Can abstract art be about politics? In the early 1970s, that question was hotly debated as artists, critics, and the public grappled with the relationship between art, politics, race, and feminism. Many of those debates centered on bringing to light the roles that gender and race played in how “great modern art” was defined and assessed, and on employing art to advance civil rights. Within this discourse, abstraction had an especially fraught role.

To many, the decision by women artists and artists of color to make abstract art seemed to represent a retreat from politics and protest: an abnegation of a commitment to civil rights and feminism.

Abstraction, Color, and Politics in the Early 1970s presents large-scale work by four leading American artists—Helen Frankenthaler, Sam Gilliam, Al Loving, and Louise Nevelson—who chose abstraction as a means of expression within the intense political climate of the early 1970s.