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A Year in the Life of Color

In this book, art historian Darby English explores the year 1971, when two exhibitions opened that brought modernist painting and sculpture into the burning heart of United States cultural politics: Contemporary Black Artists in America, at the Whitney Museum of American Art, and The DeLuxe Show, a racially integrated abstract art exhibition presented in a renovated movie theater in a Houston ghetto.

1971: A Year in the Life of Color looks at many black artists’ desire to gain freedom from overt racial representation, as well as their efforts—and those of their advocates—to further that aim through public exhibition. Amid calls to define a “black aesthetic,” these experiments with modernist art prioritized cultural interaction and instability. Contemporary Black Artists in America highlighted abstraction as a stance against normative approaches, while The DeLuxe Show positioned abstraction in a center of urban blight. The importance of these experiments, English argues, came partly from color’s special status as a cultural symbol and partly from investigations of color already under way in late modern art and criticism. With their supporters, black modernists—among them Peter Bradley, Frederick Eversley, Alvin Loving, Raymond Saunders, and Alma Thomas—rose above the demand to represent or be represented, compromising nothing in their appeals for interracial collaboration and, above all, responding with optimism rather than cynicism to the surrounding culture’s preoccupation with color.

312 pages | 47 color plates, 26 halftones | 7 x 9 | © 2016

Art: American Art

Black Studies

Culture Studies

History: American History

Sociology: Race, Ethnic, and Minority Relations


“[An] attractive volume. . . . English offers a dynamic and comprehensive study of colour as a sociopolitical tool, and how this affected the way that colour was more widely negotiated by the wider cultural context.”


1971 clears space for art historians, curators, and cultural producers to complicate black artists’ participation in modernism as a multicultural process, not as a separate or oppositional endeavor. . . . [This book] captures quite concretely a shared moment in the art world when color defied any singular narrative.”


"English argues that modern art in the form of abstraction gave black artists the intellectual freedom to develop beyond the confines of thematic representations of African American history and allowed artists to present their work to those it appealed to and who dared to encounter it. Through this critical analysis, he gives a different perspective to color painting—a more diverse narrative, one determined to give a public face and a voice to those artists politically informed and forced to evolve by circumstance."

ARLIS/NA Reviews

"English’s polemical account of black abstraction, 1971: A Year in the Life of Color, has arrived right on time. . . the book promises to add a much-needed historicizing dimension to the spate of recent exhibition catalogues focused on black abstract artists as well as a welcome corrective to African American art historiography, which has tended to focus on representational practices, usually framed as imbued with political intent, whether direct or implicit."

Art Journal

"English’s book seeks to complicate this deep-rooted notion of modernism as a distinctly white cultural inheritance that inevitably positions the contributions of others as essentially belated even as it leaves unaddressed the vexing question of what it means for artists of color to embrace an aesthetic tradition that historically ignored— when it did not crudely misappropriate and baldly dehumanize—subjects like them. . . . The questions he raises seem especially consequential at this moment in history, when growing awareness of the systematic violence waged against black bodies in the United States has exposed the unfulfilled promise of the nation’s core principles of equality and freedom."

The Art Bulletin

“More than a study of African American engagement with modernist aesthetics, Darby English’s 1971: A Year in the Life of Color is an intelligent and provocative call for the necessity of abstraction, idiosyncrasy, and unexpected forms of rebellion in the production of art and the development of cultural studies. English crosses the most sacrosanct ideological boundaries as he argues for the necessity of untamed and previously unimagined forms of creativity.”

Robert F. Reid-Pharr, CUNY Graduate Center

1971: A Year in the Life of Color is a powerful, polemical, and much-needed work. It forces us to rethink the terms of politics and abstraction, African American art, representation, and modernism in a way that is at once historically rigorous and theoretically expansive, no small thing indeed.”

Pamela M. Lee, Stanford University

“What is more urgently demanded, for current art and its histories, than the rethinking of how activism, identity, and art interact? Perhaps only an understanding of the particular complexity of black American identity, which in 1971: A Year in the Life of Color reveals a radical oppositionality within modernism that many had already given up on. Profoundly lucid, intensely felt, archivally deep, and utterly persuasive, English’s book reorients our understanding of both that time and our own.”

Rachel Haidu, University of Rochester

"Darby English’s 1971: A Year in the Life of Color enters the discussion of modernism where one least expects it: in Black artists’ pursuit of colour field painting, the non-objective, highly geometric, large-format works of the late 1950s and 1960s. . . .English portrays Black abstractionists as dissenters who refused to conform to dominant paradigms for African-American art."

Journal for the Association of Art History

Table of Contents

Introduction: Social Experiments with Modernism
Chapter 1. How It Looks to Be a Problem
Chapter 2. Making a Show of Discomposure: Contemporary Black Artists in America
Chapter 3. Local Color and Its Discontents: The DeLuxe Show
Appendix: Raymond Saunders, Black Is a Color (1967)

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