"Racism is Like Rain, Either it’s Raining or it’s Gathering Somewhere" by Mary Lovelace O’Neal (1993)
"Racism is Like Rain, Either it’s Raining or it’s Gathering Somewhere" by Mary Lovelace O’Neal (1993)

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The curators of Magnetic Fields: Expanding American Abstraction, 1960s to Today want to make the canon more inclusive—but they haven’t really designed their exhibition to help bring about that change.

Organized by the Kemper Museum in Missouri and on view at the National Museum of Women in the Arts through Jan. 21, Magnetic Fields brings together works by 21 black women artists born between 1891 and 1981. These paintings, sculptures, and mixed media pieces have been arranged to emphasize formal affinities: Artworks with similar strokes hang side-by-side, regardless of when, where, or why they were made. The result is a beautiful but ahistorical show, full of visual rhymes but light on explanation or context.

This doesn’t mean that the show shouldn’t be seen and celebrated. Co-curators Erin Dziedzic and Melissa Messina deserve praise for filling the NMWA with stellar under-examined art from the past and the present.

From the 1960s, the show includes Washington Color School-connected painter Alma Thomas, whose choppy, all-over facture and monochromatic compositions contrast with works by her better-known white male peers. From the present, there’s New York installation artist Abigail DeVille, who fills galleries with destroyed fragments of buildings, viscerally addressing the churn of gentrification.

Either artist would be a great subject for a solo show in a museum on the National Mall. But in this exhibition, viewers may struggle to connect these women with one another, with the various tangled threads of art history, or with any meaningful definition of abstraction.

The show features a number of potentially misleading pairings. In a corner of the show’s second room, Mary Lovelace O’Neal’s “‘Little Brown Girl with Your Hair in a Curl’/Daddy #5” (1973) sits across from Brenna Youngblood’s “Forecast” (2014). O’Neal’s piece is a small charcoal-and-pastel drawing on paper; Youngblood’s is a six-foot-tall acrylic painting. Aside from the jump in scale, they look similar: Both contain flat, rectangular expanses of a single color. But they come from different worlds.

O’Neal studied at Howard University in the 1960s with legendary artists David Driskell and Lois Mailou Jones and art historian James A. Porter. She developed a colorful, gestural abstract style, but was chided by other black artists who wanted her to create representational work and illustrate their shared struggle.By the early ’70s, O’Neal was creating lamp-black paintings and drawings like “Little Brown Girl” to challenge artists demanding figuration and narrative.

“One of the responses to the black arts folks was to say: If you look at [these pieces], you’ll realize this is as black as it can be … is this black enough for you?” she explained in a 2010 interview. “The other response I was making was to [the minimalists] … I felt the flattest painting has to be that I rub this [black pigment] directly into the canvas … so that was my response to the theory of the day.”

Youngblood, meanwhile, began her career in the 21st century with photo-collaged portraits and landscapes. A 2006 essay tagged her work as “post-black,” a term Studio Museum in Harlem Director Thelma Golden popularized in her influential 2001 exhibition, Freestyle.

“Post-blackness” suggests that while black artists may make works rooted in identity, they remain complex individuals, unencumbered by notions of authenticity or the inherent need to address race.

In her newer painted works, Youngblood forges an ambiguous relationship with the viewer. “Forecast” consists of buckling sheets of paper, attached to the canvas and dribbled with thin washes of blue acrylic pigment. The artist has taken a small photo of puffy white clouds, cut it into a teardrop shape, and attached it near the center of the canvas. A patch of glue sits just under the photo, suggesting it has been sloppily removed and repositioned. The piece comprises a series of mysterious yet informal gestures within a large, heroic-scaled canvas.

With her work, O’Neal signals a defiant refusal of her peers; Youngblood, meanwhile, plays a game of peekaboo, combining the inscrutability of Jasper Johns with suburban social dysfunction. Yet the interpretive labels don’t dwell on such differences, and instead generically describe one painter’s work as “imbued with personal experience;” the other’s as “suggesting many possible narratives.”

The show’s catalog bounces between conversations with artists and different takes on individual careers. The results seem less museum-y and more like the PR a commercial gallery might generate, affirming the quality of the artists on view, but eschewing scholarly pronouncements. Key mentors, institutions, and other exhibitions are mentioned, but few dots are connected.

In this loose framework, other important distinctions get lost. Consider Maren Hassinger’s “Wrenching News” (2008), a large mandala made from shredded copies of the New York Times with stories addressing the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. On the surface, this piece seems to fit a recurring idea in the show’s texts: Black women artists feel compelled to embed charged content in otherwise formally-driven works.

Yet in the past Hassinger has created similar-looking pieces not as objects for contemplation but as the artifacts of collaborative performances in which volunteers weave newspaper strips together in the gallery. Her oeuvre also includes elements of dance, video, and installation. She has no particular allegiance to abstraction.

Similarly, Jennie C. Jones’s panels of stretched soundproofing fabric—bearing musical titles like “Tritone (Dissonant)” (2015)—might read as minimalism, especially sitting near work by hard-edged abstract painter Candida Alvarez. Yet Jones has collaborated with live musicians on sound art and created sculptural assemblages with cables and CD jewel cases. She is not so much a painter referring to jazz as a conceptual artist toying with the codes of museum display.

It’s odd that the roster for a show positing an alternative history of abstraction includes so many contemporary artists who are not adherents to the faith. Stranger still, the earliest piece in Magnetic Fields comes from 1963, almost two decades after the big bang of Abstract Expressionism. One could argue that many of the genuinely abstract pieces here represent a retreat from prevailing art discourses into an academic period style.

This disregard for timelines and classifications might indicate the curators’ willingness to discard commonly accepted ideas of artistic innovation, transgression, and progress. This makes some sense: If the traditional stories of art exclude the work of women and people of color, why keep telling them at all? But any show challenging white-male-dominated art hierarchies ought to—and certainly could—provide a strong counter-narrative for the past half-century. Magnetic Fields doesn’t quite put together that new story, but it does at least bring together the artists who should be in it.

1250 New York Ave. NW. $8–$10. (202) 783-5000. nmwa.org.