File Note 133: Walter Price - Camden Art Centre

Essay by Rianna Jade Parker



Don’t Be Too Quick to Reveal Yourself Images References Quote Biography Credits

Don’t Be Too Quick to Reveal Yourself

When ‘Contemporary Black Artists in America’ opened at the Whitney Museum of American Art in April 1971, it was met with protests from the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition. It also received sharp reviews for its too wide-spanning premise, counter displays and the eventual recalling of work by at least sixteen of the fifty-eight artists, including Romare Bearden. Al Loving (the first African-American to present a solo show at the institution) chose to keep his work in the Whitney group exhibition but told Time Magazine: ‘The Black community is completely split up over this … I’m Black, I’m an artist, and I can’t deal with all the circumstances of America’s illness. I don’t want to hide my art. The first mistake was going to a white institution and asking for something.’

The Guyanese painter Frank Bowling had recently relocated from London to join the coterie of Black American artists responding to Black Power. Here, he would abandon figurative painting to embrace abstraction and take up a writing practice. In 1971, Bowling penned a full-length feature in ARTnews insisting in the title that: ‘It’s Not Enough to Say “Black is Beautiful”’. The article was not only a critique of the concept of ‘Black art’, but also of the overreliance on figurative work in this context. He opens the essay: 

Much of the discussion surrounding painting and sculpture by Blacks seems completely concerned with notions about Black Art, not with the works themselves or their delivery. Not with a positively articulated object or set of objects. It is as though what is being said is that whatever Black people do in the various areas labelled Art is hence Black Art. And various spokesmen make rules to govern this supposed new form of expression. Unless we accept the absurdity of such stereotypes as ‘they’ve all got rhythm…,’ and even if we do, can we stretch a little further to say ‘they’ve all got painting’? Whichever way this question is answered there are others of more immediate importance, such as: What precisely is the nature of Black art? If we reply, however, tongue-in-cheek, that the precise nature of black art is that which forces itself upon our attention as a distinguishing mark of the black experience (a sort of thing, perhaps, only recognizable to black people) we are still left in the bind of trying to explain its vagaries and to make generalizations. For indeed we have not been able to detect in any kind of universal sense The Black Experience wedged-up in the flatbed between red and green: between say a red stripe and a green stripe.

Bowling goes on: ‘Black anything — energy, life-style, myth, traditions, even music — is now public property to be used by anyone who cares to, but often this use or rerouting is heavily laced with misinterpretation and bad vibes, producing a kind of hysteria only explainable in terms of politics and suppression.’ Bowling himself would present a solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum of Art, in November 1971.

Forty years later, African-American historian Kellie Jones clarifies that it was only through the springing up of Black studies that Bowling was able to argue that: 

Blackness has been shaped as a ‘talisman’ in Western society, but that in the context of the 1960s and 1970s scene of black consciousness, the need for such a figure, which would act as a body to stand up against discrimination, prejudice, violence, has obscured the role of art. For Bowling, such needs for black images are best left to electronic media like television. Rather than providing representations of Black experience, Black art, in Bowling’s view, channels the legacy of a globally diasporic heritage. 

Jones claims that Bowling was able to: 

construct a pragmatics of Black diasporic art-making that acknowledged its encounter with and history within Western traditions, but which also affirmed its ties to traditions, knowledge, understanding, and aesthetics from elsewhere. In particular, Bowling places an emphasis on the aspect of disguise, double entendre, the ability to repeat with a difference, through which a Black aesthetic often reveals itself.

This year, commenting on the ‘battle between abstraction and figuration’ New York Times critic Megan O’Grady wrote: 

The license to free expression that white artists have been granted by birth right — especially white male artists, so often perceived as the vanguard in visual arts — hasn’t been available to Black artists. (Maybe only fools want to be famous, but it’s dehumanizing to have your work side-lined and undervalued, as [Jack] Whitten’s was, and is.) 

Still, generations of Black abstract painters have claimed it: [Howardina] Pindell, with her kaleidoscopic mixed media; Whitten’s mosaics of paint and found objects; Sam Gilliam’s euphoric splatters of colour; Charles Gaines’s data-driven renderings of trees. Meanwhile, new works by a new generation have arisen: Shinique Smith’s swirly collages; Jennie C. Jones’s synaesthesia-driven Minimalism; Mark Bradford’s abraded urban archaeology; Rashid Johnson’s etchings on wood with black wax — all of their art explores what painting can be, and can do, with radical colour, texture, scarcity, rhythm, gesture and a refusal to bow to imposed standards. (All these artists are under the age of 60.) Today, Johnson tells me, ‘There is no battle between abstraction and representation. These are not adversarial positions. It’s like suggesting that John Coltrane has less of a voice than Stevie Wonder.’

