Equals 6 at UMass Boston and Frank Bowling’s Americas

1. existing in thought or as an idea but not having a physical or concrete existence
2. relating to abstract art

1. consider (something) theoretically or separately from something else
2. extract or remove (something)

1. a summary of the contents of a book, article, or formal speech
2. an abstract work of art

On view from November 14, 2022, through February 18, 2023, “Equals 6: A Sum Effect of Frank Bowling’s 5+1” asked audiences to consider definitions of abstraction within the visual arts, suggesting it extends beyond nonfigurative compositions to encompass video, research, and text. “Equals 6” revisited the landmark 1969 exhibition at Stony Brook University with the dual aims of paying homage to the original and redressing some of its potential shortcomings. Like “5+1,” “Equals 6” sought to understand what Bowling calls “Black artistic endeavor” in the 21st century.1 It included works by prominent Black artists working in America who engage with abstraction. However, contrasting with the all-male participants of “5+1,” the majority were women and a number of them were queer. And, in keeping with the original exhibition, it aimed to connect the student body of a public university with art of the highest caliber: in addition to being the exhibition’s primary audience, students importantly contributed writing to the gallery’s wall labels and this online project.

A white-walled gallery space with dramatic lighting cast on several colorful works of art.
“Equals 6: A Sum Effect of Frank Bowling’s 5+1” at the University Hall Gallery, UMass Boston, 2022.

In “10 Notes for a Work in Progress,” his short but insightful essay for the “5+1” catalogue, Bowling contends that Black art (with a capital B) involves “that powerful, instinctive, and intelligent ability which Blacks have shown time and again, despite inflicted degradations, to rearrange found things, redirecting the ‘things’ of whatever environment in which Blacks are thrown, placed, or trapped.”2 In various ways, the artists featured in “Equals 6” undertake precisely the tactics of critical sampling, remixing, and rearrangement of existing source material that Bowling describes.

Julie Mehretu’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem: Third Seal (R 6:5) (2020) is a citational work: its title quotes the author Joan Didion, who in turn cites W. B. Yeats, and the “Third Seal” refers to a story from the Book of Revelation. The composition combines strokes from digital painting software with the kind of atmospheric marks found in the background of a Rembrandt etching. In Systems Won’t Save Us (Otherwise Known As Frankenstein) (2022), Dell M. Hamilton channels Jackson Pollock and Franz Kline, staking her own claim on their supposedly authentic, autographic styles. Steve Locke undertakes a related operation in his appropriations of Josef Albers’s Homage to the Square series (about 1949–76). Locke’s series Homage to the Auction Block (2019–) comprises uncanny versions of Albers’s colorful nesting squares, asking audiences to consider slavery and its associated transformation of humans into saleable property as part of the history of abstraction.

The repeated circles in Howardena Pindell’s Untitled (1972) and Untitled #1A (2011) are a signature element across her work, which embraces the traditionally maligned label of “decorative” art. They evoke the forms left by hole punches, a favorite artistic tool of hers. In Free, White and 21 (1980), Pindell alludes to declarations of mobility and agency by white female protagonists in films from the 1930s and ’40s. The artwork has a doubled structure, which emphasizes the difference between navigating the art world—and the world in general—as a Black versus white person.

Body Bag 1 (2021), a triptych by Destiny Palmer, redeploys textiles to create gothic, abstract compositions that speak to current and historical traumas. Palmer’s installation Almost Category 1 (2022) engages with embodied and immaterial labor by placing a painting on foundations of books and work gloves against a backdrop painted in the Behr color “Spanish Chestnut,” which the artist considers a commodified approximation for her own skin tone. The installation suggests that painting and written language, abstract and concrete forms of knowledge production, are equally apt means of unearthing repressed histories. In the same vein, Glenn Ligon’s Debris Field (Red) #15 (2020–21) uses elements of typographic language for their formal, expressive qualities, rather than to create a specific significance. As a result, we might consider the surface of Ligon’s cadmium-red painting as a space where the concrete poetry of Stéphane Mallarmé and the abstract expressionist paintings of Frank Bowling meet.

“Equals 6” was one facet of the collaboration between MFA Boston and Stony Brook University; the partnership also included a pedagogical component, with educators and curators from MFA Boston visiting two UMass Boston classes and a Frank Bowling study day. Additionally, students contributed content to a vitrine that was on view at the Museum in “Frank Bowling’s Americas.” This fruitful, multiplatform collaborative endeavor was the most recent in the ongoing partnership between MFA Boston and UMass Boston’s Museum Partnerships Committee.


1 Frank Bowling, “10 Notes from a Work in Progress,” 5+1, exh. cat. (Stony Brook, NY: Stony Brook University, 1969), unpaginated.

2 Bowling, “10 Notes from a Work in Progress,” unpaginated.


John A. Tyson is an assistant professor of Art History at UMass Boston. His scholarship and teaching focus on 20th- and 21st-century art history. In Tyson’s recent publications, he has analyzed the modern art of Loïs Mailou Jones and James Porter as well as the links between the New Left and the art of Hans Haacke.

Sam Toabe is a curator, artist, and art historian based in Boston. He is the gallery director at the University Hall Gallery for the Art and Art History department at UMass Boston, as well as the director of Arts on the Point. His practice focuses on alternative curatorial approaches across a variety of periods and geographies, noncanonical art histories, and the advancement of cultural plurality in our global visual lexicons.

Shannon McHugh is an associate professor of French and Italian at UMass Boston. She teaches courses on Renaissance culture, the history of gender, and participatory fan culture. Her book Petrarch and the Making of Gender in Renaissance Italy is forthcoming in 2023 with Amsterdam University Press.