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Black Contemporary
Black Contemporary

By the mid- to late 1980s earlier definitions of African American art would be supplanted by the postmodernist tenets of cultural relativity, art-as-performance, critical inquiries of art and society through one's work, and interrogations of identity, geography, and history.

Several artistic precursors to this new generation had already begun to exhibit these more provocative, postmodernist characteristics in their work. For example, by 1975 artist David Hammons was already creating sculptures from black cultural detritus (hair, food, artifacts, etc.) that ironically commented on black identity. Around the same time Robert Colescott was making outlandish, cartoon-like paintings that poked fun at the art establishment, cultural conservatives, and ethnocentrism.

In contrast, conceptual artist Adrian Piper countered the reigning avant-garde of her day with performances that placed racism at the center of art matters. Also at this time artist Houston Conwill wrestled with the notion of African American space, initially through site-specific earthworks and, later, through culturally informed diagrams and signs.

These pioneers of an African American visual postmodernism helped put into motion a different set of visual criteria in contemporary art: models that, in turn, have engendered an innovative group of artists. This inventive group includes sculptors Alison Saar and Renée Stout and photographers Albert Chong and Lyle Ashton Harris, who explore concepts of objecthood and fetishism; visual artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat, Glenn Ligon, and Lorna Simpson, for whom issues of gender and language are central in art; photographers Dawoud Bey, Renee Cox, and Lorraine O'Grady and painters Kerry James Marshall and Howardena Pindell, each of whom presents the black body as a site of theoretical warfare, social research, and desire; and conceptualists like Gary Simmons, Kara Walker, and Fred Wilson who, through installation art, have problematized American history and the psychology of racism so that display and spectatorship can no longer be viewed as purely innocent acts.




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