At the end of his Forart Lecture at Oslo’s Kunstnernes Hus, Darby English let us in on some of his methodological premises. Asked about the temporal metaphors employed in the lecture, the art history professor from the University of Chicago explained his need to disconnect and slow things down. That means no emails, no social media, no online activities whatsoever, sometimes for weeks. It is from such a place of silence and aesthetic attentiveness that English carries out his rigorous investigations into the history of art, particularly the histories of African-American modern art.
Even though he stresses that he is “not a critic” and not here to judge, it becomes apparent that English has sympathy for the subject of his talk, that is black modernist abstract art, as it was exhibited in shows such as Contemporary Black Artists in America (CBAA). That exhibition took place in 1971 at the Whitney Museum of American Art and was curated by Robert Doty (1933–1992). Since the museum was not willing to meet all the demands expressed by what English labels the “black nationalists”, which included having a black curator, the show was met with protests and boycotts. Fifteen out of the 75 participating artists withdrew from the exhibition. While the protest publication “Black Art Notes” envisioned a homogenous representation of black identity and black struggle through figurative art, CBAA presented a diverse field of individual artistic personalities, leading to a broad range of intentions and expressions. Especially abstract works by artists such as Alvin Loving (1935–2005), Tom Lloyd (1921–1996), Frank Bowling (*1936), Barbara Chase-Riboud (*1939) and Frederick John Eversley (*1941) avoided giving a clear message that would play into representational conventions of “black identity” and political activism. Abstract art was used by “black modernist artists” to free themselves from narrowing narratives of what black art should look like.
In his book 1971. A Year in the Life of Color (2016), as well as in this lecture, English carves out the subversive contestations posed by such abstract works which, he suggests, were more subtle, aesthetically compelling and radical in social terms than the ideological fantasies of the “black nationalists”. Dwelling on Loving’s geometrical images, where the disparate relation between structure and colour conveys an unsettling tension, English demonstrates how abstract black art resists being reduced to a racial signifier. Colour becomes unstable and delocalized. Its social logic is reopened for negotiation, not through a politics of rhetoric and affect but through an intensity of contemplation. The by-product of this contemplation might be considered a form of activism that takes its starting point from a void of political signification.
And today? Under the Trump presidency, black lives and communities are as threatened as ever; a situation which, according to English, has spurred “some of the worst ideas about resistance”. He did not explain this any further, but his own practice speaks of an alternative activism, one rooted in the archives of art history.