Looking Back at Vivian Browne’s Shift to Abstraction 

The eight paintings and five works on paper that comprise Vivian Browne: Africa Series 1971-1974, Browne’s second solo show at RYAN LEE Gallery, were prompted by the artist’s first trip to West Africa in 1971. At the time of her visit, the Florida-born, New York-based figurative painter and printmaker, then in her 40s, was at the tail end of her first major body of work: over 100 paintings and drawings of pathetic and grotesque Little Men, all of whom were White. As she labored over this scathingly clear-eyed series, Browne was hard at work outside the studio as well, pushing for a more equitable world. A founding member of the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition (BECC), Browne participated in protests against grossly exclusionary exhibitions at the Whitney Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1968 and 1969 that failed to include work by Black artists; in 1972, she would become BECC’s co-director. She was also integral to Where We At, a collective formed in 1971 by Black women artists interested in creating a network of mutual support.

Vivian Browne, “Benin Beauty” (1971), watercolor and ink, 17 3/4 x 24 inches

A number of diasporic artists involved in the Black Arts Movement in the United States visited Africa in the 1970s, including such notables as Faith Ringgold and Howardena Pindell. For Browne, who was particularly interested in studying Nigerian and Ghanian sculpture, the trip — an extended stay involving six weeks at the University of Ibadan in Nigeria with additional travel to locales including Benin and Ghana — was remarkably generative, spawning the Africa series, her second major body of work. Browne has cited the influence of environmental, emotional, and sonic landscapes on her practice, and has also made paintings pertaining to time spent in China and California. However, her experience in West Africa “was such an emotional uplift,” she told artist Emma Amos (quoted by Dr. Leslie King-Hammond in the current exhibition catalogue), that it impelled her to shift toward abstraction, as if figuration alone was too flimsy a container for the magnitude of her joy.

Vivian Browne, “Assistant to the Chief” (c. 1973), acrylic on canvas, 52 3/4 x 64 3/4 inches

Bodies don’t disappear in these works, but rather materialize in many guises, from a trio of readily identifiable planar women in “The Bathers” (1971) (likely a nod to Paul Cézanne, whom Browne greatly admired) to a gallimaufry featuring a mask-like face, disembodied arm, chartreuse phallus, and fragmented horse in the large-scale “Assistant to the Chief” (c. 1973), to a swooping orange C-curve with an otherworldly single eye in another sizable acrylic, “The Chiefs Attendant” (c. 1972). Browne had already established herself as a colorist, but in the Africa series, she introduced an even bolder palette. While the drawings and etchings on display, including the grayscale gouache and ink depiction of bathers, are relatively subdued in tone, the paintings are shot through with fuchsia, lime, papaya, and aquamarine hues; often, she opted for acrylic instead of oil so she could paint at a faster pace. Irrespective of media, patterns blossomed: works on view teem with swathes of zigzags, wavy lines, polka dots, tiles, and even irregular rows of what resemble tiny eyes, hinting at the depth and breadth of visual stimuli that Browne experienced on her travels.

Vivian Browne, “Abstract Forest” (1974), oil on canvas, 22 1/2 x 20 3/4 inches

Anticipating the portrayals of trees that would occupy the artist in her last decade, flora and fauna abound. Vegetation Browne encountered appears in various forms: as a repeated, decorative leaf motif in “Diversities” (1973), energetic arched lines in “Umbrella Plant” (1971), and flat green blocks in “Shango Kingdom” (1972). In “Abstract Forest” (1974), an oil painting that is smaller in scale and darker in hue than its acrylic counterparts, an enigmatically crepuscular, loosely patterned, all-over green-brown murk is peppered with errant vines; to the left of the frame, a strip of orange diamonds reads as reptilian, evoking vipers and adders. Notions often tied up with landscape painting — from the espousal of manifest destiny to the imposition of an exoticizing vision — are absent here. Instead, this quietly inexhaustible little painting is a rich terrain in which to lose oneself.

Vivian Browne: Africa Series 1971-1974 continues at RYAN LEE Gallery (515 West 26th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through July 1. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.

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