St. Louis Exhibits Shine A Light On African American Abstract Artists | St. Louis Public Radio

St. Louis Exhibits Shine A Light On African American Abstract Artists

Oct 10, 2019

Lamerol A. Gatewood developed an interest in art in the early 1970s, when he was a student at University City High School.

The art class so captured Gatewood’s imagination that he started scultpure work and painting a few years later.

In the decades that followed, Gatewood’s career took him across the U.S. and abroad. But he considers his recent inclusion in a collection of African American abstract art donated to the St. Louis Art Museum a crowning achievement.

Gatewood hopes a growing interest in African American abstract art will give him and other black artists their due.

"The Shape of Abstraction: Selections from the Ollie Collection" is on display at the museum through March 22. It puts Gatewood in company with other black artists whom he has long admired, among them the late Herbert Gentry and Norman Lewis. They painted for decades but didn’t receive acclaim until late in life. Gatewood doesn’t want a similar fate.

“I’m scared out of my wits,” Gatewood said. “I don’t want to be 75 and then all of a sudden I’m getting more recognition. I need to have that recognition now. I’m 65 years old.”

Gatewood might not have to worry much longer. In recent years, African American abstract artists have received increased attention.

The exhibit at the art museum features a selection of 40 abstract art pieces out of the 81 pieces that were donated by St. Louis native Ronald Ollie and his wife, Monique. They currently live in New Jersey and have been collecting for about three decades.

Ronald Ollie (right) announces the opening of 'The Shape of Abstraction: Selections from the Ollie Collection' with Brent Benjamin (left), the Barbara B. Taylor director of the St. Louis Art Museum.
Credit Chad Davis | St. Louis Public Radio

Ronald Ollie said it's a shame that African American abstract artists like Lewis never received the acclaim that white artists like Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock and Franz Kline have.

“He never got the notoriety of the group, and his value just didn't go anywhere,” Ollie said of Lewis. “Whereas the Koonings and the Pollocks and Franz Kline, they saw the prices soared; their exhibition history soared. Their notoriety soared.”

The growing interest in black abstract artists is largely driven by African American art institutions, Ollie said.

“One of the things that happened that caused the market to break for black abstract artists is that they started out having what's called the black fine-art show,” he said. “The auction market got active for black artists.”

Ollie said that growing interest also owes much to efforts by African American-owned art galleries to raise the profile of black artists.

The 10th Street Gallery, founded in 2011 by Patricia and Solomon Thurman, is committed to doing so.

Its current exhibit, "Abstract Connections: Near and Far," was partially inspired by the Ollie's collection. Soloman Thurman said the exhibit, on display through Nov. 2, is focused on abstract artists with St. Louis connections. He wants to see more black artists in all forms of media.

“There needs to be more black artists being used in the general public and not necessarily in a gallery setting,” Thurman said. “It should be used as part of the educational system so that kids could understand how they can express themselves and the different ways they can express themselves.”

Both Thurman and the Ollies say art education is key to inspiring the next generation of African American artists and interest children in art. The Ollie Collection is dedicated to Ronald Ollie's parents, who frequently took him to museums. He said that led him to develop an interest in art.

His wife is pleased to see that young students are drawn to the works.

“This also is about education,” Monique Ollie said. “We saw when it was open to the public, fifth grade students just marveling over this, these works of art. It's just been remarkable.”

Lamerol A. Gatewood completed an untitled piece in 2002. The piece is now a part of the St. Louis Art Museum's exhibit.
Credit Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio

The collection's 81 pieces, donated in 2017, include a variety of styles with paintings that utilize methods like liquid acrylic paint and beeswax.

The deep dive in African American art history has captivated art leaders across the country, including Valerie Cassel Oliver, the Sydney and Frances Lewis family curator of modern and contemporary art at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. She hopes the growing interest in African American abstract art isn’t a passing fad, but something more permanent. 

“It's one thing to invest in showing an artist; it's another thing to permanently bring that artwork into an institution and allow it to help expand or shape what that institutional narrative is,” Cassel Oliver said.

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