Unaccountable Modernisms: The Black Arts of Post-Civil Rights Alabama
Within the discipline of art history, the terms “outsider,” “folk,” or “self-taught” have been historically applied to artists who have worked outside of prevailing institutional structures. Such classifications have often marginalized the artistic production of untrained, working-class African American artists in the twentieth century, particularly in the Southern United States. My dissertation reframes the discussion of twentieth-century Southern black art as a thoroughly modern and contemporary phenomenon, grounded in particular material and social conditions that, far from isolated, have instead engendered rich artistic communities. It does so by taking as a case study the Birmingham-Bessemer School, a group of male artists working in postindustrial Alabama in the decades following the Civil Rights movement. Though excluded from the primary narratives of American modernism, the artistic production of Lonnie Holley (b. 1950), Thornton Dial (1928-2016), and Ronald Lockett (1965- 1998) contest received histories of modern artistic production, including, but not limited to: found object assemblage, relational art and performance, site-specific installation, and nonrepresentational painting.
First, I examine how the formal and material characteristics of work produced by the Birmingham-Bessemer School—the use of discarded and recycled materials, assemblage-like structures, and the prevalence of yard installations—are tethered to the unique environmental conditions of the greater Birmingham area as it gave rise to industry at the turn of the twentieth century. Secondly, I discuss the entry of the School’s artistic production into the predominantly white art world through museum exhibitions beginning in the 1990s. I argue that the curatorial struggle to showcase the complex social and cultural origins of their work has prevented this form of visual expression from being fully understood within the mainstream art world, as defined by prevailing institutional structures of the museum and the art market. In an effort to historically account for the Birmingham-Bessemer School, my study integrates formal analyses of artwork, artist interviews, exhibition catalogues, and media responses through the lens of queer and critical race theory. This dissertation removes Southern black art from mythologizing narratives of isolated genius or quaint, folk production, by situating it as a challenge to longstanding regional centers of modern and contemporary art in the United States.