How Black Artists Engaged in Socio-Political Activism Through the Spiral Group

December 15, 2020

The year 2020 in the United States is unequivocally marked by the coronavirus pandemic, the Presidential Elections, as well as racial injustice, still experienced mostly by the African Americans. The ongoing police brutality upon Black American citizens has put the country on halt after the murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd murder, followed by the eruption of the Black Lives Matters protests, and actions take place in almost every larger American city.

To understand the centuries-old oppression and the institutionalized racism, it is mandatory to look back at history and trace the initial struggle in every possible field. When it comes to visual art, a bright example was the Harlem Renaissance and the fruitful energy imposed by the artists willing to claim their identity and challenge the inherited patterns.

After World War II, another group of artists was formed as the American society moved forward with the rise of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s. Namely, under the name Spiral Group, fifteen artists gathered in 1963 to critically examine their position in the society, as the fact Black artists at a time were mostly excluded by art institutions governed by white people. 

Romare Bearden discussing his painting "Cotton Workers" with Charles Alston, 1944. Courtesy US National Archives and Records Administration

The First Gathering of Artists

The Spiral Group was formed by Norman Lewis, Hale Woodruff, Charles Alston, and Romare Beardento challenge the notion of art-making from a distinctly racial perspective by incorporating philosophical, sociopolitical activism, and creative elements around. Other members, aged 28 to 65, included Emma Amos, Earl Miller, Perry Ferguson, Alvin Hollingsworth, Reginald Gammon, Felrath Hines, William Majors, Richard Mayhew, Merton D. Simpson, Calvin Douglass, and James Yeargans.

The members initially met at Bearden’s Canal Street studio and then they located an adequate exhibition space at 147 Christopher Street in Greenwich Village. The gatherings were held weekly; Lewis was elected chairman and Bearden secretary-treasurer, while the group’s logo was selected by Woodruff - an Archimedean spiral moving upward from a fixed starting point with sections numbered 0 to 15 to represent each artist. The name indicated the spectrum of stylistic persuasions by the members as they attended to act as individual artists and as African-American people; nevertheless, as the text will show, the group’s attention soon shattered due to irreconcilable differences.

"Spiral: Perspectives on an African-American Art Collective," December 05, 2010 - April 17, 2011, Installation view at the Birmingham Museum of Art in Birmingham, Alabama. Image creative commons

The Stylistic and Political Diversity

The Spiral group members were initially interested in logistical issues such as the organization of a journey to the March on Washington in the summer of 1963. Then, their focus moved to aesthetic concerns. Despite the fact all of them agreed that they had a common interest in being part of the civil rights movement, the artists' point of departure was based on different views of their activism.

A few years before forming the Spiral Group, most of the artists were producing figurative work, and only a few had started experimenting with abstraction. The two leading members, Lewis and Bearden, took different positions - Lewis, a radical who sympathized communism, favored the political power of abstraction, while Bearden, who already explored abstraction in the 1950s, began reintroducing figurative elements to his work by 1961. Bearden also started experimenting with collage after he brought in a pile of magazines and newspapers to a Spiral Group meeting, aiming to involve members in creating a collective action. Other artists did not respond to his quest as they used different techniques and mediums in their works.

The Spiral Group had only one exhibition in 1965 under the title First Group Showing: Works in Black and White, which was a response to the ongoing exclusion of African-American artists from major art institutions. The whole installment was black and white as suggested by Bearden to encapsulate both socio-political and formal concerns. The exhibition catalog contained what seems like a manifesto:

We, as Negroes, could not fail to be touched by the outrage of segregation, or fail to relate to the self-reliance, hope, and courage of those persons who were marching in the interest of man’s dignity. …If possible, in these times, we hoped with our art to justify life... to use the black and white and eschew other coloration. This consideration, or limitation, was conceived from technical concerns, although deeper motivations may have been involved. …What is most important now, and what has great portent for the future, is that Negro artists, of divergent backgrounds and interests, have come together on terms of mutual respect. It is to their credit that they were able to fashion artworks lit by beauty, and of such diversity. 

Soon after the exhibition closed, the landlord of the space raised the rent more than 50 percent, a fee the group was unable to afford. Since they hadn’t had luck in locating a new space, the Spiral group disbanded. 

Romare Bearden - Spring Way, 1964. Photomontage, 27 x 39 3/8 in. Courtesy The Romare Bearden Foundation and D.C. Moore Gallery. Part of the "Spiral: Perspectives on an African-American Art Collective" exhibition at Studio Museum Harlem, July 14 - October 23, 2011

The Significance of The Spiral Group

Today, the appearance and short-lived existence of the Spiral Group is not well known, as it was left out or rather ignored in traditional art history canons. After a group exhibition of the collective in Birmingham and New York in 2010-2011, and the associated catalogs the interest in the Spiral group grew.

Looking from the contemporary stance, the activity of the Spiral Group seems very significant. In general, they stood for a multitude of voices as the members provided diverse perspectives that entered into a complexity of the paradigms proposed; they have also embraced a spectrum of formal approaches instead of promoting a particular style as artist collectives often do; they responded visually to jazz music to underline the inherent Blackness of their work. Therefore, the activity of the Spiral Group is essential for creating an atmosphere that empowered a younger generation of Black artists in the mid-1960s.

On the other hand, the existence of the Spiral Group has to be seen in the light of segregation that was dominant in all aspects of society from employment, and healthcare, to art institutions. For that reason, the group had to act independently and express their collective discontent. Here is important to take a gender perspective into account, since the only female member of the group was Emma Amos; she stated years later that she felt their efforts to explore Blackness were conducted largely through a male-dominated lens. Women such as Faith Ringgold and Vivian Browne were never asked to join their ranks.

This issue as well as a few others remained unsolved, but the fact is that the Spiral Group was one of the first to call for the cultural community's involvement in social change. Their activity is a useful example from which to learn while forming new initiatives centered on Black or any other artists of color.

Editors’ Tip: A History of African-American Artists: From 1792 to the Present

A landmark work of art history: lavishly illustrated and extraordinary for its thoroughness, A History of African-American Artists -- conceived, researched, and written by the great American artist Romare Bearden with journalist Harry Henderson, who completed the work after Bearden's death in 1988 -- gives a conspectus of African-American art from the late eighteenth century to the present. It examines the lives and careers of more than fifty signal African-American artists, and the relation of their work to prevailing artistic, social, and political trends both in America and throughout the world.

Featured image: Exhibit catalogue as shown on p.g. 224 of The Art of Romare Bearden (National Gallery of Art, 2003). Image via Culture Type.

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