Nov 12, 2015 - Mar 6, 2016

A Constellation

The Studio Museum in Harlem

"A Constellation" traces connections among twenty-six artists of African descent: eight who emerged in the mid- to late twentieth century, and who are represented in the exhibition by works from the Studio Museum’s permanent collection, and eighteen younger artists whose works are being shown at the Studio Museum for the first time. The works in the Museum’s collection serve as material and conceptual anchors exploring themes of the figure, formal abstraction, economy, African diasporic history and materiality. The newer works expand on these themes and prompt an intergenerational dialogue in visual space. The artists in the exhibition embrace a broad range of conceptual approaches. Some employ making as a form of politics, others explore how race and cultural production affect aesthetics, while still others combine these methods or create their own. Together the works function as a “constellation,” both as a metaphor for stars that form a pattern, and as a representation of a gathering of dynamic, kindred artists. As suggested by the title, the connections drawn here present just one possible combination among an infinite variety of configurations.

Elizabeth Catlett
Elizabeth Catlett completed her undergraduate degree at Howard University in 1935 and was the first person to receive an MFA in sculpture from the University of Iowa, in 1940. While working on her thesis project, Catlett completed a small limestone statue of a seated mother and child, which garnered many accolades. In the ensuing decades, the artist often returned to the same subject, in other materials such as terracotta, marble and wood. Influenced by her time living in Mexico, beginning in 1962, Catlett intertwined different aesthetics, including African, pre-Columbian and modern, to fashion her unique style and practice. "Mother and Child"(1993) portrays an intimate moment in mahogany. The figures’ stylized features and spare attire focus attention on the emotion in the embrace. 
Melvin Edwards
Melvin Edwards’s "Working Thought" (from the “Lynch Fragment” series, 1985) fuses metal remnants—chain links, a crowbar, industrial-size nails—into a confrontational composition that is never fully at rest. The small sculpture in this series, created between 1963 and the early 1990s, recalls lynching, one of the most painful legacies of African-American history, along with the relationships between black people, labor and industry. These themes are well documented and commonly evidenced in the formal elements of Edwards’s sculptures. Each object fights for position: Some almost slide out of the composition, while others aggressively jut into the viewing space. The sculpture is in both stasis and flux. Edwards earned his BFA from the University of Southern California in 1965. 
David Hammons
David Hammons is a conceptual artist working in a variety of media, including installation, performance and sculpture. His practice is influenced by Dada, Arte Povera and Minimalism, as reflected in his use of everyday and abject objects, which he transforms to reveal embedded prejudices and value systems. Hammons’s works often appear as visual puns and serve as criticisms of systems of class and race, and how objects are often politicized by history and cultural exchange. "Too Obvious" (1996) is a sculpture composed of a broken piggy bank overflowing with cowries. Used as traditional currency in western Africa, cowries symbolize wealth, exchange and economy, while the strategically shattered ceramic piggy bank suggests overabundance and desire, as well as corruption and violence. Duality is often at play in Hammons’s work to spotlight how various histories, particularly of the African diaspora, are connected with arbitrary declarations of value. Hammons attended California Institute of the Arts from 1966–1968 and the Otis Art Institute from 1968–1972.  
Al Loving
Al Loving was a prominent abstract painter whose signature style explores the meanings and functions of color, shape and dimension. Loving began his career as a painter in Chicago and moved to New York in 1968, where he expanded his practice and commitment to Abstract Expressionist painting, during a time in which painting was declared dead by artists and critics in favor of new media works. Known for his illusionary, prism-like shapes with hard edges, Loving incorporated sculptural elements into his two-dimensional paintings and experimented with the borders and edges of the picture plane to change how viewers see color and the pictorial space in different, unexpected ways. As exemplified in "Variations on a Six Sided Object" (1967), Loving’s works are technically accomplished, with precise executions of black and white lines to divide space and provide depth and movement. Loving’s energetic works, though entirely two-dimensional, are tests of painting as both form and perception. Loving received his BFA from the University of Illinois in 1963 and his MFA from the University of Michigan in 1965. 
