Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 3, 2024
Richard J. Powell Black Art: A Cultural History Third edition. New York: Thames & Hudson, 2021. 304 pp.; 217 ills. Paper $29.95 (9780500204665)

An authoritative survey on predominantly African American art practices in the United States, Richard J. Powell’s Black Art: A Cultural History is now in its third edition, a remarkable feat that speaks to its staying power as a vital source in the field, classrooms, and libraries. It is evidence of an enduring commitment by Powell to sustain the means of analyzing cultural histories and works of art by minoritized artists, and the text’s reappearance gestures towards its contents as unsettled and evolving. Updated and expanded, Black Art participates in a contemporary atmosphere of renewed interest in Black culture and aesthetic production.

Modern and contemporary art across diasporic African communities has witnessed increasing mainstream attention, a fact that undoubtedly invites celebration yet also provokes concerns about faddishness. The questionable pattern among hegemonic entities to couple support with the material value of Blackness, which ebbs and flows with intermittent commitments against anti-Blackness during popular moments of sociopolitical unrest, impacts the landscape of professional opportunities for both researchers and artists. For example, the rise in jobs commingling all things racialized as Black into a monolith is one such example of the difficulty—manufactured by discrimination and racism—to value diverse specialists. Powell’s Black Art is a prominent example of the maintenance involved in discourse before Black Lives Matter and after, which enables audiences to engage in past and contemporary cultural valences of art.

The process of renewal and augmentation performed by Powell’s latest edition presents an opportunity to assess the relationship between claims outlined in the text to the present moment, and it also encourages consideration of the evolution of its position over time. While Powell places greater emphasis than before on multimedia, the contemporary, and a broader roster of artists, Black Art is not a complete overhaul. Instead, Powell supplements the text with new chapters, subsections, illustrations, and minor alterations of text before 2021, which in sum highlights the pedagogical value of adapting a manuscript when possible.

Powell’s survey was first published in the United States in 1997 as Black Art and Culture in the 20th Century. His book, which chronicled modern and contemporary art production within coterminous episodes of African and Black life, appeared one year before Sharon F. Patton’s African American Art (1998), three years after Samella Lewis’s revised second edition of African American Art and Artists (1994), and four years after Romare Bearden and Harry Henderson’s A History of African-American Artists: From 1792 to the Present. In contrast to these texts and their attention to historical recovery, thematic books such as Lisa Farrington’s African-American Art: A Visual and Cultural History (2016), Celeste-Marie Bernier’s African American Visual Arts: From Slavery to the Present (2009), and Stick to the Skin: African American and Black British Art 1965–2015 (2019) have emerged in the last two decades.

Despite its title, Powell’s book shares notable similarities to earlier texts. He engages a roster of predominantly US-based African American artists, a historical lens since critiqued for flattening the diasporic contours manifest by the term “Black.” Yet Powell preemptively addressed criticisms of his book’s structure in the first edition by foregrounding systemic access to professionalization as a compelling problematic: African American proximity to art world infrastructure increased their likelihood of visibility and success in the West.

Published in the age of 1990s multiculturalism, Black Art earned distinction among peer studies by placing Black intellectual thought from Frantz Fanon to Stuart Hall in dialogue with the Western history of art’s accepted interlocutors like Jean-Paul Sartre. Powell situates critical theory and Black studies at the core of cultural developments and the visual and performing arts, which has proven generative for engaging diasporic thought. The titular changes present across two editions of the book’s cover pages—Black Art: A Cultural History (2002) and Black Art (2023)—signal constitutive shifts in content and focus, such as the addition of more diasporic artists from Ouattara Watts to Wangechi Mutu. Each edition pursues a robust argument against the interpretive closure wrought by essentializing narratives, meaning that the third edition likewise maintains the unresolved tensions produced by the historically contingent but no less malleable category that is “Black art.”

Powell’s conceptual setup constructs the book’s internal logic. He never proposes to reconcile Black art’s irreducibility globally nor does he propose that African American art can fully account for the underlying unruliness of racialized Blackness. Nevertheless, questions remain open as to the categorical acceptance of “Black art” within its broader diaspora. In addition, the prominence of anglophone perspectives in its narrativity potentially risks subtleties across languages and experiences, a task confronting any researcher who cultivates horizontal art histories and transnational citational practices. Lastly, it is important to restate that Black Art is a fixture in US classrooms, seminars, and museums. However, it remains unclear how shifting demographics might impact relationships to this historically situated paradigm. The US’s Black population is estimated to grow one-third from immigration by 2060, so how does Black art as a discursive discourse respect and address increasing diversity and cultural affiliation? 

