You could swear you’ve seen her before, the woman in the silky green slip dress painted in profile. Perhaps you spied her in the wings at a modern dance troupe or waiting for a table at a local nightclub.
But the stunning figure depicted in the 2013 artwork “Godly Governance” isn’t a real person. Every detail of her appearance from the hair pulled into a ballerina-style bun to the muscular arms folded across her chest sprung from the artist Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s imagination.
“The paintings are ideas of people the artist has yet to see,” said Christopher Bedford, director of the Baltimore Museum of Art, who co-curated the exhibit with Katy Siegel.
Really? Startled, some visitors may lean in for a closer look. And in an instant, what had appeared to be a conventional (if lovely) portrait becomes marvelous, elusive and strange.
“How in the world did she do it?” viewers may wonder. How, without painting from a model or photograph, did Yiadom-Boakye get exactly right the angle at which a living woman’s elbow would be bent? How did she capture that expression — composed, observant, a little tense?
Her canvasses are among the surprises in “Generations: A History of Black Abstract Art,” the ticketed exhibit running for the next two months at Maryland’s largest museum. (Bedford said that Yiadom-Boakye’s paintings fit the definition of abstract art because they are mental constructions instead of being copied from life.)
The exhibit includes 73 artworks from the 1940s through the present. Bedford, who co-curated the show, said it is “the largest collection of abstract paintings and sculptures by black artists that a museum in the U.S. has ever assembled.”
“Generations” asserts that African American artists didn’t merely contribute terrific paintings and sculptures to the movement that swept the art world in the middle of the 20th century; they changed the nature of abstraction itself.
So this exhibit matters, even for people who don’t like abstract art. Abstraction continues to influence virtually every aspect of modern life from the design of bathroom sinks to the molecular gastronomy practiced in high-end restaurants.
As Bedford put it: “'Generations' tells an entirely new history" of American art created in the decades following World War II.
Bridget R. Cooks, an associate art professor at the University of California-Irvine, notes in a booklet accompanying the show that it wasn’t until well into the 20th century that works by black painters and sculptors could be found in America’s most prestigious cultural institutions.
“Although African American artists exhibited their work in private homes, businesses, churches and the occasional world’s fair,” Cooks writes, “they did not exhibit their art in a mainstream museum until 1927.”
If the art world establishment was slow to admit black artists, it were even slower to admit black museum-goers.
For example, Jack Whitten might never have become an artist or created the works displayed in this show if he had spent his life in his native Alabama. Growing up in the Jim Crow south, Whitten wasn’t allowed to enter a museum until he moved to New York City in 1960 at age 21.
“It was then,” Bedford said, “that he encountered both modernism and African sculpture.”
Influences from both can be seen in Whitten’s 2006 artwork, “9.11.01." a memorial painting created after the artist watched the Twin Towers fall from his studio in Queens.
Bedford purchased the monumental mosaic for the BMA in 2018; he described it as “the most important piece of artwork that I’ve ever bought for a museum.”
The canvas is 10 feet tall by 20 feet wide and shows a massive black triangle that seems to swallow light. Behind it are gray plumes that could be smoke. The triangle’s base is consumed in furious swirls of a rusty brown and green and beige.
Three silver spears shoot out from the pyramid’s sides. They could be about to fall, or they could be rocket ships launching into space.
“In the African tradition, before an object can remember or embody a person who has died, it needs to be imbued with some of that person’s essence,” Bedford said. "Jack gathered materials from the 9/11 site because he wanted to create a sacred object of remembrance.
"There’s rubber in this piece, and blood and asphalt and ash.”
Look closely, and it’s possible to detect the glint of mica, the gritty texture of rubble. The painting no longer seems intellectual, but visceral, immediate and raw.
Bedford thinks that it’s these references to real-world events that distinguishes black abstract artists from their white counterparts.
“The artists in this exhibit are all about community," he said. "This is not Jackson Pollock or Mark Rothko flinging paint on the surface of a canvas. This is not about making art as an extension of the self. These are artists making paintings about the society and world we live in.”
Black abstract artists tended to think of themselves as makers and laborers, Bedford said, and not as virtuosos. Partly from necessity and partly because it fits their philosophy, they didn’t purchase their materials from art stores. Instead, they scrounged stuff from wherever they could find it.
Bedford said that as a result, their works often are characterized by a refreshing lack of pretension.
“They use mundane materials to make transcendent art,” Bedford said. “They’ll find a piece of wood, take it home, distress it and making it their own."
These artists were equally inventive at manipulating their materials to achieve the desired effects.
One not-to-miss installation is Kevin Beasley’s “Chair of the Ministers of Defense,” an artwork so large it requires it’s own room. The artist used foam and resin to stiffen vividly colored bandannas, house dresses and T-shirts, which he shaped into ghostly forms. These apparitions float above and alongside an empty, throne-like rattan chair similar to the one in which former Black Panther Huey P. Newton famously posed in 1968.
The result is every bit as over-the-top as the artist’s inspiration, Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s 17th baroque altar for St. Peter’s Basilica.
The room is dark, so Beasley’s work isn’t visible until visitors are actually inside the room, and it’s fun to listen to the succession of audible gasps made by newcomers.
Equally intriguing (if initially less startling) are Whitten’s renowned mosaics, which are not fashioned from the traditional glass or ceramic tiles. Instead, Whitten poured acrylic paint into bottle caps and other molds, let the paint dry, cut and sanded it, and glued the rectangles onto the canvas.
Another example: a “painting” by Mark Bradford, the abstract expressionist American artist who represented the U.S. in the 2017 Venice Biennale, often described as “the art world Olympics.”
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Viewers who just glance at Bradford’s 2016 painting, “My Grandmother Felt the Color” might never realize that the razor-thin strokes of gold, the scarlet dabs, the fields of lightest sky blue, were made with liquid dyes. Museum-goers who pause in front of the work might even think they can discern brush strokes.
But they will have been deceived by their eyes and by Bradford’s craft. Every square inch of the rectangle consists of paper slivers meticulously layered on top of one another.
The papers the artist incorporates into his work usually have personal or social significance, from end-papers used to wrap a woman’s tresses into permanent waves (Bradford began his career styling hair) to advertisements for exploitative payday loans that litter inner-city neighborhoods.
Really? Startled, some visitors might lean in for a closer look. The collage is huge, 11 feet tall by 13 feet wide, and it’s filled from edge to edge with colors and shapes. Completing it must have taken months of grueling, tedious labor.
“How in the world did he do it?" viewers may wonder.
If you go
“Generations: A History of Black Abstract Art” runs through Jan. 19, 2020 at the Baltimore Museum of Art, at N. Charles and 31st Streets. Tickets cost $8-$10. For details, call (443) 573-1700 or go to artbma.org.