Black Uncontained

Looking at Raymond Saunders in 2017

Raymond Saunders, Untitled (RS17–02), Mixed media on canvas.

I had to cross a bridge to get there.

The there in this case was “This Is For You,” a show at the Marin MOCA of recent work by Raymond Saunders, the Oakland-based painter, collagist, and assemblage artist . The trip felt particularly important because I had been trying to see one of his works for a few months — a task I thought would be relatively easy, given the fact that Saunders is an artist both well-collected and local, but one that proved to be anything but. Many of his works are enormous (Saunders often works on large wooden doors in place of canvases), and getting one out of storage is no small feat. I struck out at the Oakland Museum, then at the Berkeley Museum. No luck at his former East Bay gallery.

It might seem a bit unnecessary to go through all this effort, and now to be making the trip to Marin, especially since I had plenty of perfectly good photographs of Saunders’s work. This is 2017, when art (like many things) is consumed mostly via our screens, anyway. But I wanted to see a Saunders work in person — and not just because, as assemblages, I had a hunch they had so much to say in texture and weightiness that a reproduction just couldn’t repeat. I also wanted to see a Saunders in a specific place, grounded down from the floating, abstracted space of the internet.

My curiosity had a lot to do with what Saunders himself has said about his work. He has repeated what he stated first (and emphatically) in his now-famous 1967 essay “Black is a Color”: racial categories have no place in the creation, or viewing, of works of art. To make his art a vehicle for any specific agenda, including the kind of racial uplift that the work of black artists has so often been made to be, would be a kind of vulgarization: a process by which “the artist makes himself a mere peddler.” Black, for Saunders, is a color and nothing else — and if he seems particularly sensitive to the doors that have been shut to black artists because of racial categorization, he might be forgiven the somewhat idealistic vision of a (colorless?) universal art he holds, and is working towards.

The question I was after, then, was how Saunders’s work looks now, in our still color-bounded world. Especially given the added charge that the closures of racism and xenophobia have gained in the Trump era — with its rhetoric of walls and keep-out, its projection of danger onto visible difference, its escalation of fear and villianization of the other — how would Saunders’s strategy of refusal work? Thrown against the whiteness of a gallery wall (and art world), would it be possible to look at the black on his canvases/canvas-doors and see only a color?

Let’s try it then (and where better to exercise what Darby English calls “strategic formalism”?) Take Untitled (RS17–02), for example, one of the works in “This Is For You.” Its mixture, like others of his assemblages, seemed to me not so much the somewhat tired one of “high” and “low,” but rather a type of convergence that is both more radical and more quotidian. A newspaper from 1997 is placed alongside a calendar page from 1955; a generic paper towel sits just beneath a black and white photograph portrait; commemorative stamps (from France) featuring Thelonious Monk and ancient Sudanese art are collaged over a book tag written in Japanese and what appears to be a child’s science homework.

Domestic signifiers cluster in the upper righthand corner of Saunders’s Untitled.

The objects are kept whole for the most part, allowed to retain a sense of their past lives — thrilling us with the implication of entire worlds crossing paths in the space of the canvas. Who is the self-possessed, well-dressed woman in the photograph at the work’s upper right? Who paged through the children’s book below it, and cause the tear on its cover? How much should we make of these items’ proximity? The fact that the work will never grant single answers to these questions does not make their consideration unimportant. The business of looking, we realize, is as unfinished, as ongoing and insistently open-ended, as that of Saunders’s creation.

For all their (sometimes jarring) specificity, Untitled’s found objects don’t seem entirely random, either in their selection or their arrangement. Saunders’s brilliance and sly wit surface here — the result, no doubt, of his over fifty year-long career, much of which was spent creating this kind of assemblage-arrangements of found objects. Formal resonances ripple through the work: the child’s drawings of cylindrical beakers reappearing on their sides in the newspaper image of smokestacks, or the floral pattern of the various textile materials reworked in paint along the work’s edges. The viewer has to be flexible to follow Saunders on these leaps, moving among different modes of reading, sets of references, and often literal languages.

