A Place By The Sea
A Place By The Sea
Ruth Jett, Director of Cinque Gallery, comments that writing about these four artists (Nanette Carter, Gregory Coates, Alvin Loving, Frank Wimberley) is like writing about family.(1) An essential element of By the Sea is the importance and sense of community, which is family writ large. The term 'community of artists' is often used rather loosely. For the artists represented in this show, community is surely the most appropriate term.
Individuals who seek expression and definition beyond the expected prosper best among other seekers. In the arts, the locales noted for high concentrations of creative individuals are broadly known, be that Montmartre of the fin de siècle, Harlem of the 1920s, or SoHo in the 1970s. The four artists included here share connections with such communities as those associated with The Studio Museum in Harlem, Cinque Gallery, and Eastville on Eastern Long Island. In addition, each of these artists is a vital participant in the mainstream art world, exhibiting regularly in galleries and museums nationwide.
All four of these artists value jazz and feel a kinship with its vitality and historic role. It is the success of jazz in articulating an open ended expression of the experiences and aspirations of Black Americans that may be seen as the analogy or paradigm for these artists' choice of abstraction in their artwork.
Alvin Loving stated: "When we showed together at the Studio Museum in Harlem in the early 1970s we could see that we all had arrived at a kind of abstraction that emphasized materials..."(2) Loving refers to a growing sense among some African-American artists that abstraction could be made a fruitful vehicle for expression among artists of the diaspora. That 'abstraction had the breadth and ability to convey the moods, ideas, and strategies of all artists, but especially of black painters.'(3) The universality of abstraction had the further strategic advantage in avoidance of restrictive categorization.(4)
The impulse to abstract forms was not new for African-American artists. Such forerunners as Hale Woodruff, Charles Alston, Romare Bearden and Norman Lewis had moved to abstraction in the late 1940s and 1950s. These were followed by the likes of Merton Simpson, Richard Mayhew, and Vincent Smith.(5) In addition to continued connection to the uptown culture, this generation was part of the bohemian downtown scene - the perceived vortex of American avant-garde culture.
In the 1950s white vanguard artists listened to jazz, and adopted the slang of black musicians and writers. Jackson Pollock listened almost exclusively to jazz, Jack Kerouac composed improvised poetry to jazz. Both cited the complex and challenging music of Bebop as an inspiration.(6) The music created by Parker, Rollins, Monk, et al was central to the milieu of the Beats and the New York School.
Jazz had always been important to black artists. Now white artists asserted inspiration and strove for affinity with this manifestation of Black-American culture. In turn, a number of African-American artists saw Abstract Expressionism as a fruitful vehicle for exploration of personal experience that was simultaneously black and universal.
Unfortunately, these artists did not get the broad attention or commercial support accorded many white painters. In the politically intensified environment of the mid and late sixties, abstraction was often seen as inherently Euro-centric. This attitude is exemplified by Amiri Baraka's comment that they do not "actually exist in the black world at all. They are within the tradition of white art, blackface or not."(7) Alvin Loving and Frank Wimberley are among the black abstract artists who came to the fore at this time, as are William T. Williams, Sam Gilliam, Barbara Chase-Riboud, Jack Whitten, Edward Clark, Raymond Saunders and Alma Thomas.
In the midst of near indifference from the Art World, and misunderstanding from quarters of the black community, these artists pursued their interest in the possibilities of abstraction as the medium to engage 'in an implicit discourse about a black consciousness...one that could conceivably embrace a multiplicity of personae or states of blackness.'(8) Wimberley asserts that "Abstract Expressionism is like a thumb-print. It is simultaneously absolutely personal and universal."(9) Two venues were established before the end of this decade that were to furnish important avenues for the display of this work and thereby broadening the debate defining the nature of black expression.
The Studio Museum in Harlem was established in 1967; "to provide a space for good black artists to exhibit where black people can see them work."(10) The Studio Museum immediately provided a counter-balance to the Euro-centric and white dominated New York Museum scene. Cinque Gallery was founded 1969 by Romare Bearden, Ernest Chiclow and Norman Lewis to 'support the growth and development of artists of color.'(11) Initially located in the New York Public Theater on Lafayette Street, and relocated to Broadway and Prince Street in 1988, Cinque provided a platform in the heart of the downtown art world. This engagement continued out of the spotlight and more informally in studios, and while relaxing on the East End of Long Island.
