The vast gallery showcasing exhibits by the Arts Program at University of Maryland Global Campus (UMGC) features a dramatic black-and-brown zigzagged carpet. The striking design in this room, on the lower level of the College Park Marriott Hotel & Conference Center, can easily overpower more subtle art if curators are not careful. Not so with the current retrospective, “Nelson Stevens: Color Rapping,” which runs through Jan. 8, 2023.
Stevens’ paintings, hypnotic swirls of bright colors, are so bold that they appear to leap off the wall of the UMGC gallery. From a distance, the works sometimes look like stained glass, and viewers might believe they are three-dimensional—or even wire sculptures. However, with the exception of the rare collage, these are flat paintings on canvas. Stevens clearly had a fantastic feel for lines and movement.
Brooklyn-born Stevens, who died in July at 84, became an early member in the 1960s of the Chicago-based collective known as AfriCOBRA—short for the African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists—which elevated African American artists and art education. His own work frequently draws inspiration from music, and pieces in the UMGC show include:
- “Homage to the Great Max Roach” (1979) and “Max Roach’s Drum Set” (undated)
- “Music on My Mind” (undated)
- Two works titled “Stevie Wonder” (1979, 1982) and three others focused on the musician: “8th Wonder of the World” (1982), “Eighth Wonder” (1980) and “Stevie’s Smile,” (late 1980s)
- “Spirit Brother (Jimi Hendrix)” (1960s)
- A series called “Songs of Nirvana,” including “Jiblee: Magic Music” (undated)
- “Musicians Totem” (1975-1976)
- “Untitled (Bob Marley)” (1979)
Some of the works contain clearly-identifiable musical instruments. Those that do not are still very much in music’s debt, seeming to pulsate rhythmically on the gallery walls. The artist has described how music—ubiquitous in his home thanks to the radio—came together with art as he was growing up. His mother would go to butcher shops to get paper used to wrap meats. Stevens would use them to draw and paint.
Eric Key, director of UMGC’s Arts Program, wrote in the exhibition catalog that Stevens’ “works are a testament to his love for jazz and the movement that comes with it.”
The exhibit offers a survey of more than 50 years of the artist’s work—“from his pure abstract pieces to his more recognizable ‘cool-ade’ style paintings”—and opened just two months after his death in Baltimore. The show, Key wrote, “now serves as a memorial to his art and a celebration of his life and career.”
In a note in the exhibit catalog, UMGC President Gregory Fowler wrote that Stevens produced “moving and memorable works that celebrate the lives, culture and achievements of Black Americans.”
Stevens carried AfriCOBRA’s efforts to “establish a Black aesthetic and employ art as a tool for social change” to the classes he taught at University of Massachusetts Amherst from 1972 to 2003, according to a catalog note by Heather Haskell-Burns, vice president and director of Springfield Museums in Massachusetts. After the UMGC exhibit closes, Stevens’ artworks will travel to the Springfield Museums from March 4 to Sept. 3, 2023.
One of the standout pieces in the show is an untitled 1993 mixed-media work that is just 24 by 18 inches. It is from the collection of Linda Silva Thompson and contains a standing figure stands near the center of the picture. One hand is raised, the other has what may be a clenched fist. The face of the figure is discernible, as are its two feet, firmly planted on the ground and, perhaps, borrowing from the drama of the feet in Picasso’s “Guernica.”
Indeed, a 10-year-old Stevens saw and studied “Guernica” when it was on view at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. At first he found the Picasso piece “a little cartoony,” but he grew to like and respect it with time.
The rest of the mixed-media picture is best described as a symphony of abstract colors and shapes.
A jagged triangle and wavy lines compete with solid areas of red, green-blue, purple and orange. A pattern in the bottom righthand corner might adorn a skirt or dress, although it is not entirely clear. And what is happening in the upper right corner—where red, yellow and light blue vertical lines cover an ominously dark field with two forms that evoke skulls—is anyone’s guess. Stevens has very deftly balanced bright reds, yellows and oranges, which set the composition on fire, with colder deep blues-greens and purples.
In this picture, and in many others, the artist reveals his keen sense of composition and movement. The viewer’s eyes can move through the artworks without getting lost in any inactivated regions or growing bored.
From the scholarly essays in the exhibition catalog, available for free in the gallery, visitors learn that Stevens also painted important murals and created work with wide political and sociological significance, particularly when it came to addressing racism.
“Stevens and his peers understood the need to refute the relentless persistence of negative imagery of Black people and their exclusion from the narratives of the history of American art,” Leslie King Hammond, professor emerita at Maryland Institute College of Art, wrote in the catalog.