In March 2019 the Cleveland Museum of Art acquired Al Loving’s Blue Rational/Irrational (1969) as a gift from KeyBank. This painting, one of the strongest examples of the artist’s hard-edge abstract work, is a meaningful addition to the Department of Contemporary Art’s holdings. In the careful hands of the museum’s conservation team, this complex work has received necessary attention in anticipation of its debut in the CMA’s contemporary galleries in 2021.
Born in Detroit in 1935, Loving practiced art at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana and later received an MFA from the University of Michigan. After years of studying the work of modern masters Hans Hofmann and Josef Albers, Loving developed the style he would later become known for. A stunning diptych, Blue Rational/Irrational typifies Loving’s masterful approach to painting. The composition is crisp and brightly colored, with an illusion of three-dimensionality. Color is used methodically to separate or connect sections and to create highlights and shadows. As the artist reflected about the colors, “On the top, they had to be light, on one side they had to be middle, and on the other side they had to be dark.”1
The brilliant blue that connects these squares appears throughout most of the composition. It is luminous and rich, either dulling or brightening adjacent colors to create a sense of dimension. Sharp lines of purple, green, orange, and white cut across the two canvases to construct the intricately connected figure. These lines and colors, skipping across the boundaries of one canvas to the other, are the building blocks of the illusion. Form, which Loving prioritizes over color, is another building block. Individual squares are woven together to create the impression of three dimensions, a technique that might be connected to the quilt making of the artist’s mother and grandmother. These small, geometric forms unite to form the larger mosaic that is the painting.
Through color theory and meticulously planned compositions, Loving created dynamic abstract artworks during a time when the sociopolitical climate of the art world mirrored that of the world at large: women were in a fervent battle for equal rights as the second wave of feminism began to gain traction; in the civil rights movement, people of color had begun to win landmark cases that afforded them full citizenship, but they still faced the challenge of ensuring change. Museums, too, were attempting to break down barriers of inequality with varying levels of success.
In 1969 Loving was invited to mount a solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art; the invitation made him the first African American artist to do so in the museum’s history. This unusual opportunity came about because of the large, complex cube-like paintings that defined his style. Unlike other African American painters at the time, Loving chose to focus on abstraction: this was not without its consequences. In a 1986 interview, Loving described feeling embarrassed because his artwork was not contributing to the larger struggle for equality in the United States. This sentiment was not unique to Loving; many African American abstractionists felt conflicted about creating nonrepresentational art and found themselves at odds with members of their community who called for their skills to aid in social movements.
A committed abstractionist, Loving would never create representational work in the traditional sense. To him, there was no significant difference between representation and abstraction; in fact, he considered the squares in his paintings as subject matter. However, the desire to contribute to the movement and to a larger art historical narrative prompted a transition in his painting style. Loving believed that paintings were building blocks with the capability of “making things out of ideas that are already present.” 2 With this in mind, he embarked on his next creative process after his daughter spilled something on one of his paintings. Loving cut the stained area out of the frame, dyed strips of canvas, sewed them together, and tacked them onto a wall.
As opposed to creating exacting illusions with brushes, Loving began painting with strips of color and using the wall itself as a canvas. Through this, he found a painting style that connected him with his community and coalesced with his artistic interests. Many contemporary artists, facing a similar dilemma, continue to use abstraction to present their perspectives while supporting their communities in a style all their own.
Cleveland Art, Summer 2020
1. James Little, “Alvin Loving: Painter,” interview, Artist and Influence: Journal of Black American Cultural History 4 (New York: Hatch-Billops Collection, 1986): 63. 2. Alvin Loving, Alvin Loving: Paintings, exh. brochure (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1969), 2.