Occasionally an art exhibition comes along that is more engaging for the issues it raises, the questions it prompts and the viewpoints it offers than for the artworks hanging on its walls. Such is “Spiral: Perspectives on an African-American Collective” at the Studio Museum in Harlem. Organized by Lauren Haynes, in collaboration with Emily G. Hanna of the Birmingham Museum of Art (where a smaller version of the show originated), “Spiral” features 22 works of painting, printmaking, collage and photomontage, most in black and white, by 10 of the 15 members of Spiral, a New York art collective active from 1963 to 1965.
In July 1963, anticipating the following month’s March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, Romare Bearden invited Charles Alston, Norman Lewis and Hale Woodruff to his Canal Street studio for weekly meetings to discuss their relationship to the civil-rights movement and their cultural responsibilities, as African-American artists, to achieve solidarity and to further the cause. They took the name Spiral, which refers to the Archimedean spiral, and within weeks had grown to 15 members. Understandably, they expanded the conversation to address changes in America and in American art, including the rise of what Bearden referred to as a concentration on themes of “absurdity” and “antiart.” Apparently, equal rights for women didn’t figure highly in the discussion, as only one woman, the figurative painter Emma Amos, was invited to join the collective.
Spiral was among the first postwar groups to urge artists to promote social change—to turn self-expression into expression for the greater good of the group. And “Spiral” offers a glancing view, from the African-American perspective, of the birth and early stages of what came to be known in the 1970s as identity politics. The show asserts that disenfranchised groups need spokespeople. And it asks some of Spiral’s original questions: “Are aesthetic sensibilities specific to racial identity?” “What relationship should artists have with the social and political concerns of black Americans?” And “Is there a Negro Image?” These are big questions the show doesn’t begin to answer.
“Spiral” succeeds art historically, in that it adds a new chapter to our understanding of an influential group amid a turbulent period; and it flourishes as an exhibition about black history and racial, social, political and artistic issues, but not really as an art exhibit. That is unless you take the show as a snapshot of the social experiment that Spiral was—a mix of many conflicting styles, influences and ideologies, aesthetic and otherwise, attempting unsuccessfully to cohere. The Studio Museum’s exhibit includes several pictures from Spiral’s 1965 exhibition, “First Group Showing: Works in Black and White.” In that original show’s catalog essay, the artists stated: “We, as Negroes, could not fail to be touched by the outrage of segregation, or fail to relate to the self-reliance, hope, and courage of those persons who were marching in the interest of man’s dignity. . . . If possible, in these times, we hoped with our art to justify life . . . to use only black and white and eschew other coloration.”
This act of artistic solidarity is reasonable; and, on the surface, empathetic and metaphoric. But you realize, even in this small exhibit, that an artist’s palette is a personal thing—that color as it relates to painting has nothing to do with race; that some artists can work well tonally and some cannot. You realize that no matter how much you might want to make color political, a strong black-and-white picture will speak to the pantheon of great black-and-white artworks much sooner and more fully than it will trigger in a viewer’s mind that race—not light—is an artist’s primary concern.
There are a handful of good artworks in “Spiral,” but the best of them speak to art and express universal values that extend beyond their contemporary social subjects. Bearden’s black-and-white “Conjur Woman” (1964), a photo projection on paper of a torn-paper collage, depicts a haunting, composite figure who is surrounded by animals, and acts as a magical cave or portal in dense woods. William Majors’s striking series of abstract etchings, seemingly inspired by aboriginal art, cave painting and Wassily Kandinsky, combines ancient and modern sensibilities. Also of note is Lewis’s “Untitled” (1964), a mystical, washy oil on paper (part Color Field, part Paul Klee), in which colored light, shining from out of a dark, bluish mist, reads as hints of emerging geometry, cloud, landscape or architecture.
Paradoxically, “Spiral”—no matter what its artworks’ subjects—is an aesthetically marginal show whose pictures often come across as watered-down versions of European Modernism and Abstract Expressionism. Alston’s “Black & White #7” (1961) reads as a weak, horizontal approximation of Jackson Pollock’s vertical masterpiece “The Deep” (1953). Woodruff’s “Africa and the Bull” (c. 1958) is a Picasso pastiche; and his “Portal” (undated) is a pastiche of Wifredo Lam. Occasionally, as in bombastic, agitprop paintings such as Reginald Gammon’s “Freedom Now” (c. 1963) and Merton D. Simpson’s “Confrontation (Harlem)” (1964) and “Untitled (Angry Young Man)” (1965), the pictures act as posters barking messages about civil rights. All of this makes “Spiral” feel propagandistic, derivative, even dated. But “Spiral” is also an exhibition whose topics remain central, even timely, to any contemporary discussion regarding the meeting and merging of art and politics, or the social responsibility of artists.
And the show speaks to larger truths. As a group, artists are as political or apolitical as any other segment of the population. An artist can be politically or socially active outside his studio; inside his studio, however, his allegiances tend toward the causes of art. “Spiral” represents a group with good intentions. But it also reveals that art is made primarily by individuals alone in the studio; that a group mentality can hinder artistic development; and that artists generally do not do well when a subject is thrust upon them—especially one as charged as civil rights.
“Spiral” reveals that here, at least, individual expression won out, and that the influence of contemporary art had more sway in the studio than did the influence of contemporary politics. Muses can come at any time and from anywhere, but they tend to be heard more easily by contemplative individuals than in and among the din of groups.
Perspectives on an African-American
Studio Museum in Harlem
Through Oct. 23
By LANCE ESPLUND