How the Spiral Group Amplified the Diversity of Black Artists in 1960s America
Who is the Black artist in America—and how does race inform one’s relationship and responsibilities to society? As the civil rights movement surged through the United States during the summer of 1963, a group of New York–based African American artists brought these questions to the fore as the Spiral Group. Dedicated to critical inquiry, the collective centered the concerns of Black artists at a time when they were largely excluded by white-owned art institutions.
“I suggest that Western society, and particularly that of America, is gravely ill and a major symptom is the American treatment of the Negro,” Spiral Group co-founder Romare Bearden told ARTnews in a 1966 feature. “The artistic expression of this culture concentrates on themes of ‘absurdity’ and ‘anti-art’ which provide further evidence of its ill health,” Bearden continued, outlining the art world’s complicity in maintaining a racist status quo. “It is the right of everyone now to re-examine history to see if Western culture offers the only solutions to man’s purpose on this earth.”
Together with Charles Alston, Norman Lewis, and Hale Woodruff, Bearden established the Spiral Group in order to incorporate elements of philosophy, sociopolitical activism, and creative integrity into conversations around artmaking. In total, the group would include 15 members, aged 28 to 65, including Emma Amos, Calvin Douglass, Perry Ferguson, Reginald Gammon, Felrath Hines, Alvin Hollingsworth, William Majors, Richard Mayhew, Earl Miller, Merton D. Simpson, and James Yeargans.
The group’s logo, chosen by Woodruff, symbolized the group’s noble aims: an Archimedean spiral moving upward and outward in all directions from a fixed starting point, with segments numbered 0 to 15 to represent each artist. In theory, the group’s starting point seemed straightforward enough—their focus was Black artists in America. But as the group’s journey would soon illustrate, that nexus would eventually prove to be rather elusive.
The founding members first convened at Bearden’s Canal Street studio before securing a meeting and exhibition space at 147 Christopher Street in Greenwich Village, which they rented for $95 a month. Members paid $50 at the outset, then a $10 monthly fee to maintain the space, which doubled as a gallery. Weekly meetings convened starting July 5th. Lewis was elected chairman and Bearden secretary-treasurer, the latter’s notes cited at length in the 1993 book A History of African-American Artists: From 1792 to the Present by Bearden and Harry Henderson.
“The older artists particularly recognized that the fundamental issue was the question of their identity as black artists in a white society,” Bearden and Henderson wrote. “There were many aspects to this issue. For example, should an artist’s work attempt to express directly the issues in the civil rights struggle in the tradition of social protest painting? Or might artistic achievement in itself enhance the status of black people?…There were also questions of standards, of recognizable, identifying unity of expression, and of freedom of expression.”
The Spiral Group understood that answers could be found in the amplification of a multitude of voices from all walks of life. As a microcosm of Black America, the members of the group offered diverse perspectives that alternately reinforced, contradicted, and expanded the paradigms they proposed. The group adopted an inclusive ethos, embracing a wide array of formal approaches rather than advocating for a common style as artist collectives often do. They sought a visual equivalent to jazz music that would reveal the inherent Blackness of their work. In doing so, the Spiral Group would help encapsulate the extraordinary breadth of expression by Black artists in the mid-1960s.
As leaders, Lewis and Bearden occupied different poles. Lewis, a radical with an FBI file detailing his communist sympathies, pushed for the political power of abstraction. Meanwhile, Bearden, who had explored abstraction in the 1950s, began reintroducing figurative elements to his work by 1961. Bearden also began experimenting with collage during his time with the Spiral Group. His embrace of the medium happened almost incidentally when he brought in a pile of magazine and newspaper clippings to a Spiral Group meeting with the intention of having members participate in what he imagined to be a collective action with political overtones.
“I remember, where [Bearden] had been cutting out these magazine pieces and he brought them to a meeting and he wanted everybody to work on them together,” Emma Amos told bell hooks in her 1993 book Art on My Mind: Visual Politics. “He wanted everybody to make clippings, and somehow or other, nobody wanted to do it. I don’t remember Norman’s words, but I remember his attitude was, ‘I don’t want to do what you want to do. If you want to do that, go off and do it.’ And Bearden went off and did it by himself.”
