Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
July 21, 2016
Naomi Beckwith, Donatien Grau, and Jennifer Higgie Lynette Yiadom-Boakye New York: Prestel, 2014. 136 pp.; 75 color ills. Cloth $39.95 (9783791349671)

A casual perusal of the monograph Lynette Yiadom-Boakye quickly establishes—in its ratio of image to text—the main objective of the book to be a celebration of the artist’s oeuvre rather than a critical engagement with it. Of the 136 pages in the slim, attractive volume, the substantive text amounts to less than fifty pages while more than fifty-five leaves are devoted to beautifully designed, full-page color reproductions, most of them featuring a single image of Yiadom-Boakye’s compelling, portrait-style pictures of black figures. Moreover, many of these large color plates are set off by blank white leaves on the opposite side, their pristine, glossy surfaces interrupted only by inscriptions—in tiny text at the bottom corner—of the image title and year of creation. These blank surfaces, along with the wide white margins that often frame the images, effectively conjure a gallery setting, and, though not associated with any particular exhibition, for the most part Lynette Yiadom-Boakye feels more like an exhibition text for a solo show than it does a sustained and scholarly treatment of the artist’s work. In addition to the large color plates, the volume features an additional twenty-one in-text color illustrations amid a short introductory essay by art critic and frieze magazine co-editor Jennifer Higgie, a more in-depth treatment by general culture critic and contributing editor to Flash Art International Donatien Grau, an interview with the artist conducted by curator Naomi Beckwith (formerly of the Studio Museum in Harlem, now at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago), and the literary stylings of Yiadom-Boakye herself.

The title of Higgie’s brief essay, “Don’t Explain,” succinctly establishes the author’s central premise that something is lost in the attempt to elucidate Yiadom-Boakye’s paintings. Higgie insists:

We will never know what is being conveyed here, which to my mind is a strength: over-determining the meaning of a painting can deaden the experience of looking at it. The artist’s resistance to explanations—not through any lack of generosity, but through deep respect for the language of painting, which is more than able to speak for itself—leaves an imaginative space wide-open; there is no wrong or right reading. (8)

This premise, of course, conveniently discharges the writer from developing a concrete argument about the painter’s work, and while this kind of assessment may come as a welcome invitation to the lay-reader to ponder Yiadom-Boakye’s equivocal and challenging pictures and derive from them whatever understanding she or he can, it leaves readers interested in a more rigorous intellectual engagement with the artist’s work wanting more.

Higgie’s relationship with the artist dates to at least 2012, when she wrote a short feature on the painter for frieze (Jennifer Higgie, “A Life in a Day: The Fictitious Portraits of Lynette Yiadom-Boakye,” frieze 146 [April 2012]: 86–91). Higgie also commissioned Yiadom-Boakye to write a reflection on a painting that had influenced her own work (Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, “Artist’s Artists,” frieze masters, no. 1 (2012): 75). For that particular project, the artist chose Edgar Degas’s La Coiffure (ca. 1896); in her essay for the current volume, Higgie revisits the significance of the picture for Yiadom-Boakye in order to shift the conversation away from interpreting the meaning and significance of the paintings to a more straightforward discussion of Yiadom-Boakye’s approach to her painting practice. Quoting at some length from the artist’s reflection on La Coiffure, Higgie emphasizes the lessons that the painter takes from Degas about line, color, and composition, and how these translate into her own painting.

This turn in the essay prioritizes the materiality of paint and the mechanics of painting over any presumed narrative impulse, racial agenda, or politicized engagement with art history that might be attributed to Yiadom-Boakye’s work because of its near-exclusive depiction of people of African descent. Higgie observes that such motivations have “become secondary to her exploration of the mechanics of painting: the myriad possible combinations of under-painting, glazing, pigment, and composition that painters grapple with every day” (9; emphasis in original). Describing Yiadom-Boakye as having become “particularly obsessed with the rendering of color; hers, in particular” (10–11), Higgie emphasizes the depiction of black skin as a sort of painting problem with which the artist contends. While such an assessment might strike the reader as naïve, quotations in Higgie’s essay and the artist’s conversation with Beckwith confirm the extent to which they echo Yiadom-Boakye’s own insistent description of her project.

Beckwith’s interview with the artist reinforces Yiadom-Boakye’s preoccupation with painting as painting before all else. A skilled interviewer, Beckwith—who, with Okwui Enwezor, curated Yiadom-Boakye’s solo exhibition at the Studio Museum in Harlem in 2010—orchestrates the conversation such that the reader gets a clear sense of the evolution of Yiadom-Boakye’s painterly concerns. Early in the interview, Beckwith addresses Yiadom-Boakye’s decision to focus on painting exclusively, especially given the perhaps conservative reputation of painting—particularly figurative painting—at the time she went to art school, and the artist admits to an initial “shame” in choosing painting. However, Beckwith’s conversation with the Yiadom-Boakye reveals how an initial skepticism of painting’s power gave way to ultimate confidence in it, such that for a time the artist aimed to abandon any narrative impulse in her work and, consequently, tried to excise any sort of particularizing details—indicators of time, geography, or the social location of her figures—from her paintings. Yiadom-Boakye explains, “At some point I decided to strip away everything—all the narrative, all the background—and just have the figure with nothing else to interfere; there was a very particular decision to take away everything” (106). Beckworth’s probing thus elicits a compelling explanation for the spare quality of her canvases and the limited information they offer the viewer.

