Installed on the eighth floor of the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, a group exhibition celebrates color. “Spilling Over: Painting Color in the 1960s” considers the technical, formal, and substantive possibilities of painting with bold, neon, and saturated hues. Drawing exclusively on the Whitney Museum’s collection, the show brings together 18 artists working with color primarily through abstraction and in some instances figuration. Eighteen works are on display dating from 1959 to 1972.
Reaching back more than half a century, the show features a notably diverse slate of artists including Josef Albers, Emma Amos, Sam Gilliam, Carmen Herrera, Alex Katz, Al Loving, Kenneth Noland, Morris Louis, Frank Stella, and Kay Walkingstick. The artists represent a range of backgrounds, motivations, styles and sensibilities.
“Color as a formal, social, and political matter feels particularly urgent today, but the artists in ‘Spilling Over’ already saw it as a means to bridge the seen and the felt, the conscious and the unconscious, the political and the environmental,” curator David Breslin, who directs the museum’s collection, said in a statement when the exhibition was announced.
“We’re thrilled to bring together such an incredible group of artists and their works, some acquired nearly at the time of making and some very new to the Whitney’s collection.”
New to the museum’s collection, “Baby” (1966) by Amos was acquired jointly with the Studio Museum in Harlem in 2018. Against an intensely colored, abstract composition, she introduces a stylish female figure wearing round sunglasses. Only her upper body is depicted. Hovering above, at the top of the painting, a pair of legs is nested among otherwise organic forms.
Atlanta-born, New York-based Amos was the youngest and only female member of Spiral, the short-lived artist collective founded in 1963 by Romare Bearden, Charles Alston, Norman Lewis, and Hale Woodruff. Amos has said: “Every time I think about color, it’s a political statement.”
The exhibition also presents “Dan Johnson’s Surprise” (1969) by Frank Bowling from his series of Map Paintings made between 1967 and 1971. The painting references Bowling’s friend and fellow artist Daniel LaRue Johnson (1938-2017). The muted canvas features three images of South America. Combining abstraction with continental forms, the series considers place, history, and the narrative of the African Diaspora.
Born in Guyana, Bowling moved to London at age 19 and about a decade later headed to New York in 1966. There, his work evolved from figuration to abstraction. Bowling has said color and geometry are the main ingredients for making a painting.
Also on display, “Triumph of Bacchus” (1964) by Bob Thompson evokes the Roman god of wine. Thompson’s paintings are composed around silhouetted figures articulated in vivid hues. The artist’s jazz-like approach to painting—innovative and improvisational—has been described as “taking liberties with colors.”
“Spilling Over,” the title of the exhibition, is adapted from a quote by Thompson. He said, “I paint many paintings that tell me slowly that I have something inside of me that is just bursting, twisting, sticking, spilling over to get out. Out into souls and mouths and eyes that have never seen before.”
This urgency was expressed through color. The exhibition description details the varied ways artists employed color and acknowledges diverse voices in the field:
Color Field painters poured paint and stained unprimed canvas, dramatizing painting’s materiality and visual force. Painters associated with Op art deployed pattern, geometric arrangement, and intense color combinations to emphasize that vision is a commingling of physical response and unconscious association. At the same historical moment, an emerging generation of artists of color and women explored color’s capacity to articulate new questions about perception, specifically its relation to race, gender, and the coding of space. The exhibition looks to the divergent ways color can be equally a formal problem and a political statement.
“SPILLING OVER” BRINGS ATTENTION to the Whitney Museum’s early connections with African American artists. In 1969, Loving was the first African American artist to have a solo show at the Whitney Museum. His first mature body of work, Bowling’s Map Paintings debuted in a solo exhibition at the museum in fall 1971.
These presentations were part of a series of solo shows dedicated to black artists shown in the Whitney’s Lobby Gallery. The exhibitions grew out of discussions with the Black Emergency Culture Coalition (BECC), a group formed in 1969 by artists Benny Andrews, Cliff Joseph, Romare Bearden, and others, to push New York museums for increased representation of African Americans in collections and exhibitions and also within staff ranks.