"Sag Harbor Hills and Nineveh Beach look out over the glittering waters of Shelter Island Sound. This beautiful strip of shoreline has been home to a community of black artists, intellectuals and professional people since the 1920's."(12) This area of Sag Harbor had been home to Americans of African descent since 1600s.(13) Within minutes of artist enclaves in East Hampton and Springs, it was a natural refuge for black artists seeking a respite from the pressures of NYC.
Frank Wimberley and his wife Juanita started vacationing in Sag Harbor in the early 1960s, initially staying at Juanita's sister's, Barbara Thomas-Arthur, vacation house. Closer to the city than the Cape and already home to Harlan Jackson - a seminal black artist who advised 'get out of the ghetto,'(14) it was an ideal location. In 1964 they bought land and designed a house which was built in 1965. The Wimberleys' skylit, modernist home became a magnet, especially for young members of the community. Set away from other houses, it was filled with art and the sounds of jazz.(15)
Nanette Carter notes the personal importance of this locale beginning in 1963, when she was only nine years of age.(16) She remembers being welcomed at the Wimberleys' and the time spent immersed in that atmosphere reinforcing her inborn impulse to become an artist.(17) Greg Coates has noted that a highlight of his visits to Nanette's family in the summers was forays to Frank and Juanita's. These excursions were crucial to his resolve and development as an artist.(18) Al Loving states that "after seven summers on the east end of Long Island...Nanette Carter introduced me to the paradise of Sag Harbor".(19)
A number of the artists with homes in this section of Sag Harbor started exhibiting together in the early 1970s.(20) Regular successive shows continue to the present. The Eastville Artists exhibition mounted at the Guild Hall Museum in1979 signaled the recognition of these artists as an important aspect of the cultural life of the Hamptons.(21)
A Place By The Sea displays some of the material results of the nurturing environment that these four, and many other, artists have enjoyed as part of a very special community. This 'place' is not so much the geographic location, but the embrace. The artwork displayed and indeed the artists themselves exemplify the maxim that most positive achievement comes from a society that provides a supportive environment for individual creativity and accomplishment.
Jim Richard Wilson
1. Unpublished notes from Ruth Jett, 1999.
2. Richard J. Powell, Black Art and Culture in the 20th Century , Thames & Hudson, NY, 1997, p.136. Loving is referring to, in addition to himself, Sam Gilliam, Joe Overstreet, Frank Bowling, Edward Clark, Bill Huston, Howardena Pindell, Jack Whitten and William T. Williams.
4. Conversation with Stephen J. Tyson, 1999.
5. Sharon F. Patton, African-American Art, Oxford University Press, NY, 1998, p.165.
6. So much so that the 1998-1999 Jackson Pollock retrospective organized by the Museum of Modern Art has an accompanying compact disc of jazz from the late artist's record collection.
7. Elsa Honig Fine, The Afro-American Artist, Holt, Rinehart, Winnston, NY, 1973, p.265.
8. Powell, op. cit., p.128.
9. In conversation, 1999.
10. Jean Bergantino Grillo, "A Home for the Evolving Black Esthetic," Art News, Oct.1973, p.48.
11. Mission statement of Cinque Gallery.
12. Rae Ferren catalogue essay for Eastville Artists exhibition, mounted at Guild Hall Museum, East Hampton, NY, February 3 - March 6, 1979.
14. Conversation with Frank Wimberley, 1999. Jackson's advice was at least as conceptual as geographic, expressing the importance of black artists engaging artists of other communities.
15. Conversation with Juanita Wimberley, 1999.
16. Statement included in this catalogue.
17. Conversation with Nanette Carter, 1998.
18. Conversation with Gregory Coates, 1997.
19. Statement included in this catalogue.
20. Ferren, op. cit.
21. The exhibition included; Nanette Carter, Gaye Ellington, Robert Freeman, Hazel Gray, Rosiland Letcher, Alvin Loving, Frances Miller, Carl L. Shealy, Jr., and Frank Wimberley.