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“We have five generations of abstract artists represented in this exhibition,” said Alexis Assam, 2018-2019 Romare Bearden Graduate Museum Fellow and co-curator of The Shape of Abstraction: Selections from the Ollie Collection just ahead of the exhibition’s opening at Saint Louis Art Museum back in September.

A tour led by Assam and exhibition co-curator Gretchen L. Wagner, Andrew W. Mellon Fellow for Prints, Drawings, and Photographs, provided scale for the massive gift that is the Thelma and Bert Ollie Memorial Collection. More than 40 abstract paintings, drawings and prints by black artists take up three rooms within the Museum. The exhibit represents just about half of the 81 works of art, educational material and related memorabilia that New Jersey-based collector and St. Louis native Ronald Maurice Ollie and his wife, Monique McRipley Ollie, gifted to the institution in honor of Ronald Ollie’s parents back in 2017.

Ronald Ollie will be on hand to discuss his journey into learning about the work of black abstract artists and building a collection in a talk entitled “Abstract Art By Black Artists: A Collector’s Journey,” at 2 p.m. on Saturday, November 30 at the Saint Louis Art Museum.

“What’s so beautiful about Ron’s relationship to these works is that Ron recognized who the mentors were among these five generations,” Wagner said. “This is a story of artists passing along knowledge and friendships from one generation to the next. Ron was brought into the studios of many of these individuals and they taught him how to look at art and how to collect it. These artists were doing that with him, and they were doing that with each other.”

After an introduction to art advisor Joan Allen in New York and her Arts Alliance many years ago, Ron Ollie would accompany her on studio visits and art auctions. The connection further fueled the lifelong appreciation of the visual arts, sparked by his parents who exposed him to works by black abstract artists. He learned about Herbert Gentry, Ed Clark, Al Loving and others. He immersed himself into learning everything he possibly could about the artists responsible for the type of art he was drawn to collect. The rich encyclopedia of research materials became a collection in their own right – and are also included in the collection and showcased in the exhibit, which runs through March 2020.

“He began collecting art books before he began acquiring art,” Wagner said. “Just as with many people – you are interested, so you want to learn more. Throughout this entire journey, he’s built up a library. And generously gave that to the museum as part of his gift. He continues to send us things.”

Wagner said that she and Assam knew that the exhibition would be a great opportunity to include some of those educational items and collector companion material Ronald Ollie picked up along the way.

“They are aesthetic objects in their own right,” Wagner said. “But if we don’t have this, we don’t necessarily know the historical significance where different individuals fit into the larger fabric of the abstract art movement.”

The exhibition also gives context to the unique position of the black visual artists who made the decision to concentrate on abstract art.

“In the long trajectory of African Art, abstraction has a very important place,” Assam said. 

She pointed out that abstract art within the black community in the 1960s and the time of black power and the black arts movement was a tense topic because many leaders thought that black artists should be making work that reflected and uplifted the African American community through figurative representation.

“This was the type of representation of people that others would be able to recognize,” Assam said. “[But] To go to abstraction as a black artist was very meaningful. Abstractionists were more interested in representing the modes of abstraction.”

Pieces within the exhibition express that conflict, and in some cases, the compromise – as well as give a reflection of the talented artists that represented for their community through the work and contributed to the abstraction movement as a whole.

“A lot of these artists weren’t isolated from some of the mainstream abstract artists,” Wagner said. “They were working alongside them and talking and exchanging ideas.”

The Shape of Abstraction: Selections from the Ollie Collection will be on display through March 2020. For more information, call (314) 721-0072.

– Kenya Vaughn

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