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Rediscovering a Revolutionary Gallery Show of Black Women’s Art – The New Yorker



A translucent blue art piece hangs in the middle of a gallery show.
Mysticism is the prevailing mood of the exhibition, in art that feels informed by tidal pulls and intuition.Photograph by Timothy Doyon

On the Fourth of July, in 1970, six American artists declared independence in an Echo Park loft, in Los Angeles. The occasion was the opening night of an exhibition devoted exclusively to the work of Black women—which is now considered by art historians to be the first of its kind in L.A., and probably in the U.S. The show was organized quickly, by the artists themselves, in response to another L.A. showcase of Black art, backed by a corporate sponsor (the Carnation Company) and overwhelmingly focussed on men. The women called their event the “Sapphire Show,” after a character in “Amos ’n Andy”—the shrewish know-it-all Sapphire Stevens—transforming a racist and sexist stereotype of women into an avatar of feminist revolution, just as one of the show’s best-known participants, the magnificent Betye Saar, would do two years later in her assemblages, when she began arming Aunt Jemima figurines with rifles.

Today, the “Sapphire Show” represents both a milestone and an unsolved mystery. It may be hard to imagine in the Instagram age, but no photographs of the exhibition exist, nor is there any written record of what was on view. The only known paper trail is housed in the Archives of American Art, at the Smithsonian: a copy of a flyer announcing the show. Its design is echt seventies, using more fonts than the exhibition had artists, and features photographs of the six artists, from grinning baby pictures to pensive head shots. The list of the artists—Eileen Abdulrashid (now Eileen Nelson), Gloria Bohanon, Sue Irons (now Senga Nengudi), Suzanne Jackson, Yvonne Cole Meo, and Saar—misspells one name (“B. Sarr”), suggesting the haste with which things came together. The flyer also takes a lighthearted dig at corporate culture and its cynical exploitation of the women’s movement, borrowing the tagline of a cigarette advertisement: “You’ve come a long way, baby.”

The “Sapphire Show” was installed for six days at Gallery 32, thanks to a serendipitous gap in the gallery’s schedule; the experimental space was run by Jackson in her painting studio. Jackson, now based in Savannah, Georgia, was then a twenty-six-year-old student of the influential African American artist Charles White, at the Otis Art Institute. She had a parallel life as a dancer: professionally trained in pre-statehood Alaska, where she grew up, she had performed in South America, on a tour organized by the State Department, before arriving in L.A. (Jackson later also became an accomplished stage-set designer.) She wasn’t interested in a career as a gallerist, but sometimes artists need to make their own luck. Her guiding principle might be summed up by Shirley Chisholm’s famous line: “If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair”—or, in this case, sign a lease.

An abstract piece of art featuring a central circular shape and layered linear shapes.
Gloria Bohanon’s “Rio on My Mind (Corcovado, Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars)” is a bossa nova for the eyes.Art work courtesy Estate of Gloria Bohanon / Ortuzar Projects

Jackson ran Gallery 32 for two galvanic y­ears, from 1968 to 1970, showing works by both men and women—David Hammons exhibited his body prints there—and not every artist who showed there was Black. As Jackson observed in a recent interview, “We became involved in the Black Arts Council, which was trying to really let people know about African American artists, but I showed everybody, people of all different colors. It was just a matter of any good work that was not being exhibited elsewhere.” Jackson’s own paintings similarly resist pigeonholes, shifting over the decades from delicately lush canvases, made in the seventies, that feature extravagant birds and fairy-tale trees whose trunks have heart-shaped faces, to new, genre-defying abstractions, in which colorful acrylic paint is mixed with bits of cotton cloth and dried into massive, wobbly, translucent forms that are suspended in space and seem poised to engage in some alien ritual.

