Al Loving

American, 1935 - 2005

Cube #2, 1975, oil on canvas, 51 1/2 x 60 inches

Alvin Demar Loving Jr. was born in Detroit on Sept. 19, 1935. His father, Al Loving Sr. was a teacher and sign painter. His mother, Mary Helen Greene, was a quilter, as was his grandmother. When he was young, Alvin used to sit at their feet as they sewed, watching their layered constructions take shape. He explored this tension using a hard-edged geometry, Minimalism, and Op art creating the play of depth on a flat plane. Al Loving actualized the different facets of his young artistic influences in the very different styles of his early and later work.

Early on, Loving concentrated on the tension between flatness and spatial illusion.  Loving began his education at the University of Illinois, Champaign. Later, he would go to graduate school at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. His mentor there was Al Mullen (Hans Hoffmann instructed Mullen). Mullen helped Loving get involved with the Once Group organization. This organization was made up of members such as Claes Oldenburg, Robert Rauschenberg, and Andy Warhol. When Loving moved to New York City 1968 he was in the same circle as other well-known artists, such as Frank Stella and Kenneth Noland, who would become major influences on his studio practice.

Loving soon developed the image with which he became identified, a cube or prism made out of hard edge color and line, using that famous “push-pull” of color and three-dimensionality. Inspiration from Josef Albers’ square is apparent, but Loving turned it into a crystalline structure. Creating geometric patterns out of “color shapes” could be argued to be rooted in his early exposure to quilting. Less than a year after arriving in New York, the Whitney Museum gave him a solo exhibition and his career was launched: his paintings began selling so well he had to hire studio assistants and was receiving major commissions. Loving felt that his new found fame and practice left no room for personal expression. “I felt stuck inside that box,” he said. “I mean, this was 1968 — the Democratic convention, this was the war — and I’m doing these pictures. The contradiction between my life at that time and these pictures.”

Taking the quote above into consideration, it is no surprise that Loving would purposefully upend his career by making a drastic stylistic change. For the times, it was striking for an African-American artist to make his reputation in abstract art. In the 1960's and 70's, when Loving entered the field, African-American artists were under great public pressure to depict the black experience in their work, largely pushing them toward figurative art.

In that second phase of his career, Loving eschewed his geometric hard edge paintings for more sculptural work with dyed and painted canvas. Possibly harkening back to the less pattern oriented aspect of quilting, Loving now used a constructivist approach with organic forms and elements similar to quilt "piecing". Loving used dyes and paints to color his canvas, cutting them into strips or harvesting “the good elements” out of once complete old canvases. He eventually sewed them together into elaborately physical paintings. This change in direction from profit for freedom ofpersonal artistic achievement speak volumes about the Loving as an artist.

Al Loving died on June 21 at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan. His most recent commission, was for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, is on view at the Broadway-East New York subway station in Brooklyn. Completed in 2001, it comprises 70 brightly colored stained-glass windows and a large mosaic wall. Mr. Loving's work is in the permanent collections of the Whitney, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Studio Museum in Harlem, the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Detroit Institute of Arts, among others.