Voices Stifled by Solidarity

This act of artistic solidarity is reasonable; and, on the surface, empathetic and metaphoric. But you realize, even in this small exhibit, that an artist's palette is a personal thing—that color as it relates to painting has nothing to do with race; that some artists can work well tonally and some cannot. You realize that no matter how much you might want to make color political, a strong black-and-white picture will speak to the pantheon of great black-and-white artworks much sooner and more fully than it will trigger in a viewer's mind that race—not light—is an artist's primary concern.

There are a handful of good artworks in "Spiral," but the best of them speak to art and express universal values that extend beyond their contemporary social subjects. Bearden's black-and-white "Conjur Woman" (1964), a photo projection on paper of a torn-paper collage, depicts a haunting, composite figure who is surrounded by animals, and acts as a magical cave or portal in dense woods. William Majors's striking series of abstract etchings, seemingly inspired by aboriginal art, cave painting and Wassily Kandinsky, combines ancient and modern sensibilities. Also of note is Lewis's "Untitled" (1964), a mystical, washy oil on paper (part Color Field, part Paul Klee), in which colored light, shining from out of a dark, bluish mist, reads as hints of emerging geometry, cloud, landscape or architecture.

Paradoxically, "Spiral"—no matter what its artworks' subjects—is an aesthetically marginal show whose pictures often come across as watered-down versions of European Modernism and Abstract Expressionism. Alston's "Black & White #7" (1961) reads as a weak, horizontal approximation of Jackson Pollock's vertical masterpiece "The Deep" (1953). Woodruff's "Africa and the Bull" (c. 1958) is a Picasso pastiche; and his "Portal" (undated) is a pastiche of Wifredo Lam. Occasionally, as in bombastic, agitprop paintings such as Reginald Gammon's "Freedom Now" (c. 1963) and Merton D. Simpson's "Confrontation (Harlem)" (1964) and "Untitled (Angry Young Man)" (1965), the pictures act as posters barking messages about civil rights. All of this makes "Spiral" feel propagandistic, derivative, even dated. But "Spiral" is also an exhibition whose topics remain central, even timely, to any contemporary discussion regarding the meeting and merging of art and politics, or the social responsibility of artists.

And the show speaks to larger truths. As a group, artists are as political or apolitical as any other segment of the population. An artist can be politically or socially active outside his studio; inside his studio, however, his allegiances tend toward the causes of art. "Spiral" represents a group with good intentions. But it also reveals that art is made primarily by individuals alone in the studio; that a group mentality can hinder artistic development; and that artists generally do not do well when a subject is thrust upon them—especially one as charged as civil rights.

"Spiral" reveals that here, at least, individual expression won out, and that the influence of contemporary art had more sway in the studio than did the influence of contemporary politics. Muses can come at any time and from anywhere, but they tend to be heard more easily by contemplative individuals than in and among the din of groups.

Mr. Esplund writes about art for the Journal.