Seeing the Invisible at the National Museum of Women in the Arts

Set over a gold-colored background, lines of red and blue seem to pulse from the center to the edge of the canvas in Mildred Thompson’s Magnetic Fields (1991). It’s one of the first paintings on view in the National Museum of Women in the Arts’ current exhibit, which runs through January 21, and it is also the inspiration for the exhibit title: Magnetic Fields: Expanding American Abstraction, 1960s to Today.

Virginia Treanor, the museum’s associate curator, tells me that she and her team were inspired by the way Thompson renders the invisible in her painting, and wanted to do the same with the exhibit – that is, make visible the work of black women abstractionists. The exhibit was originally designed by curators at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art in Kansas City, Missouri, and features 21 artists. Magnetic Fields broadens notions of what abstract art can look like, what it can say and who can practice it.

The works in the exhibit were chosen for the way that they could be perceived as in dialogue with one another. For the works of Abigail Deville and Mavis Pusey, in Harlem Flag (2014) and Dejygea (1970) respectively, that dialogue is about New York, though both speak to such different things and in such different forms.

Deville’s Harlem Flag looks as if it might carry infection. It’s composed of detritus Deville found walking through Harlem and later treated. The flag in the title comes from the American flag, which Deville found, and it’s lost almost all of its color to the amount of sewage it’s seen. The work captures Harlem when for the first time, it was no longer predominantly black.

Pusey’s Dejygea is more classically abstract. It’s an oil on canvas, composed of abstract shapes. Like Deville’s Harlem Flag, it speaks to her personal experience in New York, but only to the extent that she was fascinated by the constant construction she saw going on when she moved to the city from rural Jamaica. Dejygea also shows how art by a minority artist can have little or nothing to do with identity, unless that’s the artist’s intention.

Two works from Mary Lovelace O’Neal and Shinique Smith, Racism is Like Rain, Either it’s Raining or it’s Gathering Somewhere (1993) and Bale Variant No. 0017 (2009) respectively, are often interpreted as being about identity, but these do not speak about the same thing so much as they speak in the same, almost tongue-in-cheek way.

O’Neal’s large-scale acrylic and mixed media on canvas gives nods to both minimalism and abstract expressionism by being one-half flurry of vibrant gestural painting and one-half solid black. Taken as a whole, though, the piece is an evocative representation of its title.

Smith’s Bale Variant No. 0017 is also often interpreted as being inspired by her identity as a black woman. Her sculpture is a massive cube made from what looks like laundry held together with twine. The clothing is assumed to be an allusion to the cotton trade in the U.S. and slavery, but rather, she says that her intent was to make the piece more about her identity as an American.

“The way we cast off and consume materials is very unique to us.”

She complicates the work’s meaning by using the clothing of family members and lovers. At the same, there’s a subtext in her choice of both a cube and fabrics as her material. With regards to the former, she winks at minimalism in making a cube, but such a messy cube; and with regards to the latter, she undermines the idea of sculpture as a masculine medium in her use of fabric as her material.

These works are on view, along with many others, at the National Museum of Women in the ArtsMagnetic Fields: Expanding American Abstraction, 1960s to Today through January 21. Come Wednesday, January 17 at noon for a 30-minute guided tour of the gallery. And see one of the featured artists, Maren Hassinger, speak about her work in the exhibit on Friday, January 19 at 1 p.m.

National Museum of Women in the Arts: 1250 New York Ave NW, DC; 202-783-5000;


Michael Loria

Michael Loria is a writer who focuses on art and music. For On Tap, his work includes a cover story on the Principal Conductor and Music Director of the National Symphony Orchestra, Gianandrea Noseda, for the December 2017 print edition, and features like his interviews with Carla Bruni and with Thievery Corporation. Collectively, he's penned more than 40 clips for the magazine.