A longer version of this essay appeared in “Revisiting 5+1,” a catalogue accompanying the exhibition of the same name, which was on view at Stony Brook University’s Paul W. Zuccaire Gallery from November 10, 2022 through March 31, 2023.
Purchase a copy of the catalogue online, through Stony Brook’s Staller Center for the Arts, or at MFA Boston’s Linde Family Wing Bookstore and Shop.
From October 16 to November 8, 1969, at the State University of New York at Stony Brook (now Stony Brook University), works by artists Frank Bowling, Melvin Edwards, Daniel LaRue Johnson, Alvin (Al) Loving, Jack Whitten, and William T. Williams were on display in an exhibition sponsored by the newly launched Black Studies program.1The exhibition, entitled “5+1,” was held in two small classrooms converted into a gallery within the Humanities building, situated amid the departments of Art, English, Language, Philosophy, and the first courses in Black Studies. Large works filled the classroom walls from floor to ceiling, and in the center of the gallery, a work by Melvin Edwards, Curtain (for William and Peter) (1969), bisected the space with barbed wire and chain suspended from the track of a removable wall. For the opening, Bowling coordinated a bus to bring city dwellers out to the campus and a “pukka bartender” to greet them on their arrival.2 Sixty miles east of Manhattan, Stony Brook was a fledgling institution, just a decade into its history. British art critic Lawrence Alloway had recently been hired in the Department of Art (at the urging of then Professor Allan Kaprow) to teach courses in 20th-century art and criticism and develop an on-campus gallery program.3 Keeping one foot firmly planted in the New York art world, Alloway hoped to bridge the distance from the rural college town by making unconventional use of spaces on campus to bring artists to stage experimental exhibitions such as “5+1.”
The art in “5+1” occupied an uneasy space between what were perceived as two incommensurable extremes: the overtly political, representational Black Arts Movement and the purportedly apolitical, elitist work of abstraction. Drawn together by their shared desire to move beyond the false dichotomy, the artists met in Bowling’s studio over the summer of 1969 to discuss the direction of “5+1.”4 Creating abstract works that engaged with Black aesthetics and identity, they insisted that the political and the artistic were not in fact mutually exclusive.
The exhibition received scant press in 1969, yet its historical significance is far reaching. In addition to marking a pivotal moment in the development of the artists, the exhibition and small accompanying publication were significant early salvos in a rich, complex period in the discourse of art and race. Speaking to the productive, at times contentious debates that arose from their differing perspectives, Bowling referred to the grouping as “antagonistic pairs.”
Bowling himself continued to critically engage with the exhibition in subsequent writing for Arts Magazine, reflecting on the art included as well as on the exhibition’s genesis and realization. In 1991, Bowling considered the “dominant male preserve” of Black artists exhibited in the 1960s and 1970s and, in reference to his own naivety in 1969, described “5+1” as a “convenient grouping of your all-male club.” Nevertheless, Bowling recognized, there were Black women artists in the 1960s and 1970s whose works existed similarly outside the confining discourses of art. Howardena Pindell’s substantial career, for example, paralleled Bowling’s, with her expansive studio practice complemented by writing, curating, and educating. In 1969, Pindell was a curatorial assistant at the Museum of Modern Art, and ten years later, in 1979, she joined Alloway in the Department of Art at Stony Brook.
Without questioning the specificity of the original six artists in “5+1, our revisiting of the exhibition respectfully engages Bowling’s self-reflective critique. Identifying Black women artists who belonged to some of the same artistic networks as the men in the exhibition and who similarly made both social and abstract art, we worked with Howardena Pindell, Distinguished Professor of Art at Stony Brook, to curate a parallel group of artworks. Pindell chose five artists, Vivian Browne, Mary Lovelace O’Neal, Alma Thomas, Mildred Thompson, and Betye Saar—who were active in the 1960s, creating art that existed in dialogue with her own artistic practice and philosophical attitudes toward the conditions of Black art. The affinities identified by Pindell are further affirmed by the overlapping activities of the men and women in “Revisiting 5+1,” evidenced by shared exhibition histories and discussed in statements made by the various artists over the years.
In addition to its role in these histories, “5+1” took place amid the burgeoning Black Student Movement, which led to the creation of Black Studies departments, at Stony Brook and nationally. The research for this project has made us aware of the unique capacity of university art galleries, as flexible spaces that encourage experimentation and critical thought, to host vanguard exhibitions that center marginalized artists. Yet this same spirit of experimentation, together with students and faculty turnover, can also leave a spotty historical record of these exhibitions, which were often fleeting events in a single classroom gallery amid a constellation of happenings on campus.
When we began our research, we learned quickly that no material is held by Stony Brook University pertaining to the exhibition, apart from a scan of the 1969 catalogue and a singular mention of the exhibition in the student newspaper, the Statesman, from October 31, 1969. Even among the papers of Alloway and Bowling, no checklist of works exhibited exists. And so, a suite of stunning photographs capturing the exhibition’s opening by Adger Cowans, as well as additional documentary images provided by the Bowling Studio, paired with Janet Bloom’s exhibition review in Arts Magazine, became our primary resources for identifying the works in the exhibition. Working with the living artists from “5+1,” as well as artist/estate representatives and researchers from other institutions, we were able to make critical realizations about “5+1,” which we examine in our exhibition catalogue.
More than fifty years after “5+1” occurred at Stony Brook University, the occasion of the exhibition “Frank Bowling’s Americas” at the MFA Boston provided the opportunity to re-engage the exhibition and rebuild its history. In our exhibition and catalogue, we sought to provide a history to the exhibition that acknowledged the multiple contextual frames of “5+1”: connecting the practices of the original six artists with broader cultural and art historical events of 1969, and illuminating the artists’ connections to the Black Student Movement.
1 The 1969 “5+1” exhibition catalogue notes sponsorship by the Afro-American Studies Department, though no such department existed at Stony Brook in 1969. However, the Black Studies Program was established at Stony Brook in fall of 1969, the same semester that “5+1” was presented on campus. At Princeton University, where the exhibition was initially planned to travel, in partnership with Sam Hunter, a professor in the Department of Art and Archaeology at Princeton, but ultimately did not, a Department of African American Studies was also established in 1969. For an account of the artists’ decision to not show their work at Princeton, see Melvin Edwards in “Melvin Edwards by Michael Brenson” (interview), BOMB, Nov 24, 2014, 45.
2 Frank Bowling, handwritten list for Stony Brook University project, undated (1969). Handwritten note. Courtesy Frank Bowling Archive.
3 Tara Treacy, “Alloway Seeks Art for Everyone,” The Statesman 20, no. 17 (October 27, 1976): 3A.
4 Melvin Edwards in “Melvin Edwards” (interview), in Frank Bowling’s Americas: New York, 1966–75, eds. Reto Thüring and Akili Tommasino with Debra Lennard, exh. cat. (Boston: MFA Publications, 2022), 22.
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 Zuccaire Gallery, and coeditor of the accompanying catalogue.