From these early efforts, Bearden produced Prevalence of Ritual: Mysteries, a 1964 collage depicting country life in the South. The work was also an extension of his ongoing efforts to choreograph and preserve expressions of Black life in works of art. Encouraged by his gallerist Arne Ekstrom, Bearden produced a series of these collages for a solo exhibition titled “Projections” at Cordier & Ekstrom in New York. Bearden’s experiments were extremely well received.
In a catalogue essay for the 1971 exhibition “Romare Bearden: the prevalence of ritual” at the Museum of Modern Art, curator Carroll Greene recalled Bearden’s sudden shift in medium. “When asked why he departed from abstract painting and chose the collage,” wrote Greene, “Bearden said simply, ‘You can’t always do things the same way.’” This ethos of adaptation and constant change was one he applied to the Spiral Group, contributing an early collage to the collective’s first and only exhibition, “First Group Showing: Works in Black and White,” held in 1965, from May 14th to June 24th, at the collective’s Christopher Street locale.
The genesis for the exhibition was conceived the year before and originally titled “Mississippi 64” or “Mississippi USA.” For the members of Spiral, themselves either first-generation Northerners or active participants in the Great Migration, the South was their ancestral home, a mythic land haunted by the horrors of the present and the past, a place and a culture wholly unlike New York. While the city afforded opportunities unavailable anywhere else, it also kept the doors of access firmly closed to Black Americans.
Just as de facto segregation ran rampant in housing, employment, education, and healthcare, white-owned institutions in the art world made it impossible for most Black artists to secure representation with galleries and access to collectors, while museums and philanthropic organizations used them merely as tokens, if at all. In the North, the systems of apartheid remained ever present, albeit seemingly invisible and therefore far more insidious that the de jure segregation of the South.
With no one but themselves to rely upon, the Spiral Group made their own way, reimagining the exhibition entirely in black and white in order to speak metaphorically to the issues at hand. Lewis contributed Processional (1964), a large-scale oil on canvas painted after witnessing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s historic 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech. Among the quarter of a million people gathered to hear Dr. King speak were Lewis and his friends, fellow artists Ad Reinhardt and Rudolf Baranik. For Lewis, who had been excluded from the Abstract Expressionist movement because of his race, Processional offered a utopian vision of a factionalized world, where the racial identities of the individual figures, painted in stark black and white, are rendered illegible in the swirling sea of humanity.
But like so many utopias, Lewis’s vision—and the Spiral Group itself—ultimately proved to be an unsustainable proposition. Soon after the exhibition closed, the landlord raised the rent more than 50 percent, charging $150 a month, a fee the group could not meet. Unable to find a new space, the group disbanded. By the time they had reached this hurdle, however, it had already become abundantly clear that the group’s differences were too vast for race alone to bridge the divide.
As the only woman in the collective, Emma Amos felt the group’s efforts to explore Blackness was filtered largely through a male-dominated lens. “I thought it was fishy that the group had not asked Vivian Browne, Betty Blayton Taylor, Faith Ringgold, Norma Morgan, or the other women artists of their acquaintance to join,” she told Art Journal decades after Woodruff, a family friend and professor at NYU, invited Amos, then pursuing a graduate degree, to join. “I figured that I probably seemed less threatening to their egos, as I was not yet of much consequence.”
Nearly 60 years later, many of the questions the Spiral Group raised remain largely unresolved. The group made it clear that while race is an integral element of identity, it is far from the only issue Black artists in America must confront—a point that perfectly echoed W.E.B. Du Bois’s theory of double consciousness.
Described as the “sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others,” Du Bois wrote of the inner conflict caused by racist subjugation in his 1903 book The Souls of Black Folk. “One ever feels his two-ness, an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder. The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife—this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self.”
As the efforts of the Spiral Group revealed, the schism Du Bois articulated cannot be reconciled within the environment that it was produced; it calls for the creation of a new paradigm, one that makes space for the integral wholeness of Black American lives. Though they ultimately disbanded, the Spiral Group were critical pioneers, using their collective power to create a community for Black artists to express a full range of philosophical and aesthetic ideas.