The solo exhibitions were criticized in some quarters, characterized as being presented in the museum’s basement and promoting segregation.
“Spilling Over” further calls to mind a significant year in American art history when racial representation, the politics of abstraction, and color concepts and characteristics factored in the organization and weighed heavily on the meaning of two pivotal exhibitions. Darby English explores these issues in his the book “1971: A Year in the Life of Color.”
A professor of art history at the University of Chicago, English focuses on “Contemporary Black Artists in America,” a Whitney Museum exhibition that opened in April 1971, and The DeLuxe Show, a racially integrated exhibition on view for six weeks in Houston’s Fifth Ward, beginning in August 1971. The copy on the jacket flap, summarizes the terrain he covers:
The book “looks at many black artists’ desire to gain freedom from overt racial representation, as well as their efforts—and those of their advocates—to further that aim through public exhibition. Amid calls to define a “black aesthetic,” these experiments with modernist art prioritized cultural interactions and instability. Contemporary Black Artists in America highlighted abstraction as a stance against normative approaches, while The DeLuxe Show positioned abstraction in a center of urban blight. The importance of these experiments, English argues, came partly from color’s special status as a cultural symbol and partly from investigations of color already underway in late modern art and criticism.”
The Whitney Museum’s “Contemporary Black Artists in America” exhibition also developed out of negotiations with BECC. The group was dissatisfied with the show, chiefly because a black curator wasn’t hired to work directly on the exhibition. The show was organized by Robert Doty, a white curator at the museum who consulted with several black art professionals. (Doty also put together some of the solo exhibitions in the Lobby Gallery.)
A contingent of artists withdrew their work from “Contemporary Black Artists in America” and BECC organized counter programming and a response exhibition. The Whitney Museum posted the withdrawal list in the exhibition, showing 14 artists declined to present their work. The New York Times reported 15 dropped out. According to “Mounting Frustration: The Art Museum in the Age of Black Power” by Susan E. Cahan, 75 artists were invited to participate and 24 artists actually withdrew.
The DeLuxe Show was staged in a vacant movie theater called the De Luxe, located in a once thriving black business district. The show came about when Ronald Hobbs, a black literary agent, suggested his idea for showcasing art by black artists “in the heart of the black community” to arts patrons John and Dominique de Menil.
John de Menil pitched the exhibition to New York-based Peter Bradley, who English describes as “a color painter by night and associate director of the haut Perls Gallery by day.” Bradley agreed to organize a show, but transformed the concept with the support of the de Menils (who later established The Menil Collection). He imagined an exhibition of “good” artists unified by their talent rather than their race.
On July 22, 1971, Bradley sent a letter to 17 artists including Gilliam, Loving, Noland, Anthony Caro, Ed Clark,David Diao, Richard Hunt, Larry Poons, Michael Steiner, and William T. Williams, inviting them to participate in the exhibition. Only two women were on the list—Virginia Jaramillo and Barbara Chase-Riboud. The correspondence said in part, “We’re planning an exhibition in a poor section of Houston. The object is to bring first-rate art to people who don’t usually attend shows.”
The DeLuxe Show was a radical gesture. The selection of artists shaped what is considered one of the first racially integrated art exhibitions in the country (in contrast with exhibitions featuring token representation, with one or two black artists). Citing a press release promoting the publication of The DeLuxe Show catalog, English reports that Bradley was convinced “no serious black artist today would accept to be included in an exclusively black show” and he insisted that any exhibition with his name on it must include non-black artists.
(According to the book, nearly all of the invited artists responded favorably. Only Chase-Riboud and Diao did not participate and were replaced by Craig Kaufman and James Wolfe.)
“This selection,” said Bradley, “breaks down the barriers that create this whole theory of black shows and white shows. The DeLuxe Show marks the first time that good black artists share the attention and the tribute with good [nonblack] artists.”
