Alvin Loving, American (1935 - 2005)

Al Loving

Al Loving (1935–2005) was born in Detroit and studied art at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana and the University of Michigan. Like many art students then and now, he kept up with what was going on in New York through art magazines. In 1968, when he moved to New York City, he was fully versed in the hard-edged abstraction and shaped canvases of Frank Stella and Kenneth Noland. This is how April Kingsley, in an essay for Al Loving: Color Constructs, an exhibition at the Neuberger Museum (1998–1999), described Loving’s first years in New York:

Loving soon developed the image with which he became identified, an illusionary cube made out of prismatic color planes in dark, middle, and light values, edged with narrow, zinging, separating, black or white lines. The original inspiration was Josef Albers’ square, but Loving turned it into more of a crystalline structure. Less than a year after arriving in New York, the Whitney Museum gave him a solo exhibition and his career was launched: his paintings began selling so well he had to get assistants to help him paint them, and he was receiving major commissions. But it didn’t feel right. There was no room for personal expression. “I felt stuck inside that box,” he said. “I mean, this was 1968 — the Democratic convention, this was the war — and I’m doing these pictures. The contradiction between my life at that time and these pictures.”

Loving was in his mid-30s. He got what most artists dream of — a solo exhibition at a prestigious New York City museum. In fact, he was the first African American artist to have a one-person show at the Whitney Museum of American Art. And yet, what says the most about Loving as an artist is that he walked away from his early signature work because he felt “stuck inside that box” of his own making. In doing so, Loving recognized that there is nothing inevitable about art; that all the paradigms about the progress of art are a repressive fiction, a treacherous minefield that one has to negotiate.

Al Loving: Torn Canvas at Gary Snyder Gallery (November 1–December 22, 2012) is the first exhibition of the artist’s work since his death in 2005. It is accompanied by a catalog with an insightful essay, “Self-Made Painting”, by Katy Siegel. Made of strips of colored cloth that have been sewn together, and hang down from the wall, the torn canvas paintings are what Loving did to get outside of the box. He literally cut up his own work. Sometimes a change requires an artist to destroy earlier work, to cut it apart or cover it over, as Less Krasner and Philip Guston did. The five torn canvases in this exhibition were done between 1973 and ’75. A selection of collages made between 1976 and 1990 rounds out the show. Writing about the work Loving did after his illusionary cubes, Siegel observes:

The thrill for Loving was personal; these new paintings showed him a way out of the prison — self-fashioned, with the help of critics, curators, and dealers — of his then signature style.

Even now, four decades after Loving walked away from what brought him his initial fame — at a level he would never attain again in his lifetime — the torn canvas paintings look incredibly fresh and uncategorizable, while his illusionary cubes look increasingly like period pieces. Moreover, the change Loving made early in his career strikes me as radical a rupture as one can make in one’s history. Alfred Leslie, Guston, and Krasner are among the few others that I can think of who initiated a comparable break in their work. It is also worth noting that Philip Guston turned his back on his Abstract Expressionist paintings around the same time as Loving rejected his early efforts, and for many of the same reasons.

So there we have it, a young African American artist at the beginning of his career making a sudden, fundamental and in some ways inexplicable change, and a highly revered, middle-aged Jewish artist going from a mandarin to a stumblebum, as Hilton Kramer famously characterized the change that Guston’s work underwent.

by John Yau -

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