Charles Gaines, Numbers and Trees, Central Park, Series I, Tree #9, 2016, black-and-white photograph, acrylic on Plexiglas, 8 x 10 x 6'.

Since the early 1970s, Charles Gaines has used the grid to interrogate the constructed nature of representation. His work is featured in “Solidary & Solitary: The Joyner/Giuffrida Collection,” a touring exhibition that historicizes how artists have responded to demands that they make “black artsince the 1940s. Curated by Christopher Bedford and Katy Siegel, the show is on view at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art in New Orleans until January 21, 2018 and then will travel to the Nasher Museum of Art in Durham, North Carolina, from February 15 to July 15, 2018; the Snite Museum of Art in South Bend, Indiana, from August 20 to November 25, 2018; the Baltimore Museum of Art from March to July 2019; and the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive from August 2019 to January 2020.

WHILE I WAS IN GRADUATE SCHOOL IN THE LATE 1960S at the Rochester Institute of Technology, I discovered I found no meaning or joy in intuiting an idea and expressing it on canvas. The whole operation felt quite arbitrary, and I couldn’t identify myself with it. Through reading—first Henri Focillon’s The Life of Forms in Art and then volumes on Tantric and Buddhist art—I discovered art practices in the world beyond this. I wanted to deal with ideas intellectually and rationally, but from my own perspective as a Westerner. So I looked for tropes, like mathematics, that do not privilege the creative unconscious. I wondered if I could use these strategies—and indeterminacy—to make art. The ego is limiting; we gravitate toward things we know and can’t imagine things we don’t know. Through “systems” I could go where the imagination couldn’t and bring things that otherwise would not be thought about to light. Out of this I began using the grid.

I first used the grid in my “Regression Series” of 1973 and 1974. This was before I began working with images. I used simple arithmetic calculations to produce forms on a grid. The initial drawing produced numbers along a grid’s axes, and these were used to produce the next drawing, and so forth. This arithmetic method yielded parabolic shapes that could be read as natural organisms, with metaphorical implications. But the forms were produced by a system, not my imagination. The following year, in the series “Walnut Tree Orchard,” I started using objects. I plotted the shape of the tree on a grid, then overlaid coordinates so that a single object would increase in density over the course of the series. I was using systems to critique the idea that representation is a function of intuition. I was less interested in undermining the role of representation in art, and more interested in showing that it is a construction.

At the time, this way of working put me in a pickle. It was problematic in relation to the history of black expression. It prevented me from being established in the white artist community, and also as a black artist. I had to justify using abstraction in terms of my identity as a black person. The Black Power movement and Amiri Baraka’s essentializing ideas of black representation were influential, and the white artist community did not embrace me because I did not behave or make art like a stereotypically black artist. I dismissed the art world’s issue. But I felt that the question of the relationship between my history and my work was a legitimate one. I struggled with it for years, and it was responsible for my interest in theory. I surmised that my interest in abstract ideas and concepts was part of my temperament, but that it was also nurtured by my experience growing up as a black kid in the Jim Crow South. Segregation just didn’t make sense to me. I was always asking questions: Why can’t I drink out of this fountain? Why do I have to sit in the back of the bus? I gravitated toward conceptual answers. I asked my mom if, when I died, I would come back as a bird. Transformation was my poetic response to escaping racism. Even as a child, I was thinking about cultural space abstractly. This contextualizes my interest in using ideas, and in interrogating them.

“Solidary & Solitary” centers on abstract art—mostly paintings—by artists of the African diaspora. In the 1960s, black abstractionists like Norman Lewis and Melvin Edwards were trying to figure out how their collective lived experience could be seen through European modernism, just as, in the 1970s, others of us struggled with a similar binary. The title of the show calls up the paradox of individual versus community. How can you invest in the modernist trope of individualism and at the same time invest in the postmodern strategy of community? The show raises the problem of this paradox to a significant level, and the artists in it suggest different solutions. Lewis got involved in work opportunities for artists and also had a sort of narrative-based approach to abstraction. I dealt with it by rethinking representation and the real, using the grid and language. My recent work Numbers and Trees, Central Park, Series I, Tree #9, which is in the show, demonstrates that diagraming is not a literalization, but, in fact, that it produces abstraction. It shows that the line separating representation and the real is quite blurred. It raises questions about how objects are represented. 

“Solidary & Solitary” establishes that the problem of individualism versus community, of modernism versus identity, is one that black artists dealt with as early as the 1940s. The art world is just getting around to dealing with it now. I don’t think we’re at a pivotal point of resolving this paradox. The problems that underlie these binary relationships are still present, and they’re not just black problems.

— As told to Kate Green