Black people have understandably relied on representational and positively affirming art-making. Ideally, an implicit narrative about race would not burden the Black artist, but in the twenty-first century it is still the expected and implied social work of ‘our’ art. The conversational commitment to a broader notion and remit of Black art continues to be a slow-moving train. That process is enveloped in the work of younger contemporary Black artists like Walter Price. Floating between literal representation and pure non-objectivity, Price paints compelling and considered canvases of familiar scenes. A muted harlequin of pastels generally associated with tropical locations is becoming a signifier of his maturing art-making.

It is both useful and necessary for us to allow multiple Black representational spaces. Abstract art makes possible a sophisticated coding of the diaspora that can be read globally, as evidenced in the staging of Price’s work in London. Price continues and extends the legacy of two generations of Black art practitioners whose complex approaches to abstraction have involved serious and intense formal experimentation. Some works floated between representation and pure non-objectivity that best characterises the projected and assumed matrix of Blackness. What we can’t easily image through human-like contours, we can cultivate through mysterious objects and shapes. We must be discerning and not too quick to reveal everything at once, when presenting our work publicly. Starting with a bright orange, a colour he wouldn’t be comfortable wearing, is softened into a reddy-pink acting as a buffer to the varied projections of his Black Southern masculinity from strangers and the unconscious bias of peers. 

There will always be an insatiable taste in the art market for the Black figure. We can challenge the terms of commodification and institutional responses in a manner that still allows for important work that is non-pictorial and conceptual but legible. Popular gemstones are mined, cut and polished to beauty, but pearls are born from live oysters already complete and immediately revealing their lustre and shimmering iridescence. By creating boundaries — like lines — we can determine how ‘others’ consume our culturally-specific knowledge, and production can be regulated.

In conversation, Price commented on his pivoting: ‘They (this was in context to white viewership but it can also be applied to a general audience) want it (the art) to be easier for them to understand. They want the final answer. They want it to be already figured out. “He did this because he went to the Navy” or “he did this because he’s from the South”. I’ve been dislocated from my own roots. I don’t owe them location or context. I want the work to offer wonder, yet avoid being condensed to the politics around my identity.’


Robert Greene, The Laws of Human Nature (Profile Books, 2018) 

Audre Lorde, A Burst of Light: Essays (Sheba, 1988) 

Toni Morrison (ed.), The Black Book (Random House, 1974) 

Calvin Tomkins, Marcel Duchamp: The Afternoon Interviews (Badlands Unlimited, 2013) 

Frances Cress Welsing, The Isis Papers: The Keys to the Colors (C.W. Publishing, 2004) 

Fresh is the Word, Mantronix (1985) 

Marvin Gaye Live!, Marvin Gaye (1974) 

Fear of a Black Planet, Public Enemy (1990) 

Extinction Level Event 2: The Wrath of God, Busta Rhymes (2020) 

Ready for You, Black Coffee (2020) 

Into the Dream, Vanilla (2020) 

Awaken My Love, Childish Gambino (2016) 

‘Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.’ James Baldwin


Walter Price (b. 1989, Georgia, US) was included in the 2019 Whitney Biennial and was a resident with the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation on Captiva in 2018. He was Studio Resident at Camden Art Centre in 2020. He has had numerous solo exhibitions internationally, including: Pearl Lines, Greene Naftali, New York and The Modern Institute, Glasgow (both 2020); We passed like ships in the night, Aspen Art Museum (2019); Walter Price, MoMA PS1, New York (2018); Pearl Lines at Kölnischer Kunstverein, Germany (2018); The Modern Institute, Glasgow (2018) and Karma, New York (2016). Recent group exhibitions include The Practice of Everyday Life, SLAG Gallery, New York (2019); Techniques of the Observer at Greene Naftali (2019); FRONT International: Cleveland Triennial for Contemporary Art, Various locations, Cleveland, Ohio (2018); 99 Cents or Less, Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (2017); Americans 2017, LUMA Westbau, Zurich (2017); Mondialité, Boghossian Foundation–Villa Empain, Brussels (2017); Fictions, The Studio Museum Harlem, New York (2017). 


Rianna Jade Parker is a critic, curator and researcher based in London.

Generously supported by Lead Donors:
J W Anderson, Eleanor Cayre, Jill and Peter Kraus, Russell Tovey, The Modern Institute, Glasgow and the Walter Price Exhibition Circle: John Auerbach and Ed Tang, Karen Cramer, Lonti Ebers, Emily King and Matthew Slotover, Alexander V. Petalas, Donald Porteous and Ralph Tawil. With special thanks to The Modern Institute, Glasgow and Greene Naftali, New York.

Price’s Studio Residency at Camden Art Centre in 2020 was generously supported by Cranford Collection and the Walter Price Residency Circle: Michael and Philippa Bradley, James and Anna Freedman, Alexander V. Petalas, Paul Thornton and Russell Tovey.