In the mid-1970s, Raymond Saunders, 86, was arguably one of the three or four most widely recognized of all living African American painters, on a par in stature with Romare Beardon and Jacob Lawrence. Prominently featured in Richard Powell’s 1997 book Black Art and Culture in the 20th Century, Saunders has received many significant grants and awards. His work has also been included in many dozens of international exhibitions and dozens more public collections, and his brief pamphlet, Black as a Color (1969), has been accorded seminal status in the still-developing discourse about African-American art. With that much said, and in recognition of new priorities coming to the fore in the art world, it seems more than a little bit odd that Saunders has yet to receive the major museum retrospective that his six-decade career so richly deserves.
While we are left wondering why this is so, we can look at this two-gallery exhibition of Saunders’ work from the mid-1980s to the present as a convincing first draft of that long overdue retrospective. The fact that most of the works included here have never been exhibited in North America only ups the ante on this point, underscoring just how extraordinarily prolific Saunders has always been.
The larger of the two galleries, the one recently relinquished by the Gagosian conglomerate at 657 Howard Street, is a large and beautifully appointed exhibition space repurposed here as a pop-up site. The other venue is Casemore Kirkeby Gallery, located at Minnesota Street Project. Exhibitions at both venues are collaborative efforts organized by Casemore Kirkeby and Andrew Kreps Gallery. There are a few minor thematic distinctions between the two groupings. But for brevity’s sake, both can be addressed as a single, multi-faceted presentation totalling about 40 distinct works. All are untitled and date from the mid-1980s to about 2018, with the majority executed on large wooden panels.
The largest of the large is a 1990 triptych, about 6 x 12 feet. It features a cluster of brightly colored collage elements and other disassociated pictorial incidents in red, yellow and white, some seeming to be tenuously hanging on to the edges of a picture plane, defined by a vast expanse of subtly modulated black paint that simultaneously announces itself as a flat graphic surface and also as a deep pool of undifferentiated space. Like the majority of Saunders’ works, this mixed-media painting harks to the improvisatory ethos of jazz in the way that its pictorial architecture of skewed perpendiculars functions as a stabilizing force (like drums and bass) containing the improbable flights of improvisatory fancy represented by various additions of line, color, collage and judiciously understated applications of spray paint. These can be quite disparate, as is made clear in some of the other untitled works in the exhibition, which sport elegantly calligraphed brushstrokes counterpointed against white chalk graffiti. Their overarching point seems to have something to do with the juggling of disparate fragments echoing each other in a contingent space of dispersal and coalescence, at once seeming arbitrary and at the same time perfectly balanced. In other cases, some of the works isolate just few components, as with an undated and untitled smaller work showing a flower form tenuously reaching toward a distant horizon, or a classical looking figure delicately articulated in white pencil set against a black background in another work.
Not all of the works in this exhibition make use of Saunders’ well-known black-paint strategy. An undated 8 x 2-foot work features a rich, tomato juice red inflected with orange and yellow surrounding a grand splash of black paint that contains a cluster of collage fragments. It also features a passage of what appears to be Asian calligraphy (as do many of the other works in the exhibition) which lends a kind of subtle elegance of the kind that seen in another smaller (also untitled and undated) work executed on a 48-inch square canvas, using white in the same way that most of the other works use black. In it, we see a pair of black calligraphic gestures flanking a blue Chinese ideogram crowned by a bouquet of sumptuous red paint, all counterpointed with a subtle collage element clinging to the lower periphery of the picture. This understated black gesture on white canvas strategy also appears on a sextet of small untitled works on canvas sequestered in the back room at the Minnesota Street space, showing that Saunders has many strings on his artistic instrument.
So, why all of these untitled and undated works? Saunders has always preferred not to title his work, presumably because to do so would pin them down in a way that would undermine or contradict their improvisatory essence. Fair enough, but what about the dates? One clue to this last question comes from the fact that most of these works come to us from Saunders’ Paris studio, where he worked during the summers for almost two decades, regularly showing his work at Galerie Resche. This reveals that many of the works included in the current exhibition were worked, reworked and then added to over several years, making precise dating a challenge. It also says something about the processes of accretion and removal that are central to Saunders’ working process.
This fact also opens up other interesting questions. One of these could pertain to the degree that Saunders might have been influenced by aspects of French painting, particularly the Nouveau Réalisme and the Tachisme movements (the later being Michael Tapié’s francophonic synonym for the kind of lyrical Abstract Expressionism that was practiced in the 1950s by the likes of Georges Mathieu and Nicholas de Staël). Here, we might also want to remember that Robert Rauschenberg, Cy Twombly and Sam Francis all spent time in Paris, and their work also registered and transformed those influences, so there is a precedent. Indeed, there is a graceful delicacy to Saunders’ handling of materials, particularly line, that seems to mirror and bespeak a faint connection to an older French Modernism, even as it also contrasts and contradicts the ham fistedness of the work of Jean Michel Basquiat, an artist who was born when Saunders was already 26 years old (and who died 23 years ago) and whose work Saunders’ efforts are often farcically compared. One might also ask whether there is a parallel between Saunders’ Black is a Color thesis and Aime Cesaire’s earlier
postulation of negritude as a positive esthetic attribute of a “retrieved identity.” (Cesaire was thinking about the Harlem Renaissance when he wrote that.) One might extend this rumination to also include Franz Fanon’s anti-colonialist polemic, Black Skin/White Masks, about symbolic erasure and the recovery of identity. It, too, seems relevant, in part because of the way Saunders’ works function as symbolic blackboards upon which the palimpsest of historical contention can be inscribed, erased and repositioned.
In conversations about jazz, much has been said and written about improvisation being closer to the African-American (and Afro-Caribbean) experience than the European tradition, simply because it privileges momentary self-invention over the hidebound repetition and perfection of specified scores. Whether or not this speculation can be proven and extended to visual art, the fact remains that Saunders’ works are virtuoso celebrations of sheer pictorial improvisation like no others that we have seen, making the waning vogue of “provisional painting” look feeble and redundant in the bargain.
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Raymond Saunders: “40 Years: Paris/Oakland” @ Casemore Kirkeby and Andrew Kreps Gallery through June 12, 2021.
About the author:
Mark Van Proyen’s visual work and written commentaries focus on satirizing the tragic consequences of blind faith placed in economies of narcissistic reward. Since 2003, he has been a corresponding editor for Art in America. His recent publications include: Facing Innocence: The Art of Gottfried Helnwein (2011) and Cirian Logic and the Painting of Preconstruction (2010). To learn more about Mark Van Proyen, read Alex Mak’s December 9, 2014 interview, published on Broke-Ass Stuart’s website.