The early ’70s are often romanticized — good vibes, groovy music and sociopolitical activism. It can simultaneously be said that the early ’70s were a time of heightened anxiety. These years came in the wake of JFK’s assassination, the Vietnam War, the Manson murders, the Civil Rights Movement and the beginnings of the Beatles’s something like desolate “hippy” era.
The UMMA’s exhibition “Abstraction, Color, and Politics in the Early 1970s” captures the unnerving vibe of the era through four large-scale works by American artists contemporary to the time: Helen Frankenthaler, Louise Nevelson, Sam Gilliam and Al Loving. The former are Jewish women, the latter Black men.
The emphasis of the gallery tour was heavily placed on public evaluation of art in the ’70s. Whether art was considered “good art” to critics and viewers depended on its ability to help advance social movements. The emphasis of social value was placed on feminism and civil rights in the case of these artists, given the politics of the era and the artists’ identities. Activism was difficult to navigate in the context of abstract art on the premise of its abstraction — their work didn’t mean the same thing to any one person. In turn, these artists received mass criticism because their art was “not political enough.”
Al Loving’s response to this criticism was perhaps the most jarring part of the talk. Loving was the first African American artist to have his own, one-person exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City less than a year after he moved there. He was immediately hailed in the white, upper-class art scene and became popular among buyers and patrons. He’d risen to fame. At a certain point, however, Loving began to lose touch with his work. The demand was so high that he began hiring assistants to paint for him, and he consequently slipped away from self-expression in his art.
Loving was simultaneously criticized by Black critics and activists of the time, who claimed that his art was far removed from Black activism and the Civil Rights Movement. They further criticized Loving for not using his momentous career to support and further the Movement, given his identity as a Black American artist. Loving was devastated by this criticism, so much so that he destroyed most of his work.
The women artists, Frankenthaler and Nevelson, had to consider vastly different political expectations in their art. Women artists were expected to both avoid and embody femininity in their work. They were expected to find a space between feminist and feminine — they were not to be too much of one or the other. Delicacy in female art was criticized, but so was violence. This was considered dangerous in abstraction, given its room for interpretation. As a result, both Frankenthaler and Nevelson resisted politics altogether in their work. However, Frankenthaler’s Sunset Corner is reminiscent of a menstrual painting, but the viewer can make of that what they will.
The gallery talk ultimately distilled common narratives around the ’70s and around the general politicization of art, making a statement about what it means to navigate being an artist of an oppressed demographic in a time of political strife and upheaval. The talk gave necessary background on these artists that otherwise couldn’t be inferred from the exhibit alone, making their work more profound, even today.