Color is political. This is a pretty obvious statement, but it gets whitewashed, so to speak, most of the time in the art world. Instead, color is treated as a formal or aesthetic choice (although John Gage’s books Color and Culture and Color and Meaning offer a partial corrective). “Spiral: Perspectives on an African-American Art Collective” at the Studio Museum in Harlem provides the full retinal treatment. Standing before a wall of paintings made by African-American artists in the ’60s, color reads as nothing but political.
Spiral was founded in New York in 1963 in the weeks surrounding the March on Washington. Romare Bearden invited fellow painters Hale Woodruff, Norman Lewis, and Charles Alston to his Canal Street studio to talk about what role artists should play in the civil rights movement. Weekly conversations turned into a formalized collective, which took its name, according to the catalog for a Spiral exhibition, from the Archimedean spiral, which “moves outward embracing all directions, yet continually upward.”
That exhibition, “First Group Showing: Works in Black and White” in 1965—also the last year of Spiral’s short life—at a rented space on Christopher Street, was restricted, as the title implies, to artworks in black and white. Some of the best-known (white) painters of the era had covered similar ground. Pollock, de Kooning, Motherwell, and Franz Kline used black-and-white paint to create stark, existential compositions in the late ’40s and ’50s, or because black-and-white enamel house paints were cheap art materials.
The Spiral paintings register differently. Charles Alston’s Black and White II (c. 1960) and Black and White #7 (1961) look at first like classic gestural New York School abstractions, with heavily worked-over surfaces and eruptions of light and dark. But where de Kooning cited Bitter Rice, a 1949 black-and-white Italian neorealist film couched partly in Marxist dialectics and explorations of worker-consciousness, as a source for the mostly black-and-white Excavation (1950), Alston’s paintings bring the social much closer to home.
After all, how do you read value, the relative lightness or darkness of a color, in a painting made by an African-American? To refresh: During the slavery era, color was used to distinguish lighter-skinned house workers from darker-skinned field workers, a dynamic later recycled in 20th-century African-American social circles that employed the infamous “brown paper bag test” to determine eligibility. Complexions lighter than the paper bag were admitted; darker ones were excluded.
Spiral abstractions ripple with loaded meanings, but black and white was also used to create powerful figurative works as well. Merton D. Simpson’s Confrontation (Harlem) (1964) leans toward abstraction, but the staring eyes, just off-center in the canvas, and the drips of paint, including minuscule bits of red, suggest, along with the title, a menacing, ever-present violence. Reginald Gammon’s Freedom Now (c. 1963) uses black and white to graphic ends, depicting the faces and placards of marchers at a protest.
Then there are the black-and-white collages and photomontages for which Bearden, the most famous member of the group, is known. Spring Way (1964) builds from the vocabulary of Jacob Lawrence, piecing projected image-shards to create a near-abstract composition that resolves into a street scene suggesting the same urban poverty Lawrence documented in his Migrations Series (1940–41), of African-Americans moving to northern cities.
Beyond black and white, Norman Lewis’s Bonfire (1962) is a medium-size canvas with a burning orange core. Emma Amos, the only woman in the group, painted flattened figures—somewhere between Faith Ringgold and Alex Katz. In Godzilla (1966), the legs of three women are at the front of the picture, like long color samples ranging from brown to olive drab. Three Figures (1966) juxtaposes a white woman and a brown woman—again, in a similar fashion to Ringgold’s heavy-hitting paintings of the ’60s.
So how do these works measure up against the canon—say, Kline or Motherwell’s black-and-white canvases, or the great de Kooning’s? Do they show how the canon is merely a racist construction? Many use the same “advanced” midcentury idiom of slashing brushstrokes, or compositional elements that look like they’ve been painted and rubbed out multiple times. But Spiral shows where formalism breaks down. De Kooning’s Excavation may reference a film—but he could’ve said it referred to an archaeological site, and it wouldn’t have mattered.
Spiral artists, on the other hand, had their politics thrust upon them. Bearden described the situation in a 1966 ArtNews interview: “Western society, and particularly that of America, is gravely ill and a major symptom is the American treatment of the Negro. The artistic expression of this culture concentrates on themes of ‘absurdity’ and ‘anti-art’ which provide further evidence of its ill health.” (Some Buddhists have echoed this connection between spiritual illness and an aesthetic dedicated to the absurd.)
Spiral tweaked and exploded the European-American lineage from within. Picasso was embraced for his African obsession, but author Ralph Ellison’s “new visual order” carried equal weight. The collective was itself not free of politics. Decades later, Amos described in Art Journal how Woodruff, a family friend, had introduced her to the group and she’d been invited to join. “I imagined that I might be expected to take notes and make coffee,” she wrote, but that didn’t happen. Nonetheless, “I thought it was fishy that the group had not asked Vivian Browne, Betty Blayton Taylor, Faith Ringgold, Norma Morgan, or the other women artists of their acquaintance to join. I figured that I probably seemed less threatening to their egos, as I was not yet of much consequence.”
The current exhibition started off at the Birmingham Museum of Art and has been modified to include works from the Studio Museum’s collection. Still, it feels provisional. And this is embarrassing. Unbelievably, there’s no Spiral entry on Oxford Art Online—or even Wikipedia. “Radical” art historians can’t get enough ’60s European political theory (Debord, Althusser, or Marcuse). Meanwhile, insurgencies were erupting everywhere on our own continent in the ’60s. Like down on Canal Street.