About a decade ago, San Francisco-based collector and philanthropist Pamela J Joyner and her husband, Fred J Giuffrida, decided it was time to put their prized holdings of nearly 400 pieces – primarily abstract and nearly all by African-American artists – to work. More precisely, to work for change. “We are very laser focused,” Joyner explains. “The collection is mission driven, and the mission is to rewrite art history.”

Joyner took a big step toward her goal this autumn with the opening of Solidary & Solitary: The Joyner/Giuffrida Collection, an exhibition of 74 works from the couple’s holdings that is currently on view at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art in New Orleans through 21 January. The show will travel to six other US venues, including the Baltimore Museum of Art, which is a co-organiser with the Ogden. The exhibition is a watershed: not only does it tell the largely ignored story of African-American art from the 1940s to the present day, but it does so through abstract art. 


KEVIN BEASLEY’S MIXED-MEDIA BRONX FITTED, 2015, IS AMONG THE ABSTRACT WORKS ON VIEW IN A MAJOR TRAVELLING EXHIBITION OF THE JOYNER/GIUFFRIDA COLLECTION. © COURTESY OF KEVIN BEASLEY AND CASEY KAPLAN, NEW YORK; PHOTOGRAPH BY JEAN VONG.

On a rainy afternoon a few weeks before the Ogden Museum opening, Joyner was in New York, where I met her in the pied-à-terre she and Giuffrida keep in Midtown Manhattan. A few pieces from their collection grace the living room, notably a newly acquired sculpture by Brooklyn-based Leonardo Drew, one of the first artists she supported. 

Art has been a constant in Joyner’s life. Growing up on the South Side of Chicago with schoolteacher parents, she began going downtown for ballet lessons on Saturdays as a little girl. During breaks, her mother would bring her to the Art Institute of Chicago, where she was particularly taken with the work of Georges Seurat. She would look at A Sunday on La Grande Jatte and imagine herself among  the stylish Parisians on the banks of the Seine. Later, that memory helped clarify her collecting practice. “When I was seven years old, I could see La Grande Jatte, but I couldn’t see much that looked like me,” she recalls. “So I thought: there’s a vacuum, there’s a need. This is why art history needs to be rewritten.”


PAMELA J JOYNER PHOTOGRAPHED IN HER NEW YORK APARTMENT, WITH LEONARDO DREW’S NUMBER 189, 2017.  PHOTOGRAPH BY JULIAN CASSADY.   HAIR AND MAKEUP BY BYRON BARNES.

As she began assembling a collection, she was drawn to modernist pioneers such as Norman Lewis and Beauford Delaney, both figures of the Harlem Renaissance, as well as Washington Colour School painter Alma Thomas – because she saw her own story in their lives. “One real impediment these artists of colour had is that the traditional art world expected them to create material that was identifiably black, and these artists weren’t takers of that,” she explains. As pathbreakers, she adds, they had “no mentors or road maps.” They were innovators who defied expectations, much like Joyner herself was in turn: one of the first black female MBA graduates from Harvard Business School, she went on to work on Wall Street in the 1980s. 

Joyner’s championing of black artists has already affected the writing of art history. The collector “has put her energy into scholarship around black artists the canon doesn’t represent,” says 32-year-old Kevin Beasley, whose socially conscious conceptualist work is included in Solidary & Solitary. “It’s important for me as an artist to be part of the Joyner/Giuffrida Collection, because it bonds me to people who have a dedicated commitment to the art, the artists and the people who willingly encounter the work.”

What I am interested in are the pictures on the walls. Why? Because that’s forever, and that's where the void is.

The New York-based Beasley is also featured in the recently published Four Generations: The Joyner/Giuffrida Collection of Abstract Art. The 2016 publication of this scholarly tome was a crucial step toward including African-American and African diaspora artists on all three sides of what Joyner calls the art world’s “golden triangle.” In order to be permanently written into the canon, she believes, artists must have both critical and curatorial support, as well as, “to use a business term, the right distribution channel to a robust collector base.” She continues: “Once I figured that out, I asked myself: am I able to impact those touch points in a meaningful way?”  


NORMAN LEWIS, AFTERNOON, 1969. © ESTATE OF NORMAN W. LEWIS; COURTESY MICHAEL ROSENFELD GALLERY LLC, NEW YORK, NY.

She has proved more than able. By joining the boards of important museums, Joyner can have an impact on permanent collections through gifts and acquisitions. “What I am interested in are the pictures on the walls,” she says. “Why? Because that’s forever, and that’s where the void is.” In addition to the Art Institute in her hometown, Joyner is a board member of the J Paul Getty Trust in Los Angeles, and serves on a support committee at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, to which she recently promised the nine works in her collection by Richard Mayhew, the Colour Field painter she credits with introducing her to the work of Sam Gilliam and Jack Whitten, both of whom feature in Solidary & Solitary.

The exhibition explores the evolution of black social abstraction over time, from Lewis, Whitten, Gilliam and post-war sculptor Melvin Edwards to contemporary practitioners such as Mark Bradford, Shinique Smith and Leonardo Drew. Also represented are non-abstract artists such as Glenn Ligon and Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, whose paintings are not easily categorised as either figurative or abstract. 


SAM GILLIAM, STAND, 1973. © SAM GILLIAM, COURTESY THE ARTIST.

According to Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA) director Christopher Bedford, who organised the exhibition with Katy Siegel, BMA senior programming and research  curator and Thaw Chair in Modern American Art at Stony Brook University, these contemporary artists produce works that are “perpetuating that same way of being abstract and socially embedded” as their forebears. “And to me,” he notes, “this is a fundamentally black contribution to the history of abstraction.” But unlike the existential and therefore individual concerns of their Abstract Expressionist predecessors, Bedford explains, this generation’s socially oriented approach to abstraction is more concerned about looking out at the world and finding ways to comment on it.  


GLENN LIGON, ONE BLACK DAY, 2012. COURTESY GLENN LIGON, LUHRING AUGUSTINE, NEW YORK, REGEN PROJECTS, LOS ANGELES, AND THOMAS DANE GALLERY, LONDON.

With Solidary & Solitary, the curators have turned the Joyner/Giuffrida Collection into a unique storytelling tool to recount the multifaceted progress of black abstraction in American art. And while the exhibition amplifies Joyner’s stated mission, it has the benefit of serving an important purpose for the institutions that will host it next. In Baltimore, for instance, “We neither have the collection  nor the resources to present a story that would properly connect us to the city’s 68 per cent black population,” Bedford explains. “There’s an art history that we haven’t emphasised as an institution that resonates deeply and differently in this city. And without Pamela Joyner’s advocacy, making that connection would not be possible.”  

As Solidary & Solitary writes black artists into the history books, the Joyner/Giuffrida Collection remains very much an ongoing project – taped inside her bedroom closet, Joyner keeps a typed list of works she hopes to add. Before my visit, she had just checked off a 1960s Jack Whitten, but she stressed that her objective has never been acquisition for its own sake. Indeed, as she sees me out, dressed in a beautifully styled ensemble – a modern-day version of one of the women in La Grande Jatte – she offers this parting thought: “My artwork is not the be-all and end-all: what we are trying to do is catalyse the system.”

 

Antwaun Sargent has written for The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Nation, Vogue, W, Interview and VICE.

Solidary & Solitary: The Joyner/Giuffrida Collection, Ogden Museum of Southern Art, New Orleans, through 21 January; Nasher Museum of Art, Duke University, 15 February–15 July; Snite Museum of Art, University of Notre Dame, 20 August–25 November; Baltimore Museum of Art, March–July 2019. Additional venues to be announced.