Postcolonial Thoughts: Raymond Saunders and Black Abstraction

by Christopher Hutchinson

Black abstraction is often overlooked in art history. Black art is a term that is used to classify the artwork of image and subject based exclusively for the Black community. Any work outside of the stereotype lives in a limbo state that would typically be designated for Western Academia. Black abstraction is almost an oxymoron, due to the fact that Black art is largely associated with outsider, primitive, and folk art. Examining this relationship between Raymond Saunders and Jean-Michel Basquiat is to draw a linear history of Art that proves a transcendence of Black art to being more than stereotypical images.

When one does an Internet search for Saunders, names like Robert Rauschenberg, Jim Dine, or Cy Twombly come up. Likewise with Basquiat names like Julian Schnabel, David Salle, Francesco Clemente, Enzo Cucchi, and Warhol. The two almost never intertwine yet their work is so similar. It is my hypothesis that the obvious link between the two is their Black art lineage. It is in their interest in documenting history and challenging the prohibition on black in traditional painting, the physicality of Blackness through black paint, all the while coding it in Black language.

Prohibition on black paint

Gray is toneless and immobile. This immobility, however, is of a different character from the tranquillity of green, which is the product of two active colors and lies midway between them. Gray is therefore the disconsolate lack of motion. The deeper this gray becomes, the more the disconsolate element is emphasized, until it becomes suffocating.
Wassily Kandinsky, On the Spiritual in Art

The term Black is a color is a direct response to any painter who has endured a traditional oil painting class. The professors of these classes create rules for students that forbid the use of buying or using black paint at anytime during the course. Students are to mix their own blacks. You must learn the ways of the Italian oil painting masters. Painters who paint from life know that there is no real black in nature. So to a true oil painter any amount of pure black is an offence. Black paint is not a shadow, it is a warm color that comes to the front and does not recede. Black flattens space, or the depth of a painting, everything that the old masters are against. These were the guidelines all the way to a significant shift with Edward Manet. It is very easy to tell artists who paint from life or a photograph. That heightened contrast only exists in photography and artificial lighting, not nature. Undergraduate foundation courses still have these rules as a rubric.

This ban on black paint allows many so-called oil realists, who are also considered brilliant colorists, to fail miserably to capture Black skin. While initially these black paint and Black skin seem to be unrelated, it becomes blatantly obvious when it is painted. This can easily be seen in the works of Elizabeth Peyton. She is known for painting these androgynous icons but her depiction of the first Lady and daughter is proof of the European painters lack of skill in understanding black paint and Black skin, then further Black people.

Elizabeth Peyton Democrats are more beautiful (after Jonathan Horowitz), 2001 Oil on board 25,4 x 20,3 cm Collection Laura & Stafford Broumand

Elizabeth Peyton
Democrats are more beautiful (after Jonathan Horowitz), 2001
Oil on board
25,4 x 20,3 cm
Collection Laura & Stafford Broumand

Elzabeth Peyton “Michelle and Sasha Obama Listening to Barack Obama at the Democratic National Convention, August 2008”

Elzabeth Peyton
“Michelle and Sasha Obama Listening to Barack Obama at the Democratic National Convention, August 2008”

The prohibition of black paint is transfixed to Black imagery and the spectacle of the Black body. It is within this prohibition that Raymond Saunders practice begins to identify the semiotics of black the color and Black imagery.

1. lacking hue and brightness; absorbing light without reflecting any of the rays composing it. 2. characterized by absence of light; enveloped in darkness: a black night.
3. ( sometimes initial capital letter ) a. pertaining or belonging to any of the various populations characterized by dark skin pigmentation, specifically the dark-skinned peoples of Africa, Oceania, and Australia. b. African American. 4. soiled or stained with dirt: That shirt was black within an hour. 5. gloomy; pessimistic; dismal: a black outlook.
6. deliberately; harmful; inexcusable: a black lie. 7. boding ill; sullen or hostile; threatening: black words; black looks. 9. without any moral quality or goodness; evil; wicked: His black heart has concocted yet another black deed. 10. indicating censure, disgrace, or liability to punishment: a black mark on one’s record. 11. marked by disaster or misfortune: black areas of drought; Black Friday. 13. based on the grotesque, morbid, or unpleasant aspects of life: black comedy; black humor. 14. (of a check mark, flag, etc.) done or written in black to indicate, as on a list, that which is undesirable, substandard, potentially dangerous, etc.: Pilots put a black flag next to the ten most dangerous airports. 17. deliberately false or intentionally misleading: black propaganda.

Black is a Color pamphlet

Saunders has also published catalogs and pamphlets; most notably, his 1967 pamphlet “Black is a Color”, which argues that African American artists need not be limited by racial representations, and argues against the concept of “black” art as a potentially degrading restriction, in favor of a more race-neutral approach to artistic creation.

Artist and Professor Raymond Saunders wrote his pamphlet “Black is a Color” in 1967 after attaining his MFA from California College of Arts in 1961. Black is a Color takes issue with the Black Art of present in the 60’s and is still more so relevant today. Saunders sees the spectacle of the black body as something extremely limiting to African American contribution to the Arts. Saunders recognizes the need for abstraction as a tool to challenge the narrative of black so coded in the long history of the painted image.

“Racial hang-ups are extraneous to art. no artist can afford to let them obscure what runs through all art–the living root and the ever-growing aesthetic record of human spiritual and intellectual experience. can’t we get clear of these degrading limitations, and recognize the wider reality of art, where color is the means and not the end?” [sic]
–Raymond Saunders, African-American artist, in his 1967 pamphlet Black is a Color

Black Abstraction

abstract art
an abstract genre of art; artistic content depends on internal form rather than pictorial representation [syn: abstractionism]

A trend in painting and sculpture in the twentieth century. Abstract art seeks to break away from traditional representation of physical objects. It explores the relationships of forms and colors, whereas more traditional art represents the world in recognizable images.