Examples of both bodies of Jackson’s work are on view in New York through the end of July, in the beautiful and imaginative exhibition “You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby: The Sapphire Show,” at Ortuzar Projects. The gallery represents the septuagenarian artist, who is enjoying a well-deserved renaissance. The curator, Kari Rittenbach, wisely avoids the impossible task of re-creating the original project. Instead, she encapsulates the career of each artist in a few works made across decades. Of course, the flyer is here, in an ephemera-packed vitrine at the entrance. And Saar’s radical Aunt Jemima is present, in the coruscating 1973 assemblage “Auntie & Watermelon,” as is the one work that art historians agree was on view at Gallery 32 the first time around, an astrologically themed 1967 intaglio-and-watercolor by Saar, titled “Taurus.” Mysticism is the prevailing mood, in art that feels informed by tidal pulls and intuition, a world away from the rigid, industrial ethos of Minimalism, whose artists were being hailed as masters (could that term use a rethink?) in 1970, at the same time that the women of “Sapphire” were largely ignored.

The show’s most eye-catching piece, created by Nengudi in 1969–70 and remade in 2018, is a quartet of very long, clear, soft vinyl tubes, filled with blue, turquoise, green, and yellow water; it’s tempting to see the work’s askew geometry and liquid allure as playing a teasing game with the rigidity of a Donald Judd stack. But “Water Composition V” wasn’t conceived as a static installation—it was meant to be handled, and is a precursor to the artist’s best-known works, in which she incorporates her body into weblike, womblike sculptures and installations made of elastic. A striking photograph on one wall at Ortuzar documents Nengudi performing in her Colorado back yard in 2020, during the pandemic; her body, draped in purple cloth, becomes just another found object in a Delphic assemblage that also involves a circular grid of wire, which may have once belonged to a grill.

On a white platform on the floor are four long yellow and green art works.
“Water Composition V,” by Senga Nengudi, is a precursor to the artist’s best-known works.Art work by Senga Nengudi / Courtesy the artist and Ortuzar Projects

In 1995, Nengudi wrote, “An artist’s supposed greatest desire is the making of objects that will last lifetimes for posterity after all. This has never been a priority for me. My purpose is to create an experience that will vibrate with the connecting thread.” Posterity has other ideas: Nengudi is currently the subject of a major retrospective at the Philadelphia Museum (until July 25th)—which also travelled to Munich and São Paulo.

The great revelation in Ortuzar’s tribute to the “Sapphire Show” is the reintroduction of the exhibition’s lesser-known artists. A penumbral painting on paper from circa 1970, by Bohanon (who died in 2008), titled “Rio on My Mind (Corcovado, Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars),” is a bossa nova for the eyes, centered on a mysterious orb that is at once a moon, an eye, a breast, and the bell of a trumpet. The most transporting piece here is “Wood City,” which Nelson, who is Nengudi’s cousin, made sometime in the seventies. Inspecting the talismanic construction—which is just twenty-two inches tall—is like being let in on a secret, discovering little hideaways and spying alchemical vials of soil. “Generations,” a sky-and-earth-toned collagraph print from 1993 by the art historian and artist Yvonne Cole Meo, who died in 2016, portrays what appears to be an Asante Akua’ba (female fertility figure) as the powerful matriarch of an extended family—the ancestral spirits of the six artists here.

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Greenpoint This Week: Art Fair, Staycations and More –



Happy Weekend Greenpoint!

This weekend, The Other Art Fair is back in town, with affordable artworks ready for your post-quarantine redecorating plans.

If you’re eager to get out, plan a staycation in the neighborhood, for a change of scenery, without a sink full of dirty dishes. If you prefer your own pillows, consider just spending a day at one of our local outdoor pools. The newly opened Le Doggie Cool also has open cafe hours this Saturday, for pups to play in their backyard pool.

This week, we reported that Brooklyn Bowl is reopening in early September! Get your tickets now for upcoming parties and shows. If you’re looking for a free event, Friday night brings a screening of Frozen to Transmitter Park.

