When curators from two different museums in two parts of the country wanted to tell new stories about paintings from their collections, both chose to look at big, bold colorful work done by known and less-well-known artists in the Sixties and Seventies.
The Whitney Museum of American art created Spilling Over: Painting Color in the 1960s, which is on view through August 18, to showcase new acquisitions that tell a more complete story about painters using splatters, drips, and jazzy figures with in-your-face colors.
The AIA Museum of Contemporary Native Arts (MoCNA) in Santa Fe created Action/Abstraction Redefined, on view through July 7, to highlight the way young Native American painters – some of whom went on to have major art careers – channeled the zeitgeist of the East-Coast gallery scene into something with which they could make a personal mark.
The curators at both institutions were thinking along similar lines.
Although Spilling Over features Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland, Frank Stella, and other icons of the wall-sized color painting movement sweeping through New York galleries in the Sixties, the curators wanted to make sure that the public understood that there were female, Native American, and African-American color painters experimenting with these trends, too.
The Whitney has given Sam Gilliam’s draped and splattered canvas a place of honor at the end of the two-gallery vista. He was one of the few African-American artists to gain coverage in Artforum back in the day, but is largely unknown to younger art-going audiences.
At the opposite end of the space, the curators showcase an electrifying neon canvas by Alan Loving, the first African-American to have a solo show at the Whitney in the late Sixties.
Color-figure work by Cherokee artist Kay Walking Stick is featured alongside other painters like Harlem’s Edith Amos and Alex Katz, who slathered color across figurative canvases. It’s all about introducing art-lovers to new faces in the canon of American Art.
While women and artists of color were trying to get their work on the walls of New York museums and galleries, up-and-coming Native American abstractionists were waging a different type of battle for acceptance – a struggle that led to the birth of the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA) in the early Sixties.
Contemporary abstract work by Native American Modernists in the late 1950s was typically rejected from competitive and museum-curated art shows. Juries and curators were clearly biased toward traditional forms of expression, and young innovators bristled at being told to “stay in their place.”
When the Institute of American Indian Arts opened in 1962, the next generation seized the opportunity to put their mark on what was setting the art market on fire – big, expressive abstraction; atmospheric color field works; and geometry.
These works, some of which were accessed into MoCNA from the Bureau of Indian Affairs, tell quite a compelling story about early-stage experimentation and the opportunity that the arts-education initiative provided to emerging artists out West. The years spent making work at IAIA gave a kick-start to careers of some of the best-known native artists today – T.C. Cannon, Fritz Scholder, and George Morrison. Judge by the results you see here.
The MoCNA curators also wanted to make space for women in their exhibition, too, such as Frances Makil. The 1965 pastel by Hopi/Choctaw artist Linda Lomahaftewa uses the artist’s own culture as inspiration, but the lines and spirals echo some of the Whitney’s own abstract, meditative canvases by Lee Krasner, who also drew energy from spirit worlds.
Both shows open the doors to new faces to widen the conversation about color-painting history, and these paintings all have a lot to say.
Listen to Whitney curator David Breslin and artists explain how a collection show can reframe conventional art history, and learn more about the artists in the audio tour here: