When “5+1” took place in 1969, Adger Cowans was a successful young Black photographer and a dear friend of participating artist Daniel LaRue Johnson. Though Cowans’s work was not featured in the exhibition, he photographed the opening reception as a favor to Johnson. At Stony Brook, Cowans captured a lively and stylish gathering, framing moments of laughter and conversation seen through the strands of Melvin Edwards’s Curtain (for William and Peter) (1969).
Like the artists whose work was included in “5+1,” Cowans has had a dynamic individual career—traversing spaces of painting and photography, the Black Arts Movement, jazz clubs, and commercial film sets—that complicates the notion of discrete movements and genres of art making. Amid the dearth of official archives and institutional publications for Black artists of Cowans’s generation, personal archives like that of his photographs, ephemera, and artworks are invaluable resources.
In the decades since “5+1,” Cowans’s photographs have been the primary visual record of the exhibition. Far more than merely documenting the opening, they provide an intimate view of “5+1” only accessible through the lens of a fellow artist and close friend.
Over a series of conversations between June and September 2022, we spoke with Cowans about his varied career, living and working in Downtown New York City in the 1960s and ’70s, and experience photographing “5+1.”
—Elise Armani, Amy Kahng, and Gabriella Shypula
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Your multidisciplinary career has spanned more than six decades, including practices in photography and painting. How did you first get started in photography? In what ways do you see photography and painting in relationship with each other, both in your own practice and broadly?
When I started out, photography was not an art; photography was a craft. There were no galleries showing photography when I came on the scene. Forget that. At Ohio University in 1954, I studied with Clarence H. White Jr., the son of photographer Clarence H. White Sr., who was part of [Alfred] Stieglitz’s gallery 291. I tell everyone my concept in the study of photography is totally American; I came from that corner. So, White talked about his father, and, of course, he taught about all these other people. When I saw [Edward] Weston’s photographs, I was knocked out more than everybody else in terms of the quality and tonality of the pictures.
For me, there’s no difference between photography and painting, other than painting is with paint and photography is with chemicals. But it’s the image—it’s about your communication with form. If you think you make an interesting image that people vibe with, then that’s cool. If you’re a dancer and you do a great dance, and everyone’s applauding and they talk about it after the show, and people say it was really great, then that’s the same thing. You have to hit that human chord. Sometimes I paint. Sometimes I photograph. I see photography and painting as spiritually similar.
When and how did you start painting?
I would say the early ’60s. I wanted to do something with my hands. My wife was working and teaching in school, and my son was little. We would put down big sheets of white paper, and I would put ink and paint on the floor. Then we would put him down in the paint and onto the paper, then pick him up and see what was there. He would get sumi ink all over his mouth and diaper. So, I wanted to do something with my hands. I liked sculpture too. But I think that’s when I started [with painting]. I went from putting paint on the floor to combing paint.
I never took my paintings around the galleries because I was bad with rejection. Rather than put up with being rejected, I just stayed to myself and did my work, because that was the most important thing for me to do. I wasn’t concerned with what people said or what they showed or whatever was the next great whatever. I don’t care. I would rather spend that energy making art or going on a trip somewhere. I knew that the work that I was doing was important because it was about spirit for me. It was always about the spirit in the work. It wasn’t about the latest things or who you knew. In the end, it was always about the work. I’ve said this before: you don’t take pictures with your eyes; you take pictures with the heart. In the eyes, you only see as the heart feels—the same with painting, which comes through a very spiritual channel. As an artist, you have to be open to that. You have to put your energy where it’s most important. It’s nothing to do with judgment. It’s not about whether somebody likes your work or not. How did you move the medium forward? Or did you move the medium forward? What was your voice? Everybody has a voice.
You lived in Ohio most of your childhood and in your young adult life. How did you end up in New York City?
It was 1958: I left school and came home that summer. My mother said, “You’re sitting around and you’ve got to do something.” So I said, “Well, I might as well go to New York.” My junior year in college, I had written Gordon [Parks] a letter, and I came to New York one weekend. That’s when I first met Gordon. I went up to his house and he said, “When you get out of school, call me.” That’s when I said, “I’m going to be a photographer.”
I quit school before graduation and then came home.1 I woke up one night, called my brother, and said, “Look, man, take me to the bus station; I’m going to New York.” And I came to New York. I went to stay at the Y[MCA] because I didn’t want to stay with my aunt and uncle in the Bronx. So I called [Parks] from there. He said, “What are you doing?” I said, “I’m in New York.” And he said, “Where are you staying?” I said, “The Y.” He said, “Get out of there. Bring your stuff and come up here. You can live here with me and my family and work with me at Life magazine.”
I worked with him all the rest of that summer, until my mother called and told me I got drafted. Then I went home and went into the Navy. When I came back to New York, I was married. Gordon and I remained friends because Gordon Jr. and I were very close. Gordon was like my boss. I talked to him at least two or three times a week. We got really close after Gordon [Jr.] died in a plane crash in Africa. We were friends until he died. I was a pallbearer at his funeral.
A lot of people think he was my mentor. He wasn’t my mentor. He was my mentor in terms of learning how to turn negative energy into positive energy. He didn’t teach me anything about photography. I learned all that stuff in school.
In the 1960s and ’70s, many Black artists were living in close proximity to each other in Downtown New York. You were working in similar mediums and modes, perhaps most significantly abstraction. What was your relationship with these other artists? Can you share some memories of the Downtown scene?
My relationship with these artists was very interesting because the Downtown scene at that time had lots of different people—it wasn’t just the visual artists, you had musicians, actors, and actresses, from Gloria Foster and Clarence Williams to Charles Mingus III. There were a lot of different people who lived Downtown, and I was friends with just about everybody. Many would come by my studio on 136 West Broadway because I was a photographer. They looked at me as a photographer and, at that time, photography and painting were separate. They’d say, “Oh, man, you can’t paint. Just take pictures.” Some people encouraged me, like Ed Clark and Danny [Daniel LaRue] Johnson.
I knew all these guys, and they all knew me. We would all hang out at different shows. Sonny Rollins had a rehearsal studio around the corner from my studio; I used to see him all the time. I was in Danny Johnson’s [Soho] studio a lot. Danny Johnson and his wife, Virginia Jaramillo, owned a building on Prince Street. So did Ornette Coleman, right next door or a couple doors down. Danny’s studio was in his own building—I think on the third floor—and Virginia’s was above. Ornette used to open up the doors and rehearse with his band of 30 people, right on the street. The band would be sitting on a sidewalk right there in front of his building. Danny and Ornette were some of the few Black people that owned buildings on Prince Street.
We all used to be there in Soho. Danny and I would get a drink at Fanelli’s, a bar right across from Danny’s. It was a big scene. Bradley’s Bar was a jazz club Downtown on the East Side on Broadway, and also a great place to go. Several major jazz musicians hung out there, and that was a spot for artists too. You would see everybody—Jackson Pollock, [Cy] Twombly. All those painters would hang out there and at Fanelli’s because they loved jazz music.
Many of the artists included in “5+1” were also living around this same area of Downtown New York, including Frank Bowling, Al Loving, and William T. Williams. How did you become acquainted with the “5+1” artists?
The first time I met Peter Bradley and William T. Williams was around when they had just gotten out of school and moved to a studio loft on  Broadway. Jack and Mary Whitten would host a party every year around Christmas time. All the artists would come. It was intimate in some ways.
It was a very homogeneous sort of thing with the artists. We all knew each other. When Al Loving came to New York, he had his first big one-man show at the Whitney [Museum of American Art] a few months after “5+1.” You remember that? Well, you’re too young to have remembered that! [laughs] We all went up and took him out to Chinatown to drink and eat everything. There was no Black person who had ever had a one-man show at the Whitney. We took him out and celebrated. So that’s what it was. No African American who also lived Downtown was showing besides Romy [Romare] Bearden and Jacob Lawrence.
Anyway, we were all friends. We weren’t strangers to each other. I remember I rented Jack Whitten’s studio. I had started painting big at that time, but everybody still looked at me as a photographer, except a couple guys. It must have been ’69 because it was the first year Jack Whitten went to Greece and a few months before “5+1.” I gave him a lot of Kodak film to take pictures. I rented his studio because I wanted to make some really big paintings. When he came back from Greece, he asked me, “What are you doing in my studio? Your stuff is everywhere!”
While cultivating close friendships with these artists, you also began to take their portraits—some on the street, others sharing a laugh at each other’s studios. What led you to start photographing your artist friends?
I would just photograph them. I said to Peter [Bradley], “Come to my studio, and I’ll take a picture.” Then with Danny, I took pictures in his studio because, that particular day, Sonny Rollins was there. I went there with my lady friend, and Danny took a couple pictures of me and her, then I took some of him too. Danny and I hung out a lot with Peter, and Peter would call him Edge. That was Danny’s nickname. I knew Frank [Bowling], but I got to know him better when he was in London and I was visiting several years after “5+1.” Then I photographed him a lot when he had his studio in Brooklyn.
How did you learn about “5+1,” and who invited you to photograph the exhibition? Stony Brook is far out on Long Island, so how did you get to campus? What artworks stood out to you in the exhibition?
“5+1” is interesting. Danny Johnson said, “Come and take some pictures. Everybody’s going to be there.” He wanted me to take pictures. I would have gone anyway because I knew all those guys before the exhibition. I think Danny took me out in his truck because he invited me to take pictures. His two sons were there, and also Virginia. I took pictures of these different guys at the opening. I should have shot more, but I was having a good time too. We were having a party, man!
I liked Mel’s [Melvin Edwards] work because barbed wire made me think about slavery and jails. It made me think about the South and how they would tar you and wrap you in barbed wire. It seemed historical to me. I photographed some pictures where I focused on the barbed wire, and some became a little more abstract. But I didn’t think too much about it. I photographed with feeling what was in front of me. I’m not a conceptualist. A conceptualist thinks about what he’s going to do before he stretches out. He considers the historical stuff. I don’t do that.
William T. Williams’s linoleum works were good because he would just take stuff that would be found in his house, and that’s the kind of stuff you would see when you’re a kid in the South. I used to see that when I visited my father’s family in South Carolina. They had those linoleum floors. That was something that everybody had in the house, like putting saran wrap or plastic covers on your couch. So he just got it from the house where he came from. That’s William T.
Were there students and faculty at “5+1”? What was the energy at the opening? Were people talking about the artworks?
Some of the students and faculty were there. Conversations were lackadaisical. “You got some wire over there hanging on the wall. Look at that shit. That’s cool.” “That’s not painting, man. That’s linoleum, man. That’s linoleum hanging on the wall.” Energy was high, but it was cool. Everybody’s like, “Oh, this is nice. White folks gave you a show.”
It was festive. It wasn’t super crowded because a lot of people couldn’t get out there. It was way out there. Some people didn’t even know about it. It was very in-house. I just photographed the guys that I really knew very well. I only had a few rolls of film. I didn’t think about it historically—nobody thought about the history, that this was going to be history. But if I’d thought about that, I probably would have shot more. I would have probably done more portrait type things of each individual artist. I would have probably done some more pictures of William T. Williams’s linoleum pieces.
Around the same time as “5+1,” there were many curated exhibitions of all-Black artists. What are your thoughts on the rise of these exhibitions?
I thought all-Black shows were kind of corny. “Oh, we’re gonna do Black show? Let’s grab somebody, anybody. Oh, put him up.”
“5+1” was really special in terms of being the first time in the history of American art that there was a show of Black abstract artists, particularly abstract artists. It wasn’t realist artists, which was going on at that time. This was pure abstract work. I wanted to go because this had never happened before. I wanted to see the show.
You participated in some of these all-Black exhibitions alongside your abstract painter friends, but you also connected with AfriCOBRA, an African American artists’ collective that is considered more representational in style. Could you talk about how your practice fits within this tension between the abstract and representational?
In 1979, I joined AfriCOBRA. I was really the only one working in abstraction. In the first days, they were like, “Man, what is this shit? You’re not using any words.” I said, “I’m not painting people, man. I don’t do people.” What I liked about them was the fact that they would critique your work but they wouldn’t criticize it. It was like, “Maybe you should try another color there.” “That was a great idea you’re working with. Why don’t you put something over there?” Or, “There is empty space there.” “That color doesn’t really work with that color. It could if you made it smaller or larger.” Very good critiques.
And it had some revolutionary hitch, which I liked. The idea that we can make some revolutionary-type images. Revolutionary in the sense of art, but also revolutionary in the sense of making art for the people—our people. It wasn’t necessarily for white people. We just wanted our people to have a chance to have art in their homes and know something about us.
You’ve had such a prolific career affiliated with groups like AfriCOBRA, the Kamoinge Workshop, and the Pow Wow Group, working in painting, photography, and filmmaking. After all these years, you still maintain a very active studio. Could you share some reflections on what continues to sustain your practice today?
Life is exciting. Every day is exciting. Absolutely. You get excited about life. And I think when you get older, if you’re smart, you realize that every day is a blessing—especially if you lived a long time, and I’ve lived a while. You realize this is wonderful to be able to live this long, to see and understand and be in your right mind and not be critical or mean or disenfranchising. A lot of older artists get bitter because this didn’t happen and that didn’t happen. I’m not bitter. I didn’t really care. The idea of having blank space in front of you and you have to do something with it is exciting. What are you going to do? How are you going to make it live and have other people look at and relate to it? And even though it’s abstract, it still has to have the quality of life.
1 Later, Cowans received his BFA from Ohio University in 1999.
Elise Armani is a curator, PhD candidate in art history and criticism at Stony Brook University, and a 2023–24 history of art and visual culture fellow at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She has contributed to projects at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, the Dallas Museum of Art, the Walker Art Center, the Weisman Art Museum, and TANK Shanghai. She is cocurator of “Revisiting 5+1” at the Paul W. Zuccaire Gallery, and coeditor of the accompanying catalogue.
Amy Kahng is a curator and PhD candidate in art history and criticism at Stony Brook University and a 2022–23 Patricia and Phillip Frost Predoctoral Fellow at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. She has contributed to projects at MoMA, the J. Paul Getty Museum, Kukje Gallery, and the Weisman Museum of Art. She is a cocurator of “Revisiting 5+1” at the Paul W. Zuccaire Gallery, and coeditor of the accompanying catalogue.
Gabriella Shypula is a curator and PhD candidate in art history and criticism at Stony Brook University. She has worked on curatorial projects at SFMOMA, the Baltimore Museum of Art, MoMA, SculptureCenter, A.I.R. Gallery, and Princeton University Art Museum. She is a cocurator of “Revisiting 5+1” at the Paul W. Zuccaire Gallery, and coeditor of the accompanying catalogue.