Identity in Abstraction

In honor of Black History Month, Digital Archivist Amanda Acosta shares conflicting perspectives on Black American artists working in abstraction.

Abstract Expressionism arose at a point in American history when the cultural scene was ripe with socio-political movements. Instead of visualizing the American climate as it was in the 1950s and 60s, Abstract Expressionists turned inward for inspiration. Artists broke from representational forms in favor of expressive and experimental color application. The movement is primarily recognized through the achievements of white, male painters in New York City.

However, Black and women artists like Howardena Pindell, Norman Lewis, Sam Gilliam, and Alma Thomas radically chose abstraction when identity movements called for Social Realism. It has been assumed that Black artists working in abstraction did so “as a personal and professional step toward artistic integration: a step that symbolized their willingness to subordinate Blackness . . . and to place themselves and their work in a larger, wider, and ultimately, whiter art world” (Powell, p. 102). This assumption negates the self-exploratory nature of the period and reinforces the notion that “other” artists must suppress their identity in order to produce great art. Ultimately these abstract artists did just the opposite, embedding personal motifs, social commentary, and painterly practice into their works.

“Modern Painters at the Corcoran: Sam Gilliam” brochure, Corcoran Gallery of Art, 1983. The Phillips Collection Library and Archives, Vertical Files.

Sam Gilliam and Alma Thomas are among the hundreds of artists for which The Phillips Collection’s library and archives maintains extensive vertical files, with copies of correspondence, exhibition brochures, photographs, and more.

“Alma W. Thomas: A Retrospective of the Paintings” members’ reception invitation, Fort Wayne Museum of Art, 1998. The Phillips Collection Library and Archives, Vertical Files.

“Paintings by Sam Gilliam” pamphlet, The Phillips Collection, 1967. The Phillips Collection Library and Archives, Exhibition History Files.

Explore the library catalogue and digitized archival materials online. Make an appointment to access our collections by contacting

Powell, Richard J. Black Art: A Cultural History. Second ed., Thames & Hudson, 2002

Announcement from The Phillips Collection Archive

Phillips Manager, Archives and Library Resources Juli Folk and former Digital Assets Librarian Rachel Jacobson share the new Finding Aid for the Directorial Correspondence of Marjorie Phillips.

The Phillips Collection Archive is pleased to announce that the Finding Aid for the Directorial Correspondence of Marjorie Phillips is available online. This was one of three archival collections that was imaged as part of a stewardship grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

To learn more about archival digitization please see the latest installment of Archives 101, Expanding Research Capabilities.

This collection is particularly exciting as Marjorie Phillips often does not receive the credit her leadership deserves. Museum visitors have seen her paintings (Night Baseball is often on view) and wondered what relationship she had to the museum and to Duncan Phillips. She and Duncan Phillips established the museum and its renowned art collection together.

Painting by Marjorie Phillips (1951). Marjorie Phillips not only ran the museum from 1966-1972, she was also an accomplished painter.

The correspondence in this archival collection spans her tenure as museum director, 1966 to 1972. She is also featured in some of the letters that make up The Directorial Correspondence of Duncan Phillips (1911-1966). This archival collection was also digitized as a part of the Institute of Museum and Library Services grant.

Through the newly implemented archival information management system, ArchivesSpace, you can access a description of Marjorie Phillips and her correspondence collection and click on images to bring you to full, digital versions of the folders that make up this collection. You can browse all 9,913 Digital Objects on the system. These objects are digital representations of the folders that make up three collections in The Phillips Collection Archive. One goal of this project is to make these records more accessible and spark new curiosity about the documents, some of which are over 100 years old.

Photo taken at the retirement party for Marjorie Phillips October 18th, 1972. Marjorie stands with former employee Bill Koberg and Mike Green. In the background is her son, Laughlin Phillips, who directed the museum after Marjorie.

Archives 101: Expanding Research Capabilities

In this series, Phillips Manager, Archives and Library Resources Juli Folk and former Digital Assets Librarian Rachel Jacobson explain the ins and outs of how archives work.

Rolls of microfilm from the Archives of American Art (AAA). These were done so that we could have a copy of the material that the AAA housed for The Phillips Collection from 1979 to 2014. Inside each box is a film of microform which requires a specialized reader.

Welcome to another installment of Archives 101. So far, we have reviewed what an archival collection is, critical steps in archival processing, and finding aids. Now, let’s focus on archival digitization.

Digitization has been a trend in the information science field for decades. One of the early prototypes of digitization was microform, which includes microfilm and microfiche. Microform allowed multiple researchers to view material at once, helped preserve original material, and in some cases reduced storage needs. However, because microform is analog (taking up physical space) they don’t improve accessibility in the same way that digitization does. You must be in person, with the microfilm and a specialized reader, to view the material. Digitized collections can be accessed remotely, as long as you have access to the internet.

Today many archives strive to digitize portions of their collection. This is what The Phillips Collection has done thanks to a stewardship grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services. Three collections were imaged and are now available on The Phillips Collection’s new archival information management system, ArchivesSpace. In addition to images, the documents were also run through a process called Optical Character Recognition (OCR), which means that you can search for specific terms within a file.

This shows how optical character recognition can pinpoint the term, “Washington.”

Through this project we have expanded our digital infrastructure and hope to make more archival collections accessible remotely in the future.

This workstation shows a digital imaging specialist at Pixel Acuity working on one of the two correspondence collections. The technicians imaged and embedded metadata for our three newly digitized collections, totalling close to 10,000 folders. Photo: Hannah Storch, Client Strategy Manager at Pixel Acuity.