In 1970 Melvin Edwards crisscrossed a gallery in the Whitney Museum of American Art with barbed wire. His work was in reaction to developments in American art, especially Minimalism, but in material that evoked violent racism, raising significant and still potent questions about how abstract art can meaningfully address the politics of race. Recently, Edwards’s long-neglected work has been featured in several major books and high-profile exhibitions. This scholarship, however, has mostly focused on his response to debates on Black Art in the civil rights era, separating his work from the dominant approaches to modern sculpture that Edwards both referenced and reconfigured. Rather than protest the museum from without, he criticized it from within, addressing the art world’s exclusion of African American artists by installing barbed wire and directing the Minimalist emphasis on literal space toward the more specific problem of Black art in the white cube.
Louise Nevelson’s work is today all too often treated as marginal and idiosyncratic. Yet her art remains vital to the broader study of American modernism, for it targeted the modernist myth of autonomy at multiple levels. Adopting strategies from gothic literature, Nevelson exposed what modernism had repressed: the fear that its claims for autonomy are critically unstable. In the dark space of her home, she confronted modernist art with this gothic fear, revealing how the specter of domesticity haunts its theory and practice.