Introduction

 

Abstract Relations celebrates fifty years of contemporary abstraction in American art through the works of twenty-three artists of African descent. The exhibition is a collaboration between the David C. Driskell Center, University of Maryland and the University of Delaware Museums, and was conceptualized in honor of abstract painter and conservator Felrath Hines (1913–1993).

A student of the renowned conservation team Caroline and Sheldon Keck and highly regarded in the field of art conservation as a paintings conservator, Felrath Hines worked independently for many years in New York, on contract to the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art, and for private clients, including Georgia O’Keeffe. In 1972 he moved to Washington, DC to work for the Smithsonian Institution, where he served as chief conservator for the National Portrait Gallery and subsequently the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, retiring in 1984. His conservation practice brought Hines intimate knowledge of post-WWII avant-garde painterly practices, including Abstract Expressionism, Post-Painterly Abstraction, Op Art, Minimalism, and Color Field painting. As a practicing artist, Hines dedicated his vision and craft to abstract art.

Conventionally defined, abstract art refers to imagery that is non-representational and focused on the aesthetics and expressive potential of color, shape, balance, depth, composition, and scale. This concentration on formal aesthetics, however, does not preclude other content and meaning. Though the principles of abstract art are ancient, they were the hallmark of modernism, dominating avant-garde art of the early twentieth century. New York became the American epicenter of avant-garde abstraction after WWII .

Hines’s maturation as an artist and then as a conservator came on the heels of Abstract Expressionism and American dominance in avant-garde abstraction. A superb colorist fond of landscape references, Hines used color, form, and placement to evoke space, atmosphere, and movement. His paintings evidence his experimentation with various modes: from the brushy lyricism and expressionism seen in Image (1958) and Snowbanks (1959) to the hard edge, geometric abstraction in which traces of gesture and brush are minimized, found in Sentinel II (1983) and Midnight Garden (1991). This later, signature style of geometric abstraction and smooth painting surfaces — arguably out of fashion at that time — prevails in the paintings he completed during the last decade of his career.

The artists represented in Abstract Relations share Hines’s engagement with abstraction; their works extend our understanding of its expressive potential, explore materials beyond paint and canvas, and endow abstraction with a tactile sensibility dexterously hidden in Hines’s late oeuvre. This is particularly evident in the textured surfaces of James Little’s multi-paneled painting Countdown (1981), achieved through his use of stencils, scoring and glazing. With the exception of Washington DC based painter Alma Thomas (1891–1978) and Norman Lewis (1909–1979), the artists represented here are younger than Hines and practice in a stylistically more pluralistic era in which abstract painting is one of many viable expressive modes. Thomas’s Falling Leaves Love Wind Orchestra (1977), Driskell’s Sunshine Frozen (1977) and Linear Pattern #3 (1980), and E.J. Montgomery’s Highland Flowers (1998), share Hines’s proclivity for revising and abstracting the elements of the natural world yet underscore the differing and highly individualized practices and aesthetic impulses of the all the artists represented in this exhibition.