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The Search For Freedom: African American Abstract Painting 1945-1975

Group show at Kenkeleba Gallery. 1991
Date: 19 May, 1991 until 14 July, 1991
Curator: Corrine Jennings
Organiser: Kenkeleba Gallery

The Search for Freedom: African American Abstract Painting 1945-1975 took place at Kenkeleba Gallery, New York, May 19 - July 14, 1991. It was a major exhibition featuring some 35 artists - Charles Alston, Romare Bearden, Betty Blayton-Taylor, Frank Bowling, Peter Bradley, Vivian E. Browne, Ed Clark, Adger Cowans, Beauford Delaney, Sam Gilliam, Ray Grist, Bill Hutson, Zell Ingram, Harlan Jackson, Daniel LaRue Johnson, Ronald Joseph, Larry Compton Kolawole, Norman Lewis, Al Loving, Richard Mayhew, Algernon Miller, Mary Lovelace O’Neal, Joe Overstreet, Howardena Pindell, Rose Piper, Haywood Bill Rivers, Thomas Sills, Thelma Johnson Streat, Alma Thomas, Mildred Thompson, William White, Jack E. Whitten, William T. Williams, Frank Wimberley, and Hale Woodruff. The exhibition sought to demonstrate the extent to which ‘African American’ artists were at the forefront of experiments and commitment to abstraction in the visual arts, in the mid 20th century. Whilst the exhibition was subtitled African American Abstract Painting 1945-1975, two of the artists were in fact Caribbean born; Ronald Joseph, from St. Kitts and the British artist Frank Bowling, born in Guyana. This exhibition marked a hugely significant intervention into art historical narratives, which have tended to locate African American artists very firmly within the camp of figurative practice, with all of its attendant social narratives.

The Search for Freedom can in some ways be bracketed with another exhibition held some fifteen years later, at another gallery in New York,Energy/Experimentation: Black Artists and Abstraction, 1964-1980, held at the Studio Museum in Harlem, April 5 - July 2, 2006, featuring the work of Frank Bowling, Barbara Chase-Riboud, Ed Clark, Melvin Edwards, Fred Eversley, Sam Gilliam, Daniel LaRue Johnson, Tom Lloyd, Al Loving, Joe Overstreet, Howardena Pindell, Haywood Bill Rivers, Alma Thomas, Jack Whitten, and William T. Williams.

The exhibition attempted to critically address the perception that highly figurative art (dominated by explicit and/or implicit social/political narratives) dominated the work of Black artists in America from the mid 1960s onwards. The exhibition concerns itself with the period 1964 - 1980. The exhibition addresses, indeed, rebuts this perception by bringing together a wide range of work non-figurative and formalist practice by a number of prominent and important Black artists in America, made during the previously-mentioned time period. Such descriptions - of work being “non-figurative’ or “formalist’ - are perhaps misleading, or even inaccurate, as figurative elements, or elements that readily lend themselves to figurative readings, proliferate in the artists’ work. The exhibition was curated by Kellie Jones. Her essay in the catalogue opened with a provocative statement by one of the exhibitors, Sam Gilliam. “Figurative art doesn’t represent blackness any more than a non-narrative media-oriented kind of painting, like what I do.”

Corrine Jennings opened her Foreword to the catalogue for The Search for Freedom: African American Abstract Painting 1945-1975 with: “While the development of Black abstraction parallels the northern migration and the development of the urban blues/jazz genre, few inclusive exhibitions of the work of African American abstract painters have been presented even though this style represents the major thrust in painting by African Americans since 1950. This exhibition explores the work of the most overlooked, and least understood cadre of African American painters in our history. It is a project we consider long overdue.”

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»  The Search For Freedom: African American Abstract Painting 1945-1975

Catalogue relating to an exhibition, 1991

People in this exhibition + view all 34

»  Charles Alston

Born, 1907 in Charlotte, North Carolina, USA. Died, 1977

»  Romare Bearden

Born, 1911 in Charlotte, North Carolina. Died, 1988

»  Betty Blayton-Taylor

Born, 1937 in Williamsburg, Virginia, USA

»  (Sir) Frank Bowling OBE, RA

Born, 1935 - 1937 (probably 1936) in British Guiana (now Guyana) Caribbean/S. America

»  Peter Bradley

Born, 1940 in Connellsville, Pennsylvania, USA

Exhibition venues

»  Kenkeleba Gallery

New York, New York, USA, United States of America