Bradley’s vision for the exhibition was grounded in principle and also motivated by timing, according to English: “From the first, the project was caught up in his own frustrated response to ‘Contemporary Black Artists in America.’ Bradley declined to participate on the grounds that it merely extended the separatist trend.”
The criticism the Whitney exhibition received confirmed Bradley’s view, which he discussed in an interview published in The DeLuxe Show catalog. Bradley said:
We’ve put too much of our life into our work, and we don’t want to be lumped politically. We were proven to be right, at least as far as art criticism is concerned, for you’ll remember that press coverage of the all-Black Whitney show concentrated on Black political stances. Hardly a word was said of the art! It embittered many artists who, happy to accept recognition from a museum devoted entirely to American art, ended up being used as a socio-political football… Many artists felt trapped and cursed themselves for not being wiser. They felt used.
English writes that “The DeLuxe Show” was “not only unusually diverse but full of some of the most strenuously abstract art of the time, most of it color painting.”
At the same time, the DeLuxe Show was not immune to criticism. While Bradley chose to stage the show in a blighted black neighborhood, he did so expressly “without any involvement with the local black art establishment.”
IN ADDITION TO THE INSTITUTIONAL, political, and aesthetic connections among the exhibitions, there are also direct commonalities in terms of the artists and artworks featured. Works by Bowling, Chase-Riboud, Gilliam, Hunt, Loving, and Williams, were slated for “Contemporary Black Artists in America.” A similar roster, Gilliam, Hunt, Loving, Noland, and Williams, was included in “The DeLuxe Show.” Currently, Bowling, Gilliam, Loving, and Noland, are among the artists in “Spilling Over.”
(Following the lead of BECC, Chase-Riboud, Gilliam, Hunt, and Williams, withdrew their work from “Contemporary Black Artists in America.” Loving and Bowling stayed in the show, according to Cahan’s “Mounting Frustration.”)
Loving’s “WYN…Time Trip I” (1971) was displayed on the title wall, greeting visitors at the start of “Contemporary Black Artists in America.” In “1971,” English describes the painting as a “colossal, multicolored geometric wall construction.” A similar work by Loving was included in “The DeLuxe Show.”
English discusses Loving’s “Septahedron 34” (1970) in the book, at length. The Whitney Museum acquired the work in 1974 and it is among the paintings on view in “Spilling Over.”
He says in part: “Loving created “Septahedron 34″ (1970) in the prolific season that followed his solo at the Whitney. The large-scale painting presents the eponymous form illusionistically and in optical color, perforated and fitted to a hexagonal support with which the painted figure literally fights.”
Also in the exhibition, works by Amos and Thompson flank Helen Frankenthaler’s “Orange Mood” (1966). The Whitney Museum organized a career-spanning survey of Thompson in 1998. Curated by Thelma Golden, the first black curator at the Whitney Museum, the traveling exhibition featured more than 100 works. In the wake of the exhibition, the museum acquired Thompson’s “Triumph of Bacchus” in 1998.
Gilliam’s “Bow Form Construction” (1968), a draped canvas painting, was purchased by the museum in 2001. In “Spilling Over,” it is given pride of place, displayed on a prominent wall adjacent to “Dan Johnson’s Surprise” by Bowling.
Artist Rashid Johnson has been influenced by several figures in the exhibition, including Amos, Gilliam, Stella, and Thompson. About five years ago, Johnson introduced Gilliam to his dealer, David Kordansky, and curated a show of the elder artist’s hard-edge paintings at the Los Angeles gallery. Gilliam is now on the roster there, too.
“Sam’s work really provides, it feels like, infinite possibilities. What was he thinking, you know? What was the radical gesture? Was that radical gesture of emancipating the canvas from the stretcher bars one that reflected the sense of emancipation of freedom that was being searched for by people of color at the time?” Johnson wonders in the exhibition video.
“More often than not you have to assume that there is some sort of relationship between radical gestures in art and radical gestures in the world.”
– Victoria L. Valentine