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Sam Hunter

As Professor, Department of Art and Archaeology, Princeton University, Sam Hunter facilitated in the making of the exhibition, 5+1, a collaboration between Frank Bowling, and the Art Department/Art Gallery of State University of New York at Stony Brook, and the Art and Archaeology Department/Art Museum of Princeton University. The exhibition traveled to these two university galleries. The title of this exhibition, 5+1 referred to the backgrounds and identities of the six artists in this exhibition. That is, five African-American artists and one Caribbean-born artist, the exhibition’s curator, Frank Bowling. The exhibition’s artists were Melvin Edwards (b. Houston, Texas, 1937), Al Loving (b. Detroit, Michigan, 1935), Jack Whitten, (b. Bessema, Alabama, 1939), Daniel Johnson/LaRue Johnson, (b. Los Angeles, California, 1938), William T. Williams (b. North Carolina, 1942), and Frank Bowling, (b. Bartica, Essequibo, Guyana, 1936). At the time of 5+1, all of these artists were in their 30s or late 20s, and had, to varying degrees and in different ways, embraced abstraction within their practice. 

Sam Hunter wrote the catalogue’s Introduction, together with Lawrence Alloway, Professor, Department of Art, S.U.N.Y. at Stony Brook. Their text gave a sense of the breadth and depth of the exhibition’s impulses:

“The way in which this exhibition came about should be recorded, as it is the only way to express our gratitude to its organizer, Frank Bowling. Frank Bowling was uniquely able to surmount the divisive cultural problems involved. Mr Bowling is a Black artist living in the United States, but not of American birth; the other five artists are American by birth and, like him, now live in New York City. (In this respect all six artists are like most artists in New York, out-of-towners by birth). Mr Bowling’s position as part of the Black community is complemented, as a result of his different background, by the knowledge of detachment as well as participation. He is the only artist at present in a position to act as a critic, a man able to speak to two different groups - the artists and their audience (an audience that is still mostly White).

The situation for Black artists is ambiguous: there is considerable use of the idea of art as an instrument to advance Black identity, Black rights; there is, also, clearly and successfully, an impulse towards the making of art as art. In the artists’ statements in this catalogue, both possibilities oscillate. One attitude shared by the present artists is worth isolating. Edwards’ desire for an art beyond aesthetics, Loving’s view of the “artist as part-prophet”. Williams’ “we are action painters”, Bowling’s relevant-irrelevant account of the genesis of his present paintings, are pungently mid-century in ideas and style (another name for mid-century is “Art Since 1945”)

This is the period of existentialist criticism, of Abstract Expressionist attitudes; thus the language of the present artists is not specifically their own, but a shared language of post-war art. The alienation, the floating revolutionary impulses, the epistemological doubts, are not racial in origin, but professional. Viewed in this way, the two themes of aesthetics and protest can be joined. The Black artist has a social framework in which to enact artistic problems; protest serves as a metaphor of the alienation felt by all Abstract Expressionist artists. Hence the fact of making art becomes its social significance.”

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Catalogue relating to an exhibition, 1969