Details from Untitled (RS17–02). Formal echoes encourage a kaleidoscopic movement of meaning and perspective: paint drips not just towards the ground but sideways; a child’s notes on volume — “Filler up” — become a disturbing commentary on factory emissions; stamps of both the mail and rubber variety bring culture (high, pop and otherwise) into dialogue.

It’s hard not to see this border-crossing as a deliberate choice on Saunders’ part, especially as it becomes clear that he is playing with with flatness, with grids, maybe even with Clement Greenberg’s imperative to surfaceness and abstraction. Saunders turns his canvas into a flat decorative surface, a table-top complete with flowered tablecloth, only to punch depth through again (and maybe the tablecloth always looked more like the lining of a drawer, anyway). Depth indeed is implied in all directions: spatial, temporal, metaphysical. The fact that Saunders works as frequently on wooden doors as on canvas gains relevance here, implying both the ultimate rejection of the two-dimensional painting surface and a will to make each work, perhaps even each viewing of the work, an opening.

One of the vase-like containers that reappears throughout Saunders’s latest show at the Marin MoCA.

And what to make of the black vessel that recurs across the works in “This Is For You” and appears, in multiple quotations, in Untitled? After all this play with flatness and depth, what does it mean for Saunders to render a vessel, that quintessential symbol of volume, not just in two dimensions, but with a few sketchy chalk lines?

We could indulge in any number of readings here, especially given the way those white chalk lines, the ones that marks off the vessel as separate, start to seem more and more arbitrary, more and more untenable — invaded by drips of paint from the left, blotches of red from the right. Is this a claim, against invasion, of what Elizabeth Alexander calls the “black interior”? An indictment of the artificiality, the transparent absurdity of race and its designations of pure “white” and “black”? Maybe all of these readings hold true in Untitled to a certain extent. What seems most important, though, is the room that it makes for multiple interpretations, multiple narratives, even if it never deems any one true or false. Try and fill me up, the vessel challenges. I have room for all of it.

And this, I realized, is the challenge of trying to see “only” color in a work of art: the world keeps slipping in. A grid, placed in Saunders’s work, is never just a grid, it’s also a calendar. Pure surface can’t exist except in fantasy— and just as a reminder, he makes the neutral canvas a heavy, splintered door. And blackness, even without figural representation, never exists without specific, material form — a specific body that has to negotiate that blackness as one aspect of its being among many. Art, Saunders’s work reminds us, is always about the world because it’s of it.

And isn’t that the way you’d want it, anyway? I find myself caring so much more about “red” when it’s thrown against a deep blue, or beating out from the heart at the center of a bedroom. Keeping to the formalism that Saunders argues for (in words) cuts off these wanderings into the world — and begins to seem as constricting as the modernist and racializing closures he works against.

It is this situatedness, then, that ultimately authorizes reading Saunders’s work into a particular, which is to say political and social, environment — even if the artist himself wouldn’t agree. A reading that would expand the stakes of Untitled’s border-crossing mixture of media, to the border I crossed when I came across the bridge to see it — a bridge that divides the almost entirely white, wealthy, suburban Marin County from the far more racially diverse and far poorer city of Richmond. Or a reading that might viably see Saunders’s door-canvases as commentaries not just on closure but on foreclosure, on the increasing gentrification that has characterized Oakland for forty-odd years that Saunders has called it home. Or, even, a reading that would see something more than abstract pigment in the blackness of Untitled’s background. As Saunders himself has said, black, even as a painterly color, implies presence in a way that white cannot — but the reason it does has everything to do with the history of slavery and radicalized oppression. Black is a color, but it’s a color with a history.

That Saunders does not confuse these facts with their inevitability, however, is part of the spirit that makes his work so valuable to our particular moment, with its tension about who belongs to (or in) our country. Saunders argues that there is a way that blackness can acknowledge its past and its present without being contained by them. Is there also, we should ask, a way to hold open our borders without losing hold of ourselves?