Born in Detroit, Michigan in 1935, the abstract painter and collage artist Al Loving knew early on that he wanted to pursue a career in art, earning his BFA at the University of Illinois and an MFA at the University of Michigan. Loving taught printmaking full-time at the Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti from 1964 to 1968, and at William Patterson College of Wayne, New Jersey from 1976 to 1978. In 1969 Loving caught the attention of major art critics and collectors with his solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, which featured geometric work similar in style to Cube 27. Although Loving is best remembered for his later more fluid and colorful wall collages, early works like Cube 27 link Loving’s aesthetic to the hard-edge painting style found in Minimalist geometric abstraction, which favored rectilinear compositions reduced to their most basic ingredients, and the games of spatial perception explored by Op art, popular in the 1960s. Much like the great Minimalist painter and printmaker Frank Stella [1999.700], to whom he is often compared, Loving became fascinated by the simplicity of geometric shapes. His paintings explore various polyhedral forms with both striking precision and creative flair.
African American artists like Loving who embraced mainstream abstract movements had to face the challenge of pursuing a subjectless artistic style while working in a tumultuous political environment that revolved around discussions of race and identity. Radical political movements like Black Nationalism and Black Power presented revolutionary notions of black identity that, while advancing African American rights, also promoted a specific type of black expression. African American artists were expected to “represent” their race with sociopolitical subjects and thus were frequently discouraged, by both blacks and whites, from exploring abstraction in their work. This imperative helps explain the rarity of known African American abstract painters and underscores the importance of Loving’s early works in this style.
Loving’s focus on the generic, ubiquitous shape of the cube in Cube 27 allowed him to experiment with formal qualities to explore and enliven an otherwise mundane subject. The painter’s use of line and color is so deft that he creates the illusion of a three-dimensional form on a two-dimensional surface. This interest in illusion, in playing with dimension and space, connects this canvas to Op art, an artistic movement that focused on the creation of optical illusion. To bring attention to the cube’s structure as a three-dimensional object in space, Loving relied on multicolored stripes (contrasting a bright line of white with a darker line of red, for example). These colorful, alternating lines begin to look like layers, which give each side of the cube the semblance of volume and weight. Loving also experimented with the relationships between colors: for example, yellow, considered a “warm” color, and blue, considered a “cool” color. Because warm colors have the effect of pushing forward from the picture plane, while cool colors appear to recede, Loving’s choice of yellow for the cube’s interior, an area expected to recede, creates a visual tension that complicates and enriches this standard geometric shape. The cube’s three-dimensionality also takes on a literal quality with the shaped canvas itself. Though its surface is flat, the canvas’s edges follow the silhouette of the painted cube, reminding the viewer that the canvas itself is an object, while also giving the painting a sculptural quality. This blurring of painting and sculpture can be seen to anticipate the fabric and paper wall collages of Loving’s later work. Despite the painter’s prolific career, there are few known paintings extant from his period of hard-edge abstraction. Loving himself destroyed sixty of his paintings in this style, using the canvases in his constructive collage phase that was to follow in 1971.