Poetry, jazz, and abstract art come together at poet Quincy Troupe and trumpeter Keyon Harrold’s homage to ‘Shape of Abstraction’
When Ron Ollie was in the sixth grade, he was intimidated by art class. “We'd have to depict something or draw it figuratively, and I can never do it. I just didn't have the talent,” he says. But a classmate encouraged him to try abstraction. He didn't know what that was. But the classmate demonstrated and encouraged Ollie to give it a try. “I was using a lot of colors and gestures and everything. And it felt so free, so free,” he says. This moment would begin the now art collector's love affair with abstract art. But it would be the St. Louis native’s time at the Saint Louis Art Museum with his parents that would inspire him and his wife, Monique McRipley Ollie, to gift 81 of his collected abstract works (40 on display) by African American artists spanning five generations—16 years of abstract art—in 2017.
That gift, named the Thelma and Bert Ollie Memorial Collection to honor his parents, is being shown as an exhibit called “The Shape of Abstraction: Selections from the Ollie Collection” from now until March 22. It features 40 abstract paintings, drawings, and prints from as early as the 1940s to as recently as the early 2000s and “expands the narrative that we know about the evolution of contemporary abstraction,” says Saint Louis Art Museum’s Gretchen L. Wagner, who co-curated the exhibit. “It’s bringing more individuals into the fold,” she says. “They were side by side with individuals like Jackson Pollock and Franz Kline and others in the early abstract expressionist moment, yet their names are lesser-known to us. So we're finally recognizing them and celebrating them.”
When the collection first came into the museum, Wagner says, the team looked through it with a scholarly lens, shifting focus from the works’ personal significance to recognizing the works’ art-historical importance. This included arranging the exhibit into four thematic sections: “Attention to Materials”; “Influences Abroad”; “Representation’s Role”; and “Taking Shape.” These themes allowed the curators—and now viewers—to break down such things as how the artists’ use of materials changed over time and how environments might have inspired their work.
The collection spans from paintings such as James Little’s Double Exposure (used for much of the exhibit’s promotion), Stanley Whitney’s Out into the Open, Sam Gilliam’s Half Circle Red, and Frank Bowling’s Fishes, Wishes and Star Apple Blue to works on paper including Robert Blackburn’s lithograph Faux Pas.
Ollie admits that he’s an emotional buyer. “If I feel a certain way and I am turned on, then I’m interested in the piece,” he says. “I remember one piece, however: I was at an art gallery in East Hampton. Arlene Bujese gallery. She was doing a solo show on Frank Wimberly. I went by and walked into the gallery. I saw this one piece. I got to thinking about it. ‘Wow, this is a difficult picture.’ I said, ‘Well, let me sleep on it.’ I thought about it, and I woke up the next day, and I bought it. But it had originally struck me.”
Ollie's taste has been informed by years spent admiring art in museums and galleries. As a result, he says, he knows exactly what he likes and what he doesn’t. But do those feelings change? “You know, I cannot think of a piece that I bought that I said I am sorry I bought it,” Ollie says. Then, he reconsiders, referencing a time his feelings toward a piece did change, but he didn’t necessarily have buyers’ remorse. “I still have it,” he says. “In fact, I still have it hanging on the wall, and I like the piece very much, but it's really not my favorite.”
And what is his favorite? Ollie laughs: “People ask me that all of the time. I love them all. I can tell you that I love all the Frank Wimberly, the James Little piece, Hebert Gentry—it’s hard to say. I’ve had many of these hanging on my wall and I would come home from work, or I’d be walking through the apartment and then all of a sudden one would strike me at that moment. At that moment, that was my favorite one. Or I'd go somewhere else and come back home and boom—another one. It all depends on my mood.”
The title "Shape of Abstraction" comes from a poem Ollie ask local poet Quincy Troupe to write in response to the collection of works. Next, on October 11, Troupe will read that piece among others in a performance accompanied by original compositions from jazz trumpeter Keyon Harrold (also Troupe’s cousin).
Complementing the works with poetry and jazz is fitting, Wagner says, citing how many artists tell stories about spending time with musicians; both artists inspiring one another. “The whole history of making, at least later 20th-century abstraction—which is more of this gestural, expressive way of working—is about being very spontaneous,” she says. “It's an automatic kind of way of working. Oftentimes it's inspired by music and by other art forms, such as poetry and literature."
“When I first read it—you know how poetry is sometimes, it's very condensed,” Ollie says of the poem. “I read it again, and again, and again, and again, and again. And finally, the meaning started coming through. Ultimately, I got it. It was just exhilarating to hear the words and the meaning and the emotions that were there.”