THROUGHOUT history artists’ canvasses have mostly been stretched on a frame. “Carousel Change” is an exception. This work, painted by Sam Gilliam in 1970, hangs loosely from five knots, a mass of glowing pink, yellow and orange folds like a partly gathered sail. It hangs in the California home of Pamela Joyner, a prominent collector of African-American art. Nicholas Cullinan, who has curated several important American art exhibitions, calls Mr Gilliam “one of America’s greatest living abstract painters”. Which will surprise some, because even in the art world there are those who do not know of the 82-year-old African-American.
Ms Joyner is one of several private collectors who are pushing museums to show more work by black Americans—not just by today’s superstars, but also by their forgotten predecessors. Their efforts are paying off. In 2015 the Obamas hung a new acquisition, a radiant circle painting by Alma Thomas, a pioneering abstract artist, in a prominent position in the White House (pictured). Placed near works by Josef Albers and Robert Rauschenberg, two white men who are much more famous, it was a statement.
On September 24th the president will open the National Museum of African-American History and Culture in Washington, DC: in the lobby is a lustrously glazed installation by Mr Gilliam. The trend is spreading. The Kunstmuseum Basel also has plans for a Gilliam show. Next month the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris will open an exhibition of almost 150 years of African-American art. And in 2017 Tate Modern will mount a show of mid-20th-century black American artists. Ms Joyner’s 300 works dating back to the 1950s, the subject of a book published this month, will form the basis of a touring show, starting at the Ogden Museum in New Orleans at the end of next year.
The embarrassing, some say shameful, question is how artists like Mr Gilliam and Thomas, and Norman Lewis, another abstract expressionist, were ever forgotten. Lewis was the only black artist to take part in the discussions that founded abstract expressionism at Studio 35 in New York in 1950, alongside Willem de Kooning and Robert Motherwell. Thomas became, in 1972, the first black woman to have a solo show at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Mr Gilliam, early in his career, was given a rare introductory exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA).
But in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, African-American abstract artists were caught in a lose-lose situation. “The conventional art world expected black painters to paint black subject matter; meanwhile the black community felt that the artistic community should create uplifting images of black people,” Ms Joyner says. Figurative artists, like Charles White, a socialist-realist, were often considered by museums to be formally uninventive. All found it hard sustaining a presence in what was, by today’s standards, a small, exclusive art market.
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