“What I wanted to learn to do as a young person was to make a really good painting, a really tough painting…to make art that had balls; not so much that it would change the world, but to have the balls to be beautiful.” Mary Lovelace O’Neal
Mary Lovelace O’Neal grew up in the South in the 1940s and 1950s and attended Howard University to study art. After getting her MFA at Columbia, she moved to California around 1969, and she has lived and practiced in the Bay Area ever since. As a professor in U.C. Berkeley’s Studio Art Department, Lovelace O’Neal became the University’s first tenured Black professor in 1985. After decades of traveling, teaching, and painting she retired in emerita from U.C. Berkeley in 2006.
Lovelace O’Neal is known for a particular body of abstract paintings called the lampblack series, where she rubbed a powdered pigmented shade of matte black pigment into un-stretched canvas. The background’s flat surface became a foil for colorful expressionistic strokes and thinly painted shapes that appear to have been carved into the flat black canvas.
A beloved painting from this series was featured in the 2017 traveling group show about Black female artists called Magnetic Fields: Expanding American Abstraction, 1960s to Today” curated by Melissa Messina and Erin Dziedzic. The piece titled “Racism is Like Rain, Either its Raining or it’s Gathering Somewhere” (2013) bifurcates the canvas between matte black on one side and boldly colored, gestural strokes on the other. Its title alone offers a deeply resonant societal critique today.
A selection of the artist’s works on paper created in 1970 will be featured in a new show at MoAD San Francisco opening on March 25. Today the museum announced that these works will be featured along with a series of abstract figurative paintings the artist created in the 1980s that have not been exhibited as a group since 1982. The exhibition will be accompanied by a documentary of Lovelace O’Neal’s work in academia and activism. In placing the artist among her contemporaries, co-curator Erin Jenoa Gilbert, asserts that “MaryLovelace O’Neal critiques Eurocentric painting practices and dares the viewer to compare her to postwar painters such as Lee Krasner, Helen Frankenthaler, Joan Mitchell and Grace Hardigan.”
Lovelace O’Neal also offers an unabashed critique on the art market, an artist’s expectations, and post-graduate art degrees. I find her candor refreshing and grounded despite current conditions in the industry that celebrate stardom and spectacle over rigor in practice. This interview at the 24:00 minute mark is an honest evaluation of this dynamic.
Mary Lovelace O’Neal: Whales, A Romance opens on March 25, 2020 at The Museum of African Diaspora in San Francisco.