Beckwith’s interview also offers the most significant discussion in the volume of the artist’s interest (or lack thereof) in portraiture as a genre and of her exclusive depiction of black figures. The recent reissue and expansion of the Image of the Black in Western Art series (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010–14) (click here for review) and notable exhibitions such as Revealing the African Presence in Renaissance Europe (Walters Art Museum, 2013) (click here for review) and Figures of Empire: Slavery and Portraiture in Eighteenth-Century Atlantic Britain (Yale Center for British Art, 2014) indicate the renewed interest in considering representations of bodies of African descent in Western art and especially in portraiture. Moreover, Yiadom-Boakye’s work inevitably draws comparisons with that of successful black artists like Barkley L. Hendricks, Kerry James Marshall, Mickalene Thomas, and Kehinde Wiley who have explicitly engaged and responded to the legacy of these representations. However, as products of Yiadom-Boakye’s hazy recollections and imagination, the figures in her paintings do not represent particular real-life individuals, and while compositions and formal poses may vaguely recall art-historical precedents, she does not directly reference or rework specific paintings by canonical artists.

Indeed, despite the tendency of critics to discuss Yiadom-Boakye’s oeuvre in terms of a purposeful challenge to the history of the representation of black people in Western art through a liberating brand of portraiture (or what Enwezor has deemed “post-portraiture”), in her conversation with Beckwith she rejects claims of this type of motivation, explicitly professing her lack of interest in creating celebratory images of blackness. At the same time, she acknowledges a desire to break the seemingly inevitable dichotomy of black representation as either degrading or celebratory and to probe the possibility of a more complex vision of blackness.

Yiadom-Boakye insists that she does not think of her work as portraiture at all (112) and personally considers the blackness of her figures unremarkable or, at least, incidental. Acknowledging the fraught history of black representation in Western painting, when questioned by Beckwith about the implications of her choice to paint people of African descent almost exclusively, Yiadom-Boakye offers: “I have been asked, if painting the black figure is so problematic, why not just make them green or make them another color? . . . I’m so irritated by the idea of needing to remove meaning or specificity in the interests of making something less problematic, more universal or something” (108–9). She adds: “When you grow up looking at something, or if every time you look in the mirror you see something . . . It’s not particularly weird or out of the way or strange; it becomes very normal” (109). Thus, sounding much like Norman Lewis when questioned about the “blackness” of his abstract paintings, Yiadom-Boakye not-so-subtly challenges the exclusion of blackness from inclusion in the so-called universal. The artist’s position here is refreshing; however, it denies the extent to which her images are inevitably informed and implicated by the history of black representation in Western art, whether or not she intends them to be, and a reluctance to grapple with this tension in any significant way is a shortcoming of the volume.

Despite a desultory and somewhat tangential introduction that locates Yiadom-Boakye in a post-Duchampian art world in which “artist” and “painter” are understood as increasingly disparate occupations, Grau’s essay, “The Meaning of Restraint,” offers the most scholarly examination of the artist’s work. Crafting his argument around a play on Matthew Barney’s Drawing Restraint series (1987–present), Grau asserts that, “insofar as she is currently setting a new standard for restraint, she is reconstructing a contemporary definition of what painting could be” (30). Grau then proceeds to outline how the various limitations that Yiadom-Boakye sets for herself define both her oeuvre and the possibilities of painting. In a world in which artists can do almost anything and call it art, Yiadom-Boakye paints exclusively, limits herself to figurative painting, only paints “portraits” (which Grau understands as both a pictorial and a conceptual constraint; though, as previously discussed, the status of her paintings as portraits is debatable), makes pictures only of black people, and insists that all her paintings be completed in a day. Grau further proposes that the limitations Yiadom-Boakye sets for herself constitute the ultimate expression of freedom, as they are entirely self-imposed: “all the elements of her systematically structured work can be analyzed from the point of view not of general limitation but of self-limitation—probably the most evident statement of liberty” (41). Moreover, the painter takes her greatest liberty in the invention of her subjects, the figures she conjures from her mind and puts to canvas.

Grau also addresses the issue of narrative, or lack thereof, in Yiadom-Boakye’s painting, observing how the limited visual information provided to the viewer combined with provocative but ambiguous titles at once constitute a refusal of narrative and an insistence on the power of suggestion. The combination of these elements fundamentally limits the viewer’s knowledge while simultaneously prompting a desire to exceed this limit, to possess an understanding that extends beyond what the artist reveals. Like her provocative painting titles, Plans of the Night (2014), a three-part prose poem written by the artist and included in the volume, refuses to satisfy her audience’s desire for explanation, amplifying the maddeningly (and wonderfully) equivocal quality of the paintings. Although this literary approach provides a greater context for understanding Yiadom-Boakye’s interests and creative endeavors, the paintings—plenty compelling on their own—feel more powerful without this extra layer of information. Perhaps Higgie is right after all.

Ultimately most notable for its lovely reproductions of the artist’s gripping images, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye offers a fine introduction to the salient issues prompted by the painter’s work; however, it may not satisfy readers seeking a more substantive critical engagement with the artist’s production.

Mia L. Bagneris
Associate Professor, Art History & Africana Studies, Tulane University