenkeleba House in New York, is on view at the Anita Shapolsky Art Foundation in Jim Thorpe, Penn., through Oct. 17. It trav­els to the Opalka Gallery at the Sage Colleges, Albany, N.Y., Nov. 5-Dec. 12.]

Photo: Herbert Gentry: Green Twins, 1963, oil on canvas, 39¼ by 32 inches; in “African American Abstract Masters” at Anita Shapolsky.