Saturday, December 22nd, 2012

A Rich Transition: Al Loving Wall Hangings of the 1970s

Al Loving: Torn Canvas at Gary Snyder Gallery

November 8 – December 29, 2012
529 West 20th Street, between Tenth and Eleventh avenues
New York City, 212-929-1351

Al Loving, Untitled #32, c. 1975. Mixed media, 121 3/4 x 112 inches. Courtesy of Gary Snyder Gallery
Al Loving, Untitled #32, c. 1975. Mixed media, 121 3/4 x 112 inches. Courtesy of Gary Snyder Gallery

Barely a year after moving to New York from Detroit in 1968, Al Loving (1935-2005) became the first African-American artist to be accorded a solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art. During this period, he was painting large, very simple shaped canvases with brightly-colored geometric abstractions on them, not unlike the contemporary work of Richard Smith and Sven Lukin

The show at Gary Snyder is not of such work, however, nor does it focus upon his final phase, in the 1980s and ‘90s, when he made large and stiff but radiant collages out of rag paper cut into spirals, circles and doughnut shapes, covered with bright colors and stripes, checks, lozenges, or interwoven slats. Rich in symbolism, these late works reflect the achievement of calm maturity.

The show at Snyder presents a period in Loving’s career when he was restless and experimental. Evidently dissatisfied with the initial worldly success he’d attained, he was searching for a new, more distinctively personal form of expression that—while remaining true to the standards he’d established for himself—would offer fresh possibilities.

During the early 1970s, he found this in the creation of wall compositions made of large, loosely hanging but stitched together strips of canvas—canvas collages. This crucial link in his development – between the promise of the early period and the serenity of the late one – turns out to be well worth contemplating for its own sake.

Loving wasn’t the first artist to take canvas off its stretcher. One notable predecessor was Sam Gilliam, the Washington Color Field painter, who since the mid-‘60s had been draping his canvases rather than exhibiting them stretched.  Gilliam was far from Loving’s only source, however; equally influential must have been the “process artists” of that period, including Robert Morris, with his rolls of felt, Eva Hesse, with her latex, fiberglass and plastics, and Alan Saret, with his tangles of wire.

There is, however, a critical difference between Loving and Gilliam or the process artists.  Gilliam’s “drapes” were not only color-field paintings but also critiques of the school, indebted to performance and environmental art. The process artists were even more concerned with destroying the hierarchies of what they viewed as more traditional art.

Loving’s stance toward abstract expressionism was less adversarial, more cordial. He seems to have sought a rapprochement between what today we might call modernism and postmodernism.  This is clear in his current show. Its central gallery is hung with five large fabric wall pieces measuring up to 14 feet high and up to 12 feet wide. All are made from narrow strips and stripes of torn canvas, but these pieces have been stitched into rich-looking, multi-colored and well organized compositions that all have recognizable tops, sides, and bottoms (some of the bottoms rest on the gallery’s floor).

 Al Loving, Untitled, 1982.  Paper collage, 31 x 19 inches. Courtesy of Gary Snyder Gallery
Al Loving, Untitled, 1982. Paper collage, 31 x 19 inches. Courtesy of Gary Snyder Gallery

The colors in the best pieces at Snyder – achieved through dyeing canvas with Tintex – are subtle and elegant, in a more muted palette than the artist had employed in the ’60s, or would employ later. At the University of Michigan, where he took his MFA, Loving was a protégé of Al Mullen, who had studied with Hans Hofmann, arguably the finest colorist among the abstract expressionists.  Loving’s colors don’t resemble those of Hofmann, except in the sense that they are clear, appealing, and harmonize with each other, ratherlike good jazz (like Pollock, Loving was a jazz aficionado).

Two large wall pieces stand out.  One is Untitled #32 (ca. 1975), facing the gallery’s entrance, and shaped like an inverted pyramid with a loop to one side. The other is the untitled piece (ca. 1974-1975) on the right-hand wall. It reminded me of a subway map, though the colors are much warmer: reds, oranges, browns, yellows and pinks, with complimentary touches of olive.

Also at Snyder are smaller paper collages from the 1980s distinguished by their simplicity. Most effective is the small, untitled paper collage (1982) in the entry lobby. On a glowing field, in which yellow, pink and blue blend together, are scattered free-form colored dots and strips: an effervescent carnival.

Al Loving, Untitled, 1982. Paper collage, 37 x 28 1/2 inches. Courtesy of Gary Snyder Gallery
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