Black Abstract Artists: Exploring Innovative Techniques

Abstract Artists From Alma Thomas to Jack Whitten

Here we explore Black artists who have expanded abstract techniques that showcase unique aesthetics while examining current events, visually composing perceptive senses of identity, and reimagining the boundaries of abstract expressionism. These artists include Alma Thomas, Beauford Delaney, Norman Lewis, Ed Clark, Sam Gilliam, Kenneth Victor Young and Jack Whitten.

Alma Thomas (1891 – 1978)

Works by Alma Thomas: Clockwise: Fall Atmosphere, acrylic on cotton canvas, 1971. Sold December 2015 for $ 87,500; Alma Thomas, Splashdown of Apollo 13, 1970, acrylic on canvas, 1970. Sold November 2003 for $68,500; Untitled (Atmospheric Effects Series), acrylic on paper, 1971. Sold March 2022 for $209,000.

Columbus, Georgia born, a Washington Color School artist, and the first graduate of the Howard University College of Fine Arts—Alma Thomas is known for her signature “Alma Stripes,” a progressive technique in which Thomas created thick brushstrokes strategically composed on canvas, often with visible pencil markings underneath. The stripes are typically vertical or horizontal in nature and portray the artist’s powerful understanding of color theory. Thomas focused much of her work on natural influences, including seasons, space, and flora. Fall Atmosphere, 1971, which was featured in Swann’s December 2015 auction, is an example of such a rhythm.

Beauford Delaney (1901 – 1979)

Beauford Delaney, Untitled (Composition in Yellow, Orange and Red), oil on paper mounted on linen canvas, circa 1958-59. Sold March 2022 for $137,000.

Born in Knoxville, Tennessee, artist Beauford Delaney is known for his distinctive, limitless impasto technique, in which he generated layers of texture and contrasting color with paint. Untitled (Composition in Yellow, Orange and Red), circa 1958-59, is an example of the artist’s signature style. As a gay, Black man, Delaney was influenced by relationships and music, including such genres as Jazz and the Blues. With a penchant for yellow hues, the artist associated the color with inner spirituality. Delaney once said, “the abstraction, ostensibly, is simply for me the penetration of something that is more profound in many ways than rigidity of a form.”1

Norman Lewis (1909 – 1979)

Works by Norman Lewis: Clockwise: Jazz Quartet, oil and ink on cream wove paper, 1952. Sold March 2022 for $30,000; Untitled, oil and ink on paper, 1960. Sold October 2019 for $106,250; Untitled, oil on canvas, circa 1958. Sold December 2015 for $965,000.

Harlem, New York, born and founding member of the Spiral Group as well as a member of the Irascibles, Norman Lewis, who was also part of the Harlem Renaissance, is a creative pioneer known for innovating a dry brush technique that emphasizes color contrast with oil paint. Lewis is also known for his calligraphy skills and the use of the color black in the 1960s. Influenced by Jazz, Lewis’ attention to conceptual form, and the influence of space within compositions, manifests in his use of organic shapes and lines. Lewis often used oil paint directly on paper, an uncommon action, and impacted viewers with his hazy effects. As a Black man, Lewis had a history of utilizing his skillset to bring attention to the needs of his community and explored thoughts of universality with his lightly applied brushstrokes.

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Ed Clark (1926 – 2019)

Ed Clark, Spatial Image III, dry pigment on wove paper, 1982. Sold March 2022 for $341,000, a record for a work on paper by Clark.

Here in his charming signature style with dry pigment on wove paper, we see Ed Clark’s development of balance, thick line formation and value. In curator Hendrik Folkert’s 2020 essay on the artist, Clark expressed the following: “it struck me that if I paint a person — no matter how I do it — it is a lie. The truth is in the physical brushstroke, and the subject of the painting is the paint itself.” Drawing inspiration from sand paintings created by the Pueblo population in the Southwest, Clark originated wide brushstrokes utilizing his self-coined, “push-broom technique,” in which the artist moved paint about sizable canvases with a large broom. The artist further explored a range of canvas shapes after spending time in Paris during the 1950s.

Sam Gilliam (1933 – )

Works by Sam Gilliam: Clockwise: Untitled, acrylic on canvas, 1972. Sold April 2018 for $233,000; Untitled, acrylic on canvas, 1969. Sold April 1969 for $197,000; Untitled, watercolor and inks on handmade paper, 1970-71. Sold March 2022 for $81,250.

Also a Washington Color School painter, Sam Gilliam’s emphasis on color and innovative technique of paint application and usage of space built on how one would define abstract art. His consistent experimentation within his practice, and jazz influence, led to the creation of a body of work rich in context as well as aesthetic value. The Tupelo, Mississippi–born Gilliam unconventionally relieved canvas from its stretcher bars and draped them to dramatically impact the space in which they existed. The artist’s fresh process further included pouring paint, soaking, or staining canvas, and applying mixed media to express ideas on current events and the Black experience. 

Kenneth Victor Young (1933 – 2017)

Works by Kenneth Victor Young: From left to right: Untitled (Abstract Composition), acrylic on canvas, 1972. Sold October 2019 for $233,000; Night Push, acrylic on canvas, 1972. Sold March 2022 for $87,500.

In Night Push, 1972, artist Kenneth Victor Young’s spatial influence is evident. Here, viewers are drawn into the artist’s experimental technique of blotting acrylic paint onto unprimed canvas, creating a repetitive melody of orbs surrounded by contrasting hues. The artist described this process as “painting wet into wet.” Young was also known to use water to spread paint around surfaces with the use of sponges. Associated with the Washington Color School and influenced by energy and a history of studying physics, Young’s application of pigment became a signature aesthetic for the Louisville, Kentucky-born artist. Further influenced by visionary Sam Gilliam, whom he met in art school in Louisville, Young’s abstract expressionist artistry is present in his works.

Jack Whitten (1939 – 2018)

Jack Whitten, Psychic Fragments #3, mixed media, including watercolor and ink, 1988. Sold April 2019 for $55,000.

Bessemer, Alabama–born artist Jack Whitten was a National Medal of Arts recipient who established a career creating striking, thought-provoking abstractions. He had a history of involvement in the Civil Rights movement and was further inspired by light and photography processes. With layers of material and the quality of movement, Whitten’s abstractions utilize an array of trailblazing methods, including paint applied with a squeegee or Afro combs. Later works by the artist feature mosaic effects created by cracking dried paint, which often feature abstracted images of deceased loved ones. In these, Whitten distinctively submerged objects in acrylic and created a collage impact, honing in on such principles as repetition, variety, proportion and emphasis.

1. Richard A. Long et al., Beauford Delaney: A Retrospective

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