Though I have lived in New York for most of my life, my work often returns to memories of Atlanta, my hometown. Growing up with family and friends in the South that I still love, we all tried many ways to change the order of things. Images come to me of words like sass and back talk that describe the attitudes of people who actively resisted oppression. My work has often taken shots at assumptions about skin color and the privileges of power and of whiteness.
Even though Atlanta and most cities during my youth were segregated, the arts, schools, and smart creative people were beacons of light. The city was a good place for black people with big dreams, and it continues to be a major site for black colleges, businesses, artists, and political figures. It is important to me to point out that both of my college-educated parents had fathers who were born slaves. This was a good reason for my brother, Larry, and me to believe that we had to continue to excel, as our family had done under much more difficult circumstances.
Many of my paintings, prints, and photographic installations mean to connect more than one form of knowledge or experience with the images within the work. I hope that the subjects of my paintings dislodge, question, and tweak prejudices, rules, and notions relating to art and who makes it, poses for it, shows it, and buys it. The work reflects my investigations into the otherness often seen by white male artists, along with the notion of desire, the dark body versus the white body, racism, and my wish to provoke more thoughtful ways of thinking and seeing. I like being called an imagist but don’t wince (too much) when some see my work as merely figuration without noticing its conceptual commentaries on color and black and white. I like that people can read their own meanings into my paintings and that those readings may be quite different from mine. I am interested in who gets acclaim for showing what, and in what being called a “master” often means. I also want people to learn to feel my distaste for the notion that there is “art” and “black art.” Yes, race, sex, class, and power privileges exist in the world of art.
After leaving Atlanta at age sixteen to study at Antioch College in Ohio, I worked in several states in the work-study program as well as studied painting and etching at the Central School of Art, in London—graduating from both within a six-year period, by 1959. At age twenty-two, I moved to New York and taught as an assistant at the Dalton School for a year before I began to work as a weaver/designer for Dorothy Liebes. This craft led to my love for fabric, inspiring the borders I have used in my work for many years. The African kangas and Dutch wax prints are substitutes for the time-and-materials madness I exhibited in the 1960s, when I briefly wove line cloth to paint on, as well as to hang as art—an unacceptable gambit since the age of tapestries. After having being well trained in etching in London, I later worked in Leo Calapai’s New York atelier and Bob Blackburn’s Printmaking Workshop, and in 1965 I earned a master’s degree in art education from New York University.
My career (1980–2008) as a Professor II and former Chair of Visual Arts at the Mason Gross School of the Arts has backed a studio practice that includes painting, drawing, making prints and photographic images, weaving, and sewing, along with lecturing, writing, reading, and looking at art. I am very grateful for that. I am pleased when my work initiates memory, individual observations and thought.
My years as an artist include forty years of marriage with the late Bobby Levine; two children, Nick and India; and art world friendships with Hale Woodruff, William Turnbull, Norman Louis, Romare Bearden, Vivian Brown, Camille Billops, Holly Block, Elizabeth Catlett, Carol Sun, Sylvan Cole, bell hooks, Kathy Caraccio, Mel Edwards, Joyce Kozloff, Jackson Lenochan, Joan Semmel, Zarina, and many others. We blur the lines that separate black and white artists and art supporters in New York and elsewhere. Having been a member of Spiral, the Heresies magazine collective, and many other artists’ groups, I appreciate the surge in art across the country and on this precious planet.