Last year, Krannert Art Museum acquired two commanding prints by abstract artist Mavis Pusey, both now on view at the museum.
“Frozen Vibrations” looks like an explosion of sheet music. Three musical staffs establish a vigorous order, locked in by strong black verticals on both sides.
The notation, blasted from the right, has noteheads, trills and stems broken into jagged, overlapping shards. Two noteheads glow orange red: The eruption is fresh and still runs hot.
Pusey contains the chaotic sounds of New York City within the urban fabric. Like the experimental music it evokes, a rigorous pattern contains what at first may seem like cacophony, balancing dynamism with calm.
It makes sense, therefore, that our curator, Katie Koca Polite, included this print in her current exhibition, “Pattern and Process,” which demonstrates how patterns make sense of the world.
Pattern is infused into the natural world, language and music. Patterns direct us through the world, and artists use them to declare identities, express emotions and connect to histories.
In “City Distracting Images,” wood boards (and perhaps sheet metal) partly cover a circular design, possibly a stained-glass window (or is it a grate?).
Pusey returned over and over to boarded over structures in the late ’60s and early ’70s.
Despite the undeniably beautiful image, she also points to the systematic neglect, urban decay and the churn of never-ending New York construction.
In this way, the work takes on a political and historical dimension. Curator Amy L. Powell has placed this screenprint in KAM’s collection installation “Art Since 1948,” installing it across from Frank Stella’s abstract mixed-media collage “Kozangrodek III,” his response to the destruction of synagogues in WWII.
Both Stella and Pusey show how abstraction can move beyond an arrangement of shapes and lines and colors to engage profound ideas, comment on the present moment and critically examine history.
If Pusey’s name isn’t familiar to you, I wouldn’t be surprised. She came to New York from rural Jamaica in the 1940s to pursue fashion design but eventually turned to studio art, where she was drawn to abstraction (Wassily Kandinsky was a particular inspiration).
KAM’s two prints come from her time in the print-making workshop of fellow Jamaican-American Robert Blackburn during the late ’60s.
She earned renown during this period, exhibiting in the 1971 Whitney exhibition “Contemporary Black Artists in America.”
A well-respected teacher in art schools in the mid-Atlantic, Pusey eventually moved out of the city to rural Virginia after losing her Chelsea apartment during 1980s gentrification, stepping away from the art world.
So why isn’t Pusey better known? The ’60s and ’70s in the U.S. were notoriously brutal for female artists — especially Black women, with men exponentially favored in terms of critical recognition, gallery representation and sales.
Attention for her hard-edged abstraction, a field especially dominated by White men, was particularly hard to come by in both the art market and with critics.
At the time, Black artists were much more associated with figural painting and storytelling; there was a persistent expectation that Black artists would depict Black life and connect to the era’s social upheaval.
Pusey’s innovative abstractions defied expectations, so perhaps it’s no surprise that only in the last few years has her brilliance become more visible, as we reappraise the full scope of Black artists’ work in the later 20th century.