Art by black artists forces a new look at art history in a must-see show at the Smart Museum

Proceeding strategically, Joyner and Giuffrida have built a collection of approximately 400 works, beginning with African-American artists and eventually expanding to the entire African diaspora. They’ve stuck mainly with abstract painting but have made some exceptions along the way. They’ve focused on certain artists in depth, discovered affinities and personal connections between others, and decided to act as stewards of individual careers. What this sounds like is generous and wise, and what it looks like is knock-‘em-dead stunning to behold, though only a snapshot of it is on view at the Smart, where some 50 select works from the couple’s collection have been supplemented by a handful of loans and new site-specific commissions by a trio of Chicago artists. It’s humbling, too, especially for anyone schooled to believe in the canon, which traditionally has made precious little room for black artists, like the color field painter Sam Gilliam, who so obviously deserve major places there. The section devoted to Gilliam’s work includes the two most stirring pieces in the entire show — the symphonically effervescent “After Glow,” an enormous stained canvas from 1972, and “Stand,” a rainbow-hued swath of unstretched fabric bunched at the top and hung from a leather strap, one part drop cloth, one part laundry-hung-out-to-dry, one part sculpture.

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