This summer, the artist Kara Walker created a stir on the Internet when she disseminated a provocative announcement of her fall show at the Sikkema Jenkins gallery in New York. Written in wry carnival barker-ese, Walker’s press release anticipated the controversies that would inevitably arise in the exhibition’s wake, and in her audacious, bombastic diction, even seemed to invite them. In a subsequent artist’s statement, she struck a more deflated tone. “I know what you all expect from me and I have complied up to a point,” Walker wrote wearily. “But frankly I am tired, tired of standing up, being counted, tired of ‘having a voice’ or worse ‘being a role model.’”
Her statement shone a spotlight on the outsize expectation still borne by African-American artists to “represent” their race and to make socially engaged work that in some way explicates their blackness. That matter of “what you all expect from me” is also at the heart of Solidary & Solitary, a new traveling show of work by a group of black abstract artists—Walker not among them—opening this weekend in its first of seven venues, the Ogden Museum of Southern Art in New Orleans. Curated by the Baltimore Museum of Art’s Christopher Bedford and Katy Siegel (also the pair behind Mark Bradford’s Tomorrow Is Another Day at this year’s Venice Biennale), the show’s title refers, as Siegel tells me by phone, “to that pull between the pressure to represent your collective identity, and the drive to be free, to be only yourself.” In a brochure that accompanies the exhibition, the curators offer some historical context for that tension among African-American artists: “The battle waged by brave individuals against the conforming masses is central to the American story, but the reality was, and is, considerably more complicated. For black artists . . . there was enormous pressure to work in a recognizable, representational mode, be it social realism or the ‘Negro Idiom.’ Voices in the dominant American culture and the black community alike demanded identifiable signifiers of race and, in the latter case, of uplift and protest.”
Solidary & Solitary draws almost entirely from the holdings of the prominent, married Bay Area collectors Pamela Joyner and Alfred Giuffrida. In her press release, Walker expressly rejected the term activist; Joyner embraces it. She calls herself a “cultural activist,” and refers to the collection, now more than 300 pieces strong, as “mission-driven,” both in terms of the art she chooses to buy (her husband is the silent partner in their shared enterprise) and her indefatigable championing of the artists who make it. It wasn’t, she admits, always that way. “I just needed some things to hang on the wall,” she remembers, chuckling. “That’s really where I started.”
Joyner, 59, grew up the daughter of teachers on the South Side of Chicago, where, as a child, she made weekly pilgrimages to the Art Institute to commune with paintings by Picasso and Seurat. While she was earning her MBA at Harvard (she would put it to use on Wall Street, where she ran a private equity marketing company) she crossed paths with the Metropolitan Museum of Art curator Lowery Stokes Sims. At Sims’s suggestion, Joyner began, about 20 years ago, buying paintings; eventually her focus narrowed to abstract work by artists of the African diaspora, primarily African American, from the 1940s onward.
“I realized there was a deeper story I could tell,” Joyner remembers, “that would hopefully make a difference.” She saw an opportunity to revise the historical record to reflect the work of black nonrepresentational painters whose contributions had long been ignored, and she approached the task of doing so with business school savvy. “I remember calling Lowery up,” Joyner tells me. “I said, I’m going to write a strategy! We’re going to have an execution plan. We’re going to work really hard to change the narrative.” (The response from Sims, who had spent her career fighting an uphill battle for greater institutional inclusion of black artists: “Good luck with that!”) Thus was born the Joyner/Giuffrida collection, a project, as Joyner told the New York Times last year, “no less ambitious than an effort to reframe art history” (and one, she adds, in which she has benefited greatly from the groundwork laid by trailblazers like Sims).
Joyner is speaking to me by phone from New Orleans, where she’s just arrived to oversee the last days of the Ogden show’s installation. “When I asked them to consider taking on this project,” Joyner says of Siegel and Bedford, “I said to them I promise not to micromanage. I did make one qualifier. I said that group shows focused on black artists have a long history. Some of those shows have been transformational. Some of them have been less additive to the conversation, and those have very often had the characteristic of being an unaffiliated amalgam of artists, where the only common factor is that they happen to be black. So what I said was, let’s just not have a plain vanilla black group show.”
Read the entire article on Vogue’s website.