Last summer, the Art Students League of New York hosted the first historic exhibition dedicated to Cinque Gallery, an artist-run non-profit organization that operated between 1969 and 2004. The original idea of Romare Bearden, Ernest Crichlow and Norman Lewis, Cinque was founded to exhibit and promote the work of marginalized, predominantly black artists, while also serving as a training ground for young arts administrators of color. Cinque was somewhat of an outgrowth of the Spiral group, which met regularly from 1963 to 1965 to debate the role of black artists in the struggle for civil rights. The gallery was named after Sengbe Pieh, also known as Joseph Cinqué, the Mende man who led the rebellion aboard the Spanish slave ship. La Amistad in 1839 – and emerged along with the Black Power movement amid a push for cultural and economic autonomy in the arts. These revolutionary forces helped give birth to other New York institutions and collectives, such as the Brooklyn Museum Community Gallery and the Studio Museum in Harlem (both established in 1968) and the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition (founded in 1969). .
“Creating Community: Cinque Gallery Artists” was curated by Susan Stedman, who began an ongoing oral history of the gallery in 2017, with the program being curated by Cinque’s first artist in residence, Nanette Carter, whose collage Cantilever # 39, 2018, a flickering, tense architecture of abstract forms layered in his signature oil on Mylar, was included in the show. Two display cases containing Cinque’s statutes, newsletters and exhibition announcements featured a sprawling display of paintings, sculptures, collages, photographs and prints by thirty-nine of the approximately 450 intergenerational artists who exhibited with the gallery during of its thirty-five years of existence. Many of these artists have taught or studied in the Art Students League (including Bearden, Crichlow, and Lewis) (Vivian Browne, Edward Clark, and Mavis Pusey, to name a few).
The Art Students League has a long history of collecting works by affiliated artists, including creators historically excluded from museums. Some of the best works on display were drawn from the school’s own funds: for example, the work of Charles White Mother (While waiting for his return), 1945. The cubist-inflected lithograph, which in 2002 also entered the collection of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, depicts a tired black mother with large, powerful hands that appears fragmented but fundamentally strong. In her “images of dignity,” White frequently portrays working-class black women, employing a strategy that, as art historian Kellie Jones has pointed out, links issues of race with those of gender and race. class. “Artists have always been propagandists,” White told writer Jeffrey Elliot in an interview in 1978. “I have no use for artists who are trying to separate themselves from wrestling.”
Next to White’s print were two canvases, that of Richard Mayhew Untitled, 1967, and Hughie Lee-Smith Abandoned, 1986, both also from the collection of the Art Students League. The first is a thick, smoldering, encrusted nature scene set in a swampy palette, painted before Mayhew, of Afro-Native American descent, began creating his more transcendent Technicolor views. The terrain is muddy and difficult to discern, let alone enter – a commentary, perhaps, on the paired romanticism of American landscape painting and the hideous realities of Manifest Destiny. Lee-Smith’s work depicts an abandoned construction site, with overgrown bushes against an eroded plateau. Next to this room was that of Dawoud Bey A man entering a parking lot, 1981, achromatic photograph of a black man walking past a surveillance camera to enter the titular space. Bey and Lee-Smith’s psychologically strained images testify to abandonment, alienation and marginalization – simply a sampling of the many dark facets of structural racism.
The sheer range of the exhibition confirmed Cinque’s commitment to fostering opportunity rather than advancing a particular aesthetic doctrine. Holding space for a multiplicity of visions of black artists, the gallery has embraced both abstraction and figuration, which historically have often been presented as adversaries in the struggle for representation. Norman Lewis, who moved from social realism to abstraction in the mid-1940s (without ever completely abandoning his figurative leanings, as his mature paintings of stylized Klansmen clearly show), has been written out of the AbEx canon for decades, although he joined the Manhattan avant-garde. Willard Gallery and having participated in the Artists’ Sessions fairs at Studio 35 in Greenwich Village. Lewis’s Untitled, 1976, a large painting that also belongs to the Art Students League, features swirling spirals that accelerate in a field of indigo. Part of the “Seachange” series, ca. 1973-1978, which the artist produced during his last decade, the scene is a representation of an unstoppable movement.