20th-century black art  is the first to concentrate on the art works themselves, and on how these works, created during a major social upheaval and transformation, use black culture both as subject and as context. Professor Powell traces and explores the visual representations of black culture throughout the 20th century, to racial and cultural identity used as artistic content in the 1980s and 1990s. A conclusion discussing black society and culture in 20th-century film and video, and biographies of the many artists discussed in the book, complete this comprehensive work.

Saunders’s  “Jack Johnson” (1972) painting graces the cover of Professor Richard J. Powell’s Black Art and Culture in the 20th Century. Powell’s book lists artists from the Diaspora that have contributed to a contemporary art dialogue while discussing its context. There is a Black lineage of artists that goes beyond Romare Bearden. There is a lineage of Black abstraction.

Saunders does not use abstraction as a way to hide his ethnicity, rather to explore the physical qualities of black as it relates to Blackness. Many have used abstraction in ways to avoid ethnicity completely. The use of black in Black abstraction is also shared with Jack Whitten in his Dead Reckoning  1  1980.

Basquiat’s Radiant predecessor

Centered on a rare interview that director and friend Tamra Davis shot with Jean-Michel Basquiat more than 20 years ago, this film chronicles the meteoric rise and fall of the young artist. In the crime-ridden New York City of the 1970s, he covers the city with the graffiti tag ‘SAMO.’ In 1981 he puts paint on canvas for the first time, and by 1983 he is an artist with “rock star status.” He achieves critical and commercial success, though he is constantly confronted by racism from his peers. In 1985, he and Andy Warhol become close friends and painting collaborators, but they part ways and Warhol dies suddenly in 1987. Basquiat’s heroin addiction worsens, and he dies of an overdose in 1988 at the age of 27. The artist was 25 years old at the height of his career, and today his canvases sell for more than a million dollars.

Tamara Davis’s documentary Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child is the best documentary about the Afro-Puerto Rican, Haitian-American, and New York native Basquait there is. Davis filled the scholarly interviews that provided a feel of a real understanding of Basquait’s methodology and process. As all-encompassing as this documentary was, the lineage of Black abstraction was again overlooked. No mention of Saunders, Whitten, Chase-Riboud allows for a Western discovery narrative of the radiant child, a child born and nurtured with no influence of Black. An unknown phenomenon plucked out as worthy. Even the depiction of him listening to Jazz as he painted reminds us of the Pollock process being the same. This Western Adoption of Basquiat has every bit to do with the fact that Basquiat himself does not mention the Black lineage of Abstraction, but one look at Saunders’s mark-making, image and text, collaboration, chalk and found object doors, and it easy to see that whatever praise is lauded unto Basquiat it due to the utter appropriation of his predecessors, specifically Raymond Saunders.

Jean-Michel Basquiat, who was so heavily influenced by Saunders that he adapted several of the artist’s motifs into his own paintings. Some of these, like his dedications to famous jazz musicians and a king’s crown drawn in white chalk, appear prominently in the new work. Taken as a whole, the exhibits’ swirls of color over full black grounds resemble galaxies and suggest movement, perhaps influenced by his years of traveling and working abroad.

These two are both great artists and are both responsible for the limited scope of Black art which is still largely viewed as folk. Not acknowledging the past and allowing the Western canon to “discover” you is a problem. It negates the possibility of that culture to stand on its own aesthetics and moral. Not acknowledging reinforces the very advances that great artists like these make.

Christopher HutchinsonChristopher Hutchinson is an Assistant Professor of Art at Atlanta Metropolitan State College and Archetype Art Gallery Owner in Atlanta, Ga. He received his Master of Fine Arts Degree in Painting from Savannah College of art & Design, Atlanta and his Bachelor of Arts Degree from the University of Alabama in Huntsville, Alabama. He lived in Alabama for 10 years before moving to Atlanta in 2008.
Learn more about Christopher and his work at Black Flight 144.

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Categories: Art, Postcolonial Thoughts, Writing


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4 Comments on “Postcolonial Thoughts: Raymond Saunders and Black Abstraction”

  1. February 27, 2014 at 6:34 pm #

    This has been illuminating (sorry about the pun); I wasn’t familiar with Saunders’ work. And you’re right, the Davis documentary is really outstanding. It’s currently available to watch for free on Hulu.


  2. March 11, 2014 at 10:25 pm #

    Rayvon Fouché terms the “problematic of vision” to describe the predicament of existing analysis and interpretation which profoundly impacts the marginalized. This notion hinges on the idea that value, truth, purity, and legitimacy of marginalized individuals, organizations, and communities are judged by the standards of dominant. Thus, those individuals and groups that fall outside of the dominant’s criteria of what it means to be seen are not perceived as being as valuable, truthful, pure, or legitimate as the dominant because the cannot be clearly detected through the interpretive viewing apparatus of the dominant.

    Even among many Black scholars and critics the problem with analysis of Black art in the West is (often) a problematic of vision. Understanding “black” as abstraction leaves nothing with which to replace the fallen Western paradigm except for fragments of the past. I argue that even Saunders and, by association, Basquiat are working in abstraction within a Western frame. I think any understanding of “black” must also include the use of it as a tool. Abstraction is the vehicle. Thanks for this post… it made me think about what black is and what it ain’t.


  3. September 18, 2014 at 1:21 pm #

    Everything is very open with a really clear clarification of the challenges.
    It was really informative. Your site is useful.
    Thanks for sharing!


  4. October 19, 2014 at 1:44 am #

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