Adrian Piper
Philosopher and conceptual artist Adrian Piper addresses social and political issues in her performance art, photography and video works. Piper’s performance work includes the “Mythic Being” series (1972–75) in which she disguises herself as a racially ambiguous man, and then documents public reactions to her character in film and photographs, which she often alters with speech or thought balloons. In addition, Piper performs the role of an artist who is black but often mistaken for white to encourage audiences to become aware of their own prejudices. Her work, "Self Portrait as a Nice White Lady" (1995), is an altered photograph of the artist with a text bubble that reads, “Whut Choo Lookin at, Mofo?” which directly addresses the issues of being a female artist who uses racism and gender as subject matter. In much of her work Piper addresses this same topic, the dilemma of what the artist terms a “Colored Woman Artist,” that is, that the problem with making art about race and gender is that it is assumed to be autobiographical rather than general. Piper earned her AD from the School of Visual Arts, New York, in 1969; from City College of New York in 1974; and M.A. and Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1977 and 1981, respectively. 
Faith Ringgold
Faith Ringgold is a painter, writer, sculptor and performance artist who was born and raised in Harlem. Her work is marked by a commitment to women’s rights and equality, and often employs media historically associated with women, such as textiles and quilts. Ringgold’s interest in quilts stems from their historic significance in African-American women’s artistic practice; enslaved women were often skilled quilt makers and used them as vehicles for storytelling. Ringgold created her first quilt, "Echoes of Harlem" (1980), in collaboration with her mother, Willi Posey, a fashion designer in Harlem. Drawing upon her painting practice from the 1960s and 1970s, Ringgold painted portraits of people from her childhood on fabric, which her mother then sewed into a quilt. Though Ringgold and Posey had collaborated on several works prior to 1980, Echoes of Harlem was the last piece they worked on together before Posey’s death in 1981. Ringgold earned a BA and MA from the City College of New York in 1955 and 1959, respectively.  
Betye Saar
Betye Saar was initially drawn to ritual objects after a visit to the Field Museum in Chicago in 1970. The exhibitions on sub-Saharan, Oceanic and Egyptian art introduced her to the organic materials of shamans and an iconography of cosmology and mysteries. Her interest in ritual and spirituality led to experimentations with collage and assemblage, including visual musings on African, Caribbean and African-American mysticism. Saar terms these boxes, such as Window of Ancient Sirens (1979), “ancestral works” because they mimic African processes of accumulation and ritualization. Saar also seeks to capture emotional and spiritual power in her artistic process through symbolic steps she calls “rituals.” Through this predetermined process, Saar transforms objects by investing them with alternative narratives. The resulting work is a remnant of this ritual experience, an assemblage that puts these objects in the context of their meaning and spiritual significance. Saar received a BA from the University of California, Los Angeles in 1949 and studied at California State University, Long Beach, the University of Southern California and California State University, Northridge.
Jack Whitten
When he moved to New York in the 1960s, Jack Whitten adopted abstraction as the language for his painting practice. His career now spans more than fifty years and, though rooted in Abstract Expressionism, Whitten has experimented with medium and technique and borrowed elements of photography and sculpture. The seemingly simple composition of "Psychic Intersection" (1979–80) is, in fact, a complex balance of techniques, tools and influences. The incised wavy lines were produced by dragging an afro comb across the canvas to add texture and reveal layers of color. The artist considers the technique of dragging paint with tools, such as combs, squeegees or rakes, not a gesture but a process that he refers to as “weaving light,” which allows light to illuminate the canvas in between the lines of raised paint. Although the works are nonrepresentational, they are embedded with various influences, from African-American authors such as Ralph Ellison to Zen Buddhist philosophies. Whitten’s reimaging of how materials and geometry are used complicates his relationship with abstract painting and cultural history. Whitten holds degrees from the Tuskegee Institute, Southern University and the Cooper Union.
Credits: Story

A Constellation is on view at the Studio Museum from November 12, 2015 to March 6, 2016 and is organized by Amanda Hunt, Assistant Curator

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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