by Darby English. University of Chicago Press, January 2017. 285 p. ill. ISBN 9780226131054 (h/c), $40.00.
Reviewed April 2017
1971 was a tumultuous period in American history. The Weather Underground claimed responsibility for a bathroom bomb that exploded in the United States Capitol. A jury recommended the death penalty for Charles Manson. And a rebellion broke out at the maximum-security prison in Attica, New York. Using this year as a cross-cultural reference to his thesis, art historian Darby English makes a compelling work that looks closely at the impact of two lesser-known exhibitions—The DeLuxe Show in a remodeled movie theater in Houston’s Fifth Ward and Contemporary Black Artists in America at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Both explore the significance of black artists within a larger art historical context.
English argues that modern art in the form of abstraction gave black artists the intellectual freedom to develop beyond the confines of thematic representations of African American history and allowed artists to present their work to those it appealed to and who dared to encounter it. Through this critical analysis, he gives a different perspective to color painting—a more diverse narrative, one determined to give a public face and a voice to those artists politically informed and forced to evolve by circumstance.
The publication has forty-seven color plates and twenty-six halftones that enhance a wide range of primary materials documenting both exhibitions from start to finish. This includes archival photographs of political actions and artists at work, as well as reproductions of seminal books, art reviews, and artists’ writings that offer visual explanation to the text. It is also heavily cited with a well-prepared index that is a concise, useful guide to all the pertinent facts in the book for readers and researchers.
Other titles that are comparable in this subject matter but that take different points of view include Now Dig This!: Art and Black Los Angeles, 1960-1980 by Kellie Jones and Mounting Frustration: The Art Museum in the Age of Black Power by Susan E. Cahan. The first was the printed component to the highly anticipated exhibition about black artists who lived and worked in Los Angeles during a political shift in art and culture. The second is a critique of the relationship between economics, social context, and aesthetics at various art institutions in New York City.
1971: A Year in the Life of Color is essential to any art library collection because it not only lays out a rigorous discussion about black art during the late 1960s and early 1970s but is still relevant today.