Ellen Gallagher problematizes the history and forms of the representation of African Americans. She began her career creating minimal paintings influenced by the work of artists such as Agnes Martin, but distinguished herself by combining nonrepresentational forms with figural elements. Drawing on historical abstraction, Gallagher undermines and opens up its narrative limits. She has made a number of important works by appropriating images from magazines such as Ebony or Sepia and then erasing, cutting, collaging, and transforming the original material to generate new narratives.

Untitled is exemplary of Gallagher’s early work. Here she has glued standard penmanship paper onto stretched canvas to create an abstract shape, and then drawn and painted over this collaged ground. From a distance, the piece resembles a minimalist painting, but a closer look reveals that above the lined paper are clusters of bulging, rolling eyes and, between the sheets of paper, a small set of smiling red lips with white teeth. Gallagher has said that the “earliest American abstraction” is the minstrel show, and she repeatedly uses the “disembodied ephemera of minstrelsy,” such as thick Sambo lips and Googly Eyes, both stereotypical tropes of the black figure. Untitled reveals the ways that abstraction and minimalism might also be implicated by and embedded within issues of race and racism.

Joining Gallagher’s DeLuxe, 2004–05, in the ICA/Boston collection, Untitled provides a deeper understanding of her practice. This work enhances the museum’s growing collection of paintings that combine abstraction and figuration by such artists as Marlene Dumas and Amy Sillman. Untitled also supports the museum’s continuing conversation about race and the black body, explored in its collection of works by Lorna Simpson and Kara Walker.  

2016.05

Gift of Ellen Matilda Poss