We also reported that a new community fridge has opened on Greenpoint Ave. near Transmitter Park. And shared some unfortunate news about a Greenpoint resident arrested for recording his female roommates without their consent.

Make sure to fit in your last visit to the Leonard Library before it closes for renovations on Monday, August 2. Worry not – Greenpoint Library is still up and running, with computer service and open seating also now available.

Don’t forget to check out our summer 2021 fashion sundae roundup for this season’s best local looks.

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The art of the deal: empty storefronts become gallery space to lure shoppers back downtown – CTV News Montreal



With many Montreal storefront real estate lying empty, some landlords have turned to the arts in a bid to bring people back downtown.

Where some would see a crisis in the decimating effect that online shopping and the COVID-19 pandemic has had on brick-and-mortar stores, Frederic Loury, who runs the Art Sousterrain festival, saw an opportunity.

“During the pandemic, I noticed it was a necessity to build a bridge between real estate and emerging artists,” he said.

Loury convinced several downtown landlords to lend available spaces to artists.

One of those artists, Dana Edmonds, now has storefront space in Alexis Nihon Plaza.

“I thought it was a really cool idea because I got to expose art, which doesn’t get exposed a lot,” she said. “It’s hard to get into galleries in the first place, so at least we can show our work.”

Edmonds is sharing her space with fellow artist Florence Gagnon, who said the initiative is giving people who don’t normally go to art galleries a chance to see what local talent has to offer.

“I think it’s a beautiful way to integrate art into places that don’t usually have it,” she said.

For the landlords, it’s a smart marketing opportunity and a way to get people shopping again.

“They were kind of afraid of coming back to Montreal, so basically this will make them want to come back and shop and visit some emerging artists that we have with Art Sousterrain,” said Alexis Nihon general manager Danny Thery.

Edmonds says that while her work might be in a store, she isn’t giving a hard sell to curious window shoppers.

“My work is kind of political, It’s commentary about over-consumption, mental health, climate change. I like the dialogue,” she said. “If I sell something, that’s great. If people just look at garbage a little differently, then I’m happy.”

Thus far, there are 30 stores being lent to artists downtown. Loury said he believes mixing art and retail will become a trend.

“Others have to rethink the model if they want to survive.” 

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Art Gallery of Ontario reopens with blockbuster Andy Warhol exhibition – Toronto Star



The Art Gallery of Ontario is betting on a blockbuster Andy Warhol retrospective to entice audiences back following a nine-month pandemic induced closure.

The aptly titled “Andy Warhol” exhibition, which opened to AGO members Wednesday, aims to bring biographic and cultural context to one of the most recognizable and divisive iconoclasts of the 20th century. Through 250 art works and ephemera, including a trio of Warhol’s infamous wigs and the manifest from his mother’s arrival at Ellis Island, “Andy Warhol” makes the argument that its subject is, as Kenneth Brummel, the AGO’s Associate Curator of Modern Art puts it, “due for a reassessment.”

Pointedly, “Andy Warhol” casts its subject as a product of circumstance. The first half of the exhibition is devoted to establishing Warhol’s working-class bona-fides: his humble upbringing as a child of Eastern European immigrants in Pittsburgh, moving to New York to work on commercial and advertising art before establishing himself as a figurehead of the counterculture. In contrast, the latter half moves beyond the biographical into Warhol’s obsession with mortality and religion, a perspective made all the more visceral when he was shot in 1968 by the feminist author Valerie Solanas (Solanas also shot art critic Mario Amaya, who happened to be at Warhol’s studio at the time and would, the following year, become the chief curator at the AGO).

A detail from a Marilyn Monroe image at the AGO's blockbuster Andy Warhol exhibition.

Presented across a massive section of the Gallery (twice the typical floor space to allow for physical distancing), the exhibition reframes the Pop Art Svengali by spotlighting some of Warhol’s lesser-known works while postulating that, as the homosexual son of poor Catholic immigrants, he was uniquely positioned to become the eminent art world translator of American culture.

