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Abstraction

Can changing the visual conditions of one’s environment subsequently change one’s life? This Collection in Context is inspired by the Smokehouse Associates, who from 1968 through 1970 transformed vacant lots and barren walls throughout Harlem with colorful, abstract murals and sculptures. Founded by William T. Williams and comprising Melvin Edwards, Guy Ciarcia, and Billy Rose, the Smokehouse Associates executed a series of painted walls in pocket parks, above neighborhood grocers, and against building facades. Employing abstraction as a device for community engagement, the collective endeavored to “let the message be the change rather than put information out which said why the world needed changing.”1 At the same time, the Black Power movement endorsed Black figuration as a conceptual and aesthetic tool for Black empowerment. Smokehouse instead embraced nonrepresentational techniques—through abstract geometries and hard-edged forms—to cultivate vibrancy, invite leisure, and, in due course, inspire local residents to borrow painting materials to enhance their surroundings.

Around Smokehouse’s inception, Black artists such as Frank Bowling, Sam Gilliam, Al Loving, Alma Thomas, and Jack Whitten were also forging new directions in abstraction. Frank Bowling’s Blond Betsey (1976) showcases the artist’s technique of pouring paint onto canvas to create washes of color. For William T. Williams and Al Loving, intersecting geometric shapes dominate in Trane (1969) and Variations on a Six Sided Object (1967), respectively, while in Untitled (1968), Betty Blayton-Taylor's entangled collage elements and loose brushstrokes portray a unique three-dimensionality. Among other artists, Ed Clark began experimenting with nonconventional painting tools (a push broom), and, notably, Clark is the first credited artist to exhibit a shaped canvas. And, Alma Thomas’s Space (1966) and Sam Gilliam’s Northwest Winds (1974) offer viewers with abstract representations of the world around us.

Within their refusals of figuration, these artists stirred emotive responses toward—and sometimes away from—the social and political. While Smokehouse’s efforts galvanized the communal potential of abstraction, the individual artists in this collection created a theoretical through-line between nonrepresentational art and freedom, and between blackness and expansion. Scholars and writers like Adrienne Edwards and Eric Booker have articulated this connection, the latter author affirming blackness and abstraction as “fluid and unfixed, it is not bound by a singular narrative or identity.”2 With this in mind, abstraction exists along a movable axis—with aesthetics and protest on either side—generating the opportunity to impact one’s exterior (built environment) and interior (mind).

Abstraction was organized by Habiba Hopson, Curatorial Assistant, Collections.

Endnotes
[1] Melvin Edwards and Michel Oren, Michel Oren interviews with artists, 1979–1991, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, 5.
[2] Smokehouse Associates, ed. Eric Booker (New York: The Studio Museum in Harlem, 2022), 28.

 

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Untitled

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Blond Betsey

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Space

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Cotton Hangup

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Variations on a Six Sided Object

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Northwest Wind

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Untitled

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Trane

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A person rests beside Smokehouse’s yellow and red zig-zags at a park on Sylvan Place (E. 120th Street between Lexington and 3rd Ave.), c. 1968. Artwork created by Smokehouse Associates. Courtesy William T. Williams Archives

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Children play atop silver sculptures at a mini-park off E. 121st St. (between 2nd and 3rd Aves.), c. 1969. Artwork created by Smokehouse Associates. Courtesy William T. Williams Archives

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Publication

Publication

A groundbreaking study of the public art collective Smokehouse Associates, whose abstract works transformed New York's Harlem community in the late 1960s.