English 250

Research Seminar: Black Abstraction

Section Semester Instructor Time Location Course Areas
5 Spring 2018 Best, Stephen M.
F 12-3 Note new location: 305 Wheeler

Book List

Ellison, Ralph: Invisible Man; English, Darby: 1971: A Year in the Life of Color; Harper, Philip Brian: Abstractionist Aesthetics


This course bears a distinct title, Black Abstraction, the strikeout meant to indicate the degree to which the blackness in "black abstraction" remains perennially subject to question.  The course will inquire into the ways in which the question has been posed in the long history of abstraction understood as a problem in 20/21-century black arts (literature and painting, primarily).  By some lights, Clement Greenberg put to rest the debate over abstraction and representation (back in the 1950s), but the move to revisit abstraction is endorsed by a good deal of recent activity in black art and thought: books by Darby English (1971: A Year in the Life of Color) and Philip Brian Harper (Abstractionist Aesthetics: Artistic Form and Social Critique in African American Culture); Mark Bradford's installation at the American Pavilion of the 2017 Venice Biennale; Kerry James Marshall's exploration of the limit and potential of paint to represent blackness as figure in Mastry; the Joyner/Guiffrida Collection, which is the largest collection of black abstract art in the U.S.; as well as Fred Moten and Nathaniel Mackey's sustained theorizing of the modalities of blackness.  What makes black abstraction black?  Is abstraction the refusal of representation or representation's fundament (the sculptor Melvin Edwards: "all art is abstract")?

The course takes up its topic in three distinct observances: [1] the idea of blackness as a concept, as an aesthetic, and as a philosophy, where we will be interested to explore issues of negation, form, order, surface, flatness, and perceptual impoverishment; [2] black abstraction as a way of imputing meaning to a work of art, specifically the numerous ways we have of effacing the explicit nonrepresentativeness of the modernist object in the interest of social relevance; and [3] black abstracting, or the ways in which artists, of both word and paint, develop friendly relations to noise and negation, refusing the command that we (black folk) constantly perform our blackness.  The reading will include fiction and essays by Romare Bearden, Leo Bersani, W.E.B. DuBois, Ralph Ellison, Frantz Fanon, Michael Fried, Stuart Hall, Toni Morrison, Aldon Nielsen, as well as the work of those already mentioned above.  We will also be visiting BAMPFA (to see Ad Reinhart) and SFMoMA (to see Julie Mehretu, Mark Bradford).

This course satisfies the Group 5 (Twentieth Century) or Group 6 (Non-historical) requirement.

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