Smart Museum Presents SOLIDARY & SOLITARY Review – Inclusive Abstraction Reveals Histories

Norman Lewis, Afternoon, 1969, Oil on canvas; 72 x 88. Photo by Samantha Sylvander

The yellow canvas radiates like midday summer sun, a taste of the reassuring warmth we ache for the other nine months of the year. Modern master Norman Lewis greets us at the door of the new Solidary & Solitary exhibition, tickling our senses open with a work aptly titled Afternoon.  


As we walk deeper into the exhibition, Brooklyn-based artist Leonardo Drew’s arresting sculptures stretch up and out at us like swarms of natural particles. Number 185 is a twelve-foot tall monochrome wood and nail sculpture so black it seems to swallow the light around it, depriving the viewer of color. Across the gallery, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s painting Places to Love For presents an informal portrait of a woman. She stands in a non-place of smudged darkness, and we face the back of her slightly turned head– luminous brown freckled skin and a subtle twist in her spine are exposed in her orange dress, capturing the instant that her focus is interrupted by an undisclosed distraction.

1. Glenn Ligon, One Black Day, 2012, Neon. The Joyner/Giuffrida Collection. © Glenn Ligon, Courtesy of the artist, Luhring Augustine, New York, Regen Projects, Los Angeles, and Thomas Dane Gallery, London.
2. Leonardo Drew, Number 52S, 2015, Wood and paint. © Leonardo Drew courtesy of The Joyner/Giuffrida Collection and SikkemaJenkins & Co., New York.
Norman Lewis, "Many Faces of Legend II", 1960. Photo by Samantha Sylvander
1. Jennie C. Jones, Composition for Sharps #4, 2010. The Joyner/Giuffrida Collection. © Jennie C. Jones.
2. Shinique Smith, No Key, No Question, 2013, Ink, acrylic, fabric and collage on canvas over panel. The Joyner/Giuffrida Collection. Photo by Jason Mandella, Courtesy David Castillo Gallery.
Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Places to Love For, 2013, Oil on canvas. The Joyner/Giuffrida Collection. © Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Courtesy of the artist, Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

The Smart Museum of Art at the University of Chicago celebrated the 2019 winter reopening of their galleries on Monday, January 28th, presenting Solidary & Solitary, an exhibition that looks at modern and contemporary art through the creative lens of four generations of Black artists.

The traveling exhibition is co-curated by Christopher Bedford and Katy Siegel of the Baltimore Museum of Art, and features work by artists working mostly in abstraction. Though the core exhibition draws from the collection of Pamela Joyner, the show includes three new pieces the Smart Museum commissioned from Chicago-based artists: Bethany Collins, Samuel Levi Jones, and Amanda Williams.

At the opening, this intergenerational story told by Solidary & Solitary is accompanied by University of Chicago graduate students’ talks on individual pieces, providing context and facilitating conversation between the many students, artists, community members and culture-seekers in attendance. Standing in front of Charles Gaines’ Numbers and Trees, for one, is Audrey Moyer, a MAPH student who has worked in Gaines’ studio. Thousands of precise cyan, magenta and yellow squares overlap in varying intensities, painted on three gridded plexiglass panels, like pixelated ghosts of the trees in the black and white photograph behind it. Moyer describes the process of how Gaines worked to turning images into a matrix of numbers.

Then we come upon jumbles of industrial found objects; an anvil, spade, screws, shackles, entwined and welded in place. We step back and see chain link cheekbones and chins– abstract heads mounted in a row like hunting trophies. This is Melvin Edward’s Lynch Fragments. When Edem Ossai, an Obama Foundation Scholar from the Harris Public Policy school, was asked why she chose to help to explain this work, she smiled and said that,while she’s “not a professional art person”, she jumped at the opportunity to research and speak about the series of steel sculptures. “It relates to my thesis work about the recovery of cultural memory as a precondition to self-actualization”.

Charles Gaines, Numbers and Trees, Central Park, Series I, Tree #9, 2016. The Joyner/Giuffrida Collection. © Charles Gaines. Courtesy Paula Cooper Gallery, New York.

To experience abstraction in this way, as an act of political focus as opposed to stylistic preference is– at least for this writer– disarming; color, scale, and texture flex control over our physical senses. The rich and often untold art historical canon explored by this particular collection provides the public with a unique opportunity to view these artists’ legacies in one place. In this writer’s view, Solidary & Solitary lives up to its name as it displays the individualism that modernist pioneers achieved, as well as the community and creative lineage they spurred.

Sam Gilliam, Stand, 1973, Mixed media on canvas. The Joyner/Giuffrida Collection. © Sam Gilliam, Courtesy of the artist.
Leonardo Drew, Number 185, 2016./ Norman Lewis, Many Faces of Legend II, 1960./ Melvin Edwards, Lynch Fragments, 1963-2012.

Highly Recommended

Exhibiting Artists: Kevin Beasley, Bethany Collins, Leonardo Drew, Melvin Edwards, Charles Gaines, Sam Gilliam, Jennie C. Jones, Samuel Levi Jones, Norman Lewis, Glenn Ligon, Serge Alain Niegeka, Shinique Smith, Tavares Strachan, Amanda Williams, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye

Photo credits as indicated. Photos in slider: Samantha Sylvander


Thru May 19th


The Smart Museum of Art
The University of Chicago
5550 S. Greenwood Ave.
Chicago, Illinois 60637

Open 10AM- 5PM
Closed Mondays


Free Admission

For more information visit the The Smart Museum website.

Samantha Sylvander
Samantha Sylvander

About Samantha Sylvander:

Sam Sylvander is an art historian, writer and Chicago native. She is a recent graduate of Wellesley College where she studied Art History and Media Arts & Sciences. She enjoys visiting museums, eating spicy food, and playing Skee Ball in her free time.

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One thought on “Smart Museum Presents SOLIDARY & SOLITARY Review – Inclusive Abstraction Reveals Histories

  1. Great article! Have you seen the Lee Bontecou exhibit yet at the AIC? The mesmerizing, coal black shapes which extend from the wall in a couple of those Drew works reminded me of her. From the fellow Leonardo Drew admirer

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