Can race and color be separated? Deeply concerned with the way that color shapes our world, Chicago-based architect and artist Amanda Williams has long engaged with this question in her practice. Williams’s ongoing fascination with color is rooted in a quest to unearth the possibilities and limits of racialized—both theoretical and real—readings of color.
Titled “CANDYLADYBLACK,” Williams’s new solo exhibition at Gagosian’s Park & 75 location in New York’s Upper East Side presents new works in her ongoing series “What Black Is This, You Say?” (2020–). The show draws on an early memory. “When I was growing up in Chicago,” Williams told ARTnews in a walkthrough ahead of the show, which runs through July 8. “It was a very big deal to get to go to the candy lady, especially in the summertime.” She added, “There was a kind of mystique to the whole thing.”
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Curated by Gagosian director Antwaun Sargeant, the show features nine paintings that extend her inquiries into better understanding color, as an organizing principle in her art, as a means of identity, and much more. The exhibition is a joyous and synesthetic experience characterized by ebbs and swirls of richly hued paint—in reds, greens, and more—that resemble the saccharine surfaces of confectionery treats.
Working within the tradition of gestural abstraction, Williams employs a restricted color palette of nine shades sourced from classic candies, particularly her two favorites, Jolly Ranchers and Now and Laters. To create these unique candy hues, she conducted extensive and meticulous research to understand how these candies would react when melted and dehydrated. The final selections were then translated into pigments of paint which so closely resemble cherry hard candies or green apple lollipops that you can almost taste the paintings.
This sensory element is crucial to the viewing experience. “I think a real triumph in these abstract works,” Sargeant told ARTnews, “is not only are they connected to memory, but also to a sense of taste and how tastes can serve as a way to conjure memory. The memory of these colors has done something in your mind that takes you back to having a green apple lollipop.”
Sargent and Williams’s relationship first began around seven years ago when they connected over the artist’s breakout series, “Color(ed) Theory.” For the project, which is documented in a series of inkjet prints, Williams painted homes in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood that were slated for demolition in a range of monochrome colors associated with Black culture. Williams invited Sargent to visit the street where these homes actually stood. He ended up lending a helping hand in applying some final coats of paint.
“I felt like no one was doing anything to intervene or call attention to the disappearance, and I mean that quite literally, of our community,” said Sargent, who is also a Chicago-native. “Amanda was able to do that in a way that marked the community with our memory, and with moments that were not about decay or blight, but moments that were really joyous.”
Last year, Sargent included one of Williams’s paintings from the series in “Social Works II” that went on view at the gallery’s Grosvenor Hill space in London last fall. It’s title—What black is this you say?—“Although rarely recognized as such, ‘The Candy Lady’ and her ‘Candy Store’ provided one of your earliest examples of black enterprise, cooperative economics, black women CEOs and good customer service”—black (07.24.20)—recalls the Candy Lady that inspired the show’s title.
Williams began “What Black Is This, You Say?” somewhat in response to the #BlackoutTuesday social media protest campaign, during which Instagram users posted black squares in an act of support of the Black Lives Matter movement following the murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers in May 2020.
Williams’s project aimed to challenge the use of the black square to represent a monolith of Blackness. She wrote in the first Instagram post of the series: “I’ll be honest. I wasn’t feeling the black out. I hate stuff like that, but I caved. Wanted to be in solidarity. But Color is everything to me. You can’t just say ‘black’…which one? So I’m gonna inaugurate a different black each day until I don’t feel like it anymore. Why? Cuz I’m black and I can!”
Within five months, she posted more than 120 tones and textures of black on her Instagram account, each accompanied by a caption. The captions, like many of the artist’s artwork titles, are full of vernacular and “insiders” that signify specific Black experiences. Williams further highlights the multiplicity of Blackness by crafting phrases in which legibility differs across lines of generation, geography, and class.
For example, one post caption reads:
What black is this you say?—
“You’re hard headed AND tender headed at the same time”—black.
The series has inspired many, like artist Alfredo Jaar, who recalled seeing “What Black Is This, You Say?” activated on the Storefront for Art and Architecture façade in Soho, a corner that he walks by nearly every day. He was instantly struck by the work, and has included Williams’s work, Free (Black) Body Diagram (2020), in a show he curated that is now on view at Galerie Lelong, titled “The Temptation to Exist.” (Williams’s work is also on view in a group exhibition curated by fashion designer Duro Olowu at the Cooper Hewitt in New York as part of its “Selects” series.)
“In my current exhibition, I have created a space of uncertainty and loss that reflects the times in which we live,” Jaar said in an email. “As a counterpoint, I am also offering a space of poetic resistance, a space of joy and hope. It is inhabited by more than 75 artists, including Amanda Williams. I felt that she had to be there.”
For her new paintings at Gagosian, Williams said she was also interested in examining how she could use materials that could think through notions of value. The four smaller scale works are embellished with a single shoulder pad, which Williams explained reflects her analysis of Black women’s relationship to labor, economy, and corporate America.
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“I was starting to think about what was going on in the economy that would necessitate the candy lady having to sell candy out of her house versus having a corporate job,” Williams said. “I was thinking of women being entered into the workforce in the ’80s and the female CEO, and this whole narrative of shoulder pads.”
Additionally, several of the gallery’s otherwise white walls are coated with a layer of gold leaf, a material which Williams employed in her previous work, Its a Gold Mine/Is the Gold Mine? (2016–17).
“I thought ‘How do you make sure you’re not too one dimensional in your readings of these things by making it feel like you only left candy to melt on a canvas?’” Williams said, adding, “Or is that complete liberation? That you don’t have to make a justification or force some kind of narrative onto pure abstraction? Can it just be the act of having the freedom as a Black person to make abstraction? And is it enough to be valued for that?”
Of course, there are an infinite number of responses to Williams’s questions and the query posed by the series’ title “What Black Is This, You Say?” After all, Black is limitless.