In the past three years, McArthur Binion has been one of the art world’s bigger stories — celebrated for his grid paintings that play with people’s perceptions of surface and foundation, and celebrated for his re-emergence from a level of obscurity that had reduced him to a kind of footnote for 30 years.
Three months ago, Artspace canonized the Chicagoan as one of “108 international artists who are revolutionizing painting today.” A year earlier, Art+Auction magazine called Binion one of the world’s “25 most collectible mid-career artists.” And around the same time, the Wall Street Journal lauded Binion’s paintings for their “beauty and meaning.”
What does Binion, who’s now 70, say of the all his recent acclaim? Not much. Binion, who’s one of the featured artists in a new San Francisco exhibit at Jenkins Johnson Gallery called “Viewpoints,” doesn’t read anything that’s written about him. Not a single word.
This self-imposed boycott of all media coverage is the antithesis of a culture that assumes self-promotion and a “look at me” navel-gazing as the only way to maintain one’s cachet and self-composition. But Binion likes to isolate himself — needs to isolate himself — to make art that he says is free of any outside influence.
“I don’t want someone else’s thinking involved in my head,” Binion tells SF Weekly in a phone interview from Chicago. “I’m in the studio every day I’m in town. I go there, and there’s no music. I don’t read stuff. I don’t listen to music. So there’s nothing coming in. And it’s all going out. The less I let in, the higher the possibilities. It raises the level of the [paintings’] emotional content.”
While Binion ignores what people think of him, he does think this: He’s making the best paintings of his life. And the art market agrees. So do galleries and art shows around the United States, which are featuring such work as DNA: White Painting: IV, a 12-by-12 foot vista of painted green grids that are imposed on old handwriting and old numbers like 10028, a ZIP code in New York. The scribbling becomes more perceptible as you approach the paintings, but the grids interrupt and break up the writing’s continuity — making it impossible to really study and access the information underneath.
DNA: White Painting: IV is one of three Binion “DNA” pieces at Jenkins Johnson Gallery that incorporate Binion’s old address book from 1972 to 1993. Copies of his birth certificate also underlay Binion’s paintings, whose grids are reminiscent of African cloth patterns. In Binion’s art, then, are the moorings of his life and culture — references to both his Mississippi upbringing, when he worked his family’s cotton farm, and to the New York art scene that he inhabited in the 1970s, when he hung out with artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat and Sol LeWitt. For years, Binion taught art at Columbia College in Chicago, where his career took off after a 2013 exhibit at Kavi Gupta Gallery that garnered notable reviews. Binion says he wasn’t ready for all this attention in the 1970s, when there were few Black artists in New York, and curators were hinting that Binion could be “the next big thing.”
“There weren’t any Black artists who were like art stars, so the art world at large more or less approached me to become that person,” Binion says, “and I said I didn’t want to be the only one.”
“Viewpoints” features the work of other significant African-American artists, and those from Africa and the African diaspora, including Romare Bearden, who in the 1970s was the best-known African-American artist; Blessing Ngobeni, a South African whose assemblages of painting, truncated scenes, and distressed figures, like those in Friends of the South, are commentaries on South Africa’s political system; and Aubrey Williams, the Guyanese artist whose Shostakovich paintings are intense pilgrimages to the inner state of feeling that Williams felt through the composer’s music.
At Jenkins Johnson, Bearden’s 1956 watercolor work, The Gorge, reveals the artist’s lesser-known side — not Bearden the collagist of obvious figures but Bearden the abstracter who uses amorphous shapes to create scenes that suggest rather than pinpoint. The artists in “Viewpoints,” whether young like Ngobeni, older like Binion, or deceased like Bearden and Williams, use abstraction to hint and suggest and imply — but they’re not giving their thoughts away. They don’t have to. They don’t want to. Their identities are complex. Binion says his paintings are like “social anthropology in a way.” Art-goers get to sift through the layers of grids, wording, and numbers. And what they find is almost up to them.
There is much less ambiguity at “Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here: In Defense of Culture,” an exhibit at the San Francisco Public Library that’s based on the project by Beau Beausoleil, the poet and owner of The Great Overland Book Company on Judah Street in the Inner Sunset. The project began in 2007, after terrorists detonated a car bomb on Baghdad’s literary epicenter: Al-Mutanabbi Street, a longtime corridor of bookstores, where death and shattered buildings made the shock of the war even more devastating. Beausoleil began “Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here” by asking people to contribute broadsides to honor the booksellers and their traditions, and he collected more than 100.
From around the world, “Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here: In Defense of Culture” features more than 50 art works that explicitly celebrate the titular street’s mission and its connection to readers, book buyers, and book sellers everywhere. The red of blood shadows some of the pieces, while others are resolutely solemn, but most of the works here focus on the power of community, literary spirit, and steadfastness, as with Sebastopol artist Rik Olson’s linocut of a draped Iraqi woman sitting on a pile of books as she hands out others to awaiting arms. Then there’s Pakistan artist Zaira Ahmad Zaka’s etching, Peace After Every Storm, that shows an intact brick structure in both darkness and light.
Most of the art here was apparently made in the immediate aftermath of the bombing, when Al-Mutanabbi Street was still an unsafe shell of its former self. The street has since been rebuilt — an epilogue that Beausoleil and other writers and artists will likely address at 1 p.m. on Friday, Dec. 4 — when they speak about the project at the library. Words, images, and books will merge that afternoon, creating the kind of atmosphere that terrorists tried to silence on Al-Mutanabbi Street almost 10 years ago.
“Viewpoints” Through Jan. 14, at Jenkins Johnson Gallery, 464 Sutter St. Free; 415-677-0770 or jenkinsjohnsongallery.com
“Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here: In Defense of Culture” Through Jan. 1, on the sixth floor of the San Francisco Public Library’s main library, 100 Larkin St. Free; 415-557-4400 or sfpl.org