The book emerges from the research I conducted in the first year of my fellowship about the conceptually oriented and experimental practices of African American artists in the late 1970s and early 1980s. That project, “Black Conceptual Practice,” elucidates the work of a generation of artists that includes Gaines, David Hammons (b. 1943), Senga Nengudi (b. 1943), Lorraine O’Grady (b. 1934), and Adrian Piper (b. 1948). Drawing on firsthand interviews and oral histories, recently processed archives, and interdisciplinary theoretical accounts, my research reveals how these artists understood race as the ultimate conceptualism—a framework that transfers meaning onto form (that is, ideas of value onto bodies), while suggesting that form produces meaning. Grounding their praxes in an understanding that Blackness has always been conceptual, and mobilizing the Black body as a conceptually loaded material, they revealed systems that never remained fully conceptual, from segregation to structural inequality. Their critical understandings of the “conceptual” articulated relationships between systems and discrimination, racial knowledge and visuality, and concept and lived reality (which curator Linda Goode Bryant termed “contexturalism”). For example, my reading of the Afro-Asian in the work of Senga Nengudi, David Hammons, and Maren Hassinger triangulates their individual and collective invocation of transcultural space through a shared language of conceptual materialism, which was supported by Bryant at the gallery Just Above Midtown. Indeed, Black conceptual practice is characterized by its transcendence of categories—whether cultural, formal, or stylistic—in the interest of maintaining a radical openness and preserving structures of multiplicity, even if that means risking obscurity on the margins of both the mainstream art world and of Black art discourse. In summer 2022, I will continue research on Charles Gaines and the Los Angeles art world in the late 1970s with the support of a Getty Research Institute Library grant.
A. W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow, 2020–2022
Following her fellowship, Ellen Tani will be a 10-month postdoctoral fellow at the Smithsonian Institution. In fall 2023, she will join the College of Art and Design at Rochester Institute of Technology as an assistant professor of modern and contemporary art history.