To achieve this vantage point, the exhibition fleshes out the artist’s work as pointedly flawed and acerbic rather than the sleek, machine-like superficial mirror that has become the artist’s modern caricature. As such, seminal pieces including 1962’s “Marilyn Diptych” and 1964’s “Jackie Triptych” are presented couched in Warhol’s macabre obsessions and Catholic guilt, while the lesser seen “Ladies and Gentlemen” series, in which Warhol was commissioned to create portraits of New York’s Latin and African-American drag queens and trans women, is given pride of place, bluntly asking the viewer to confront the necropolitics of the work, both of its time and of modern day.

“We want to take Warhol as we understand him and make him strange again,” Brummel, who curated the AGO presentation following its debut last year at the Tate Modern in London, explains. “Our goal is to enrich understanding of Warhol as this bifurcated figure; more than a myth with a past.”

Andy Warhol's Karen Kain portraits are featured at the Art Gallery of Ontario's new retrospective.

In parallel, the AGO presentation subtly points out Warhol’s ties to both the gallery and the city. This connection is brought to bear via a selection of works exclusive to the Toronto stop, including multiple commissioned portraits of the ballet superstar Karen Kain and, fetchingly, a neon Wayne Gretzky, whose placement in juxtaposition to “Oxidation Painting” (which Warhol created by coating a canvas with wet copper paint and getting his friends to urinate on it) serves as a commentary on the artist’s own fraught relationship with celebrity, commerce and the art world.

Moreover, by purposely positioning the retrospective in divergence with the polished colourful imagery and pithy quotables that have come to define Warhol as a pop culture figure, Brummel says he hopes it will help salvage the artist’s reputation as a precursor for the disposable nature and lavish absurdisms of modern art.

“The reality is every good painter has to reckon with the cult of admiration,” he says, pointing to the late-era series, “Stitched Photographs,” in which the artist toyed with his own authenticity by stitching a series of reprinted photographs together to form a repeated pattern. “And Warhol was a formidable precursor.”

In the works since 2017, “Andy Warhol” had been intended to debut at the AGO in March of 2021 and joined exhibitions across the sector and around the world which had been delayed or cancelled due to the pandemic.

Stephan Jost, CEO of the AGO, stands near a massive Andy Warhol self portrait.

According to CEO Stephan Jost, while it undoubtedly caused a number of logistical and financial headaches, the pandemic also allowed for something all too rare in the field: a moment to reflect.

Speaking during a brief interview under a posthumous self-portrait of Warhol, Jost explains that over the past year he “learned to stop talking and listen.”

“[The pandemic] allowed us to ask ourselves what are we actually doing and why are we actually doing this? That’s framed as an existential question, but it actually reminded people why they do what they do,” he says. “What I discovered was, on a basic level, we’re doing fine and that’s because everybody, from the night guards to our board, pulled their weight. That gives you a lot of confidence”

In addition, Jost says the break gave the heads of many of the city’s cultural organizations a chance to retrench and consider how best to reinvigorate what has been one of the hardest hit sectors.

“We used to meet maybe quarterly and now it’s every two weeks,” he says of the group, which includes representatives from the National Ballet, Harbourfront Centre, Canadian Opera Company and Soulpepper Theatre. “We’re all trying to figure it out and it’s actually been great to find a common learning.”

As for the near future, Jost says he’s excited for the gallery to come “roaring back,” beginning with the Warhol exhibition, which runs until Oct. 24, to be joined by, beginning Oct. 9, a blockbuster exhibition focusing on Picasso’s Blue Period.

“It’s the best exhibition schedule the AGO has ever had,” Jost exclaims. “We want to be all in on culture.”

Jonathan Dekel is a freelance contributor based in Toronto.


Conversations are opinions of our readers and are subject to the Code of Conduct. The Star does not endorse these opinions.

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