Last month I saw the exhibit “Magnetic Fields: Expanding American Abstraction,” at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. It was a collection of work by African American women.
I must say that had I not known about the exhibit in advance I would not have identified either the gender or race of the artists from their work. I also found it hard to engage with the genre. I was sometimes pulled in by the color/ patterns/medium, but often left cold. The sculptures in particular seemed to me to lack complexity or character.
I was drawn to the collage, “Harlem Flag," 2014, by Abigail Deville, composed of sheetrock, door, American flag, wax, encaustic paint, charcoal dust, wallpaper scrap, window shade, and staples. The accompanying commentary noted that the American flag, which is crushed and charred in this instillation, is “a symbol of pride, honor, and progress for some, but for others it signifies America’s gruesome history of imposed ownership of people and land.” This is what demonstrators who burned the flag in the 60’s and athletes who knelt during the national anthem were trying to convey. The flag is a powerful symbol, but its meaning is not universal.
The commentary on “Racism is Like Rain, Either it’s Raining or it’s Gathering Somewhere,” 1993, said that the painting “resembled two figures entwined in a scuffle, one black, the other white,” and that the contrast between the vivid colors and the black background was intended to “convey the enduring state of racism in both its active and its latent states.” I did not see any of that in the painting, but I did see power and violence.
What really made the exhibit come alive for me were recordings of the artists’ voices describing either a particular work or their artistic vision.
When I was a (very) young undergraduate student of English literature “New Criticism” was in vogue. Nothing counted except what was on the page. Nothing about the writer - gender, geography, historical or literary era - was considered relevant. Luckily, that methodology didn’t last. By the time I enrolled in graduate school it was again permissible to place the author, and therefore his or her work, in context, which made the work so much more interesting. It didn’t define what was on the page, but enhanced it.
And so too, while the art in the exhibit had to speak for itself and the recordings did not change my mind about any artist or piece, the context enriched my experience immeasurably.
I was particularly struck by the recorded voice of Lillian Thomas Burwell, who created the piece “Winged Autumn.”
Now in her 70’s, Burwell said that “in the autumn of her years” she was “still learning to fly high” and that her new mantra was “living for possibility.” As I enter a new chapter in my own life I wonder how to define “flying high.” At times I get stuck mourning losses, particularly the physical, that circumscribe “flying.” But I am still growing intellectually and creatively, challenging myself in new, or sometimes in abandoned old ways that I am happy to rediscover. I have given up a formal leadership title, but not my passion or ability to contribute.