Photo by Clare Gehlich.
The Staller Center for the Arts recently opened a new exhibit in the Paul W. Zuccaire Gallery titled “Revisiting 5+1.” A reflection of the 1969 exhibition of abstract art “5+1,” the new exhibit highlights major works of Black artists through the experimental painting, sculpture and film of the 1960s and ‘70s.
“I think it’s really an inspiring reminder of the power of collective action,” said Elise Armani, a Ph.D. candidate in art history at Stony Brook University and co-curator of the exhibition alongside Amy Kahng and Gabriella Shypula.
“Revisiting 5+1” presents work produced by Frank Bowling, Melvin Edwards, Daniel LaRue Johnson, Al Loving, Jack Whitten and William T. Williams from the original “5+1” exhibit from the ‘60s. This new exhibit also features Black women artists including Vivian Browne, Mary Lovelace O’Neal, Betye Saar, Alma Thomas, Mildred Thompson and Howardena Pindell, a distinguished professor in the Stony Brook Art Department.
The original exhibition was organized by artist Frank Bowling at the invitation of Lawrence Alloway. “Revisiting 5+1” was co-curated by three Ph.D. candidates in art history at Stony Brook University, with the assistance of various professors. Distinguished Professor Katy Siegel, Zuccaire Gallery director Karen Levitov and Pindell have all worked to embody the emotionally historic reflection on “5+1.”
“It’s really inspiring for us to think about today, like what kinds of things [students] might even do, how we can be inspired by them to make change, you know, on campus for ourselves, too,” said co-curator Amy Kahng in regard to Stony Brook students.
Black artists have long been marginalized in the art world — Black women especially. The trailblazers of Black Abstraction in the 1960s and ‘70s were often sidelined in favor of their white counterparts. Though abstract works by mainstream white artists were considered apolitical, Black artists were expected to create works motivated by the disparities they faced. Many Black artists who aimed to create art for the sake of art, rather than as a vehicle to express racial trauma, faced numerous obstacles due to the rejection of apolitical art galleries across universities. This sparked a debate regarding art and politics.
In her work on “Revisiting 5+1,” Pindell has stressed the importance of providing Black artists with a voice through university-based context and history.
“These artists are sort of left without space to show their work, which is what leads them to show work in a space like a university,” Armani said.
In the ‘60s, the Black Art Movement, which focused on representational and political work, was an important branch of the larger Black Power Movement, then at its peak. Nationwide, college campuses saw some of the most persistent and lively protests in favor of Black Power — and Stony Brook was no different.
“Here at Stony Brook, there is an opportunity for artists to get that sort of recognition,” University President Maurie McInnis said. “It energizes our campus for a lot of really important changes that really helped establish who we are as a university. Then with this moment, the opportunity to reflect on that and correct another mission by bringing in so many really seminal women artists from the period.”
Since the ‘60s, students have advocated for one another and fought to create a welcoming and open space for Black students. Some examples of student activism at Stony Brook can be seen in the formation of Black Students United, the petitioning of President Toll for the creation of the Black Studies Program (now AFS) and the occupation of O’Neill College in attempt for “separated, dedicated spaces for Black students,” according to the Armani’s essay in the book, “The Rupture: Stony Brook University, Frank Bowling, and the Black Student Movement.” According to Armani, this rich and illuminating student activism was also taking place in classrooms all across campus.
“Hopefully looking at this history will just ignite some action on campus and inspire students to think more about what the environment they want to be going to school in should be and how they can make that happen,” said Armani.
The original “5+1” shed some light on the countless obstacles Black artists faced during the mid-20th century as a result of racial disparity. This new reimagination of the exhibit aims to once again empower Black artists, specifically Black woman artists. The hope among those behind the exhibit is that it will inspire people to take action and further progress at Stony Brook’s campus.
“Revisiting 5+1” is on view until March 31. In celebration of Black History Month this February, there are a number of events to educate students on Black History on campus, nationwide, and globally.
Correction 2/23/23: An earlier version of this piece incorrectly stated that the current exhibition was organized by Frank Bowling at the invitation of Lawrence Alloway. Only the original “5+1” exhibit was organized by Bowling. It was incorrectly stated that the formation of BSU, petitioning of President Toll and occupation of O’Neill College occurred after “5+1” in the fall of 1969. The formation of BSU and petitioning of President Toll occurred prior to the exhibit, and the O’Neill occupation happened during the exhibition’s run in 1969. It also incorrectly stated that Frank Bowling spoke directly to students.