African-American, in the Abstract

Delineating stylistic and thematic boundaries for what can be considered "African-American art," as well as for what "African-American artists" should strive to create, has been a topic for great debate among artists and philosophers, throughout the twentieth century. Abstract artistic styles, in particular, are a source for great contention.

Alain Locke, a professor at Howard University, and the leading "strategist" of a movement during the 1920's to create "New Negro" art, an identifiably unique aesthetic for African-American art spoke out in praise of the abstract. "The African spirit is at its best in abstract decorative forms. Design, and to a lesser degree, color, are its original fortes. It is this aspect of the folk tradition, this slumbering gift of the folk temperament that most needs re-achievement and re-expression," Locke argued.

However, even the endorsement of abstract African-American art was made with qualifications. Locke and his contemporaries favored only those abstractions which explicitly referenced African folk tradition, and thus worked to create an African foundation for African-American art which would be analogous to the importance of classical art from ancient Rome and Greece to mainstream Western art.

Decades later, in the 50s and 60s, many African-Americans embraced the rising movement of Abstract Expressionism. As African-American artist Norman Lewis expressed, abstraction allowed him to "strike a blow against stereotype," by creating a "universal" art which reflected his emotional experience of African-American life, but which could also apply to (and appeal to) audiences of all races. To Lewis, the style liberated the African-American as artist. As he explained:

When I'm at work, I usually remove my state of mind from the Negro environment I live in. I paint what's inside, and like to think of it as a very personal, very individual environment. Being Negro, of course, is part of what I feel, but in expressing all of what I am artistically, I often find myself in a visionary world, to which 125th Street would prove limited and less than universal by comparison.
Indeed, Abstract Expressionists were among the first African-American artists embraced by the mainstream public. Nevertheless, many of their contemporaries criticized their work as inappropriate failure to address the black experience, and refused to allow it to be categorized with "black art." Unfortunately, African-American Abstract Expressionism was often dismissed as pure mimicry of Euro-American art, although the Cubist and Modernist movements which had helped spawn Abstraction had indeed been inspired by traditional African styles.


Vol. 7, No. 2 (Spring-Summer, 1984)

Art and Beauty
Micheal E. Coblyn


Vol. 12, No. 1 (Winter, 1989)

A Conversation With My Garden
Guillame Lo-A-Njoe


Vol. 12, No. 3 (Summer, 1989)

Vanity Contraption
Q. Jan Telting, 1986


Vol. 13, No. 4 (Fall, 1990)

Untitled (3.11.87)
Oliver Jackson, 1987
Oil pastel on gessoed paper
71"h x 80"w


Vol. 22, No. 4 (Fall, 1999)

Detail of Pattern Draft #2
Liz Cherry Jones

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