These questions arise from Black Art’s third edition, which encourages readers to revisit foundational myths undergirding the country’s past and present identity, including the common and accepted use of “American.” If “Black” is a political category and collective positionality against subjugation, then the roster of artists in his book, and Powell’s identification of them, can linger as a contentious point for some. For example, there is a matter of national affiliation occasionally burying the legibility of race and ethnicity, such as in the use of “white American” for an artist like Stuart Davis versus “German painter and muralist” for Winold Reiss, or “Haitian and Puerto Rican heritage” for Jean-Michel Basquiat, whereas “African American” for an artist like Emma Amos becomes seemingly self-evident in the wake of the lingering impact of the one-drop rule.

Thus, Powell’s introduction, titled “The Dark Center,” carries significant interpretive weight for the mapping of his book. Powell historicizes Black art as a historicist phenomenon, which he scaffolds via interrogating the formation of diasporic matrices produced through conditions of transatlantic enslavement. Forcibly dispersed, heterogenous groups are provisionally united by a racialized difference, either through commercial and juridical objectification of “Black bodies” or via social, religious, linguistic, and political attempts at negation. In the process of proposing a Black diasporic arts framework, Powell highlights hybridity as a major outcome of transatlantic slavery and he considers art production as articulating an emergent aesthetics of difference. Via Stuart Hall’s conceptualization of Black popular culture and black aesthetics, as well as Freeman Murray’s encouragement of a visual criticality, Powell supports the inventiveness of Black diasporic arts through Black study. As a result, his first chapter intervenes in conventional art historical methods that disregard Black critical thought.

Powell’s chapters progress chronologically, engaging evolving concepts of place, community, and aesthetics through sociological debates of which W.E.B Du Bois is a key reference, to the centrality of class and the arts in remaking aesthetic strategies during the Harlem Renaissance, mid-century episodes comprised by stylistic and ideological debates of Black artists and their aesthetic responsibilities to society, and experimentation across mediums including film and video. Powell pursues each moment through an intricate reading of artistic and intellectual exchange such that Black art operates not as a literal operation but as a metaphysics of Blackness. Furthermore, Powell referentially bridges space between past and present contexts of Black art by extending the bibliography on intersecting and parallel contributions.

Most of his core chapters are unchanged from the earlier editions, but he importantly appends his introduction with a new subsection titled “Envisaging Blackness for a New Century”; adds a new area in his seventh chapter as “Projections for a New Millennium”; and extends his “Fin-de-Siècle” subsection in his eighth chapter. The greatest changes to the third edition include the publication of full-color, high-resolution illustrations, as well as a ninth chapter, “The Price of Blackness.” Taken collectively, Powell reflects on tide changes since the second edition in 2002, such as increasing exhibitions, gallery representation, auction prices, acquisitions, hiring, and growth in publications, which are tackled in “Envisaging Blackness for a New Century,” as well as addressing the significance of new technologies like YouTube and the Internet in “Projections for a New Millennium” which centers on performance and digitality in contemporary Black art. Powell’s attention to live art and new media was a needed addition to his book as it accentuates his consideration of film and video within the first and second editions and joins his incorporation of major intellectual and aesthetic contributions to art discourse within his selected sources and bibliography.

“The Price of Blackness” rhetorically concludes the third edition, which presents a heightened awareness about the book’s function and current subjects undertaken by contemporary artists. Not only does Powell catalog more artists since 2002, such as Zanele Muholi and El Anatsui, but he also attends to the pessimism, anxiety, and humor by which artists now navigate precarity and success. From the 2008 election of Barack Obama as the forty-fourth  President of the United States and as the first of African descent and of a multiracial Black identity to Black Lives Matter, Powell strengthens connections between progressive politics and Black feminist praxes with contemporary diasporic visuality. Leaving the material and social “price” of Blackness indefinite, and concluding the book with “Afrofutures,” Powell’s conclusion yields multiple affective registers, including ambivalence and inspiration, skepticism and optimism, which is a welcome contrast to cycles of celebration. Labor strikes, class and caste strike, critiques of globalism, climate breakdown, calls to decolonize museums—all of which contemporary artists engage, respond to, and figure through myriad mediums—calls attention to further developing the interdisciplinary study of Black diasporic arts, and indicates the viability of future surveys of Black art and culture.

julia elizabeth neal
Assistant Professor, History of Art Department, University of Michigan