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Al Loving Biography

Loved Painting from Early Age, Driven to Realize His Own Artistic Vision, Thrived on Experimentation



The 20th-century artistic style known as abstract expressionism, with its emphasis on patterns, geometrical shapes, and works that focus on the process of making art, has grown into a generally accepted part of the American cultural vocabulary. But when Alvin Loving began his career, abstract art was not practiced by many black artists. At the time Loving began working in the 1960s and 1970s, most black artists were exploring ways of depicting the black experience or black culture. Loving, however, heeded a different call. Loving became recognized as the foremost African-American exponent of abstract expressionism. His works always bore a distinct personal stamp, especially in the way he extended abstract expressionist ideas in highly original ways.

Loved Painting from Early Age

Alvin Loving Jr., often known as Al, was born in Detroit on September 19, 1935. His father, the first black teacher in Detroit's public high schools, had worked as a sign painter and taken some art classes. The elder Alvin Loving would later become a pioneering educator, ascending to a university professorship and then a deanship in the University of Michigan system and serving in teaching and administrative posts in India and Nigeria on special leaves. When his son was twelve, Alvin Loving Sr. had him copy landscapes and watercolors he had done himself. Soon Loving was painting sets for plays presented at Detroit's Northern High School.

Loving moved to Cass Tech High School after exhausting Northern's art offerings, and graduated in 1954. He took classes at Wayne State University and a local art school the following year, but then moved with his family to India for a year instead of continuing school. The distance from his home gave Loving perspective on his ambitions, and he decided to pursue a career in the fine arts—at a time when the number of working African-Americans fine artists was minuscule—rather than as a commercial artist.

At this crucial formative stage, Loving came under the influence of artist Al Mullen, who himself had been a student of the German abstract expressionist Hans Hoffmann. Hoffmann's paintings featured large, intensely colored rectangles with indistinct edges that seem to float in backgrounds of a related color; he is regarded as one of abstract expressionism's pioneers, and his style influenced Loving directly. Having settled on his choice of career, Loving proceeded methodically to acquire his education as an artist; he was interrupted only by two years during which he worked as a propaganda illustrator at Fort Bragg in North Carolina. Loving received an associate's degree from Flint Junior College (now Mott Community College) in 1958, a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from the University of Illinois in 1963, and a Master of Fine Arts from the University of Michigan in 1965.

Driven to Realize His Own Artistic Vision

Loving taught briefly at Eastern Michigan University in the late 1960s, but he felt the need to make an impact with his own art and headed for New York, the art world's mecca. Later, ironically, he would find a strong market for his work in Detroit and would come to be impressed by the sophistication of that city's art buyers. A Detroit gallery owner smoothed the way by introducing Loving to her counterparts in New York, and his career took off with surprising speed. Producing new works inspired by Hoffmann and by another arch-abstractionist, Josef Albers, Loving hit on what would for a time become a trademark style: representations of open-insides cubes whose edges interlock.

In 1969 Loving snared the Holy Grail of many a young artist: a one-person show at New York's Whitney Museum of American Art. The show was part of a series intended to explore the world of African-American art, and Loving's work stood out for its seeming disengagement from the turbulent racial issues of the late 1960s. But it likewise was distinctive on its own terms, brilliantly fusing pure abstraction with the feel of the optical-illusion paintings of the popular Hungarian artist Viktor Vasarely. The result was that in the 1970s, Loving found his work in demand for gallery and museum shows all over the country—and himself in demand as a university teacher and artist-in-residence.

University residencies at the University of California at San Diego, Ohio University, the University of Kansas, Notre Dame University, and other institutions helped to pay the bills, but Loving began to feel trapped by his trademark style. "Basically, I was trying to liberate myself from those cubes, that box," he told the Detroit Free Press. "I couldn't find a way out." But the series of experiments Loving undertook continued to raise his standing in the art world. By the late 1990s, Loving's major works would sell for over $70,000 apiece.

Thrived on Experimentation

In the mid-1970s Loving began to create works that used the gallery space itself as his "canvas," tacking strips of actual painted canvas to the walls and ceilings and draping them across the room—an idea counted as quite radical at the time, although it later became fairly common. Once again, Loving fused two trends in contemporary art, for his work retained an element of geometric abstraction—the hung pieces of canvas would be sewn into various geometrical shapes. In the next stage of Loving's career he collapsed this style based on sewn cloth back into the space of the traditional picture frame, creating woven-fabric surfaces that critic John Canaday (later quoted in the Boston Globe) dubbed "soft sculpture." The tactile nature of Loving's works during this period suited them for public spaces such as a station of the Detroit People Mover downtown parking shuttle.

In the 1980s and 1990s, Loving continued to make new stylistic turns, building at each point on his own previous work. He turned to the collage medium, working at first with paint and corrugated cardboard that, sculpture-like, jutted out from the surface plane of the work. Loving also became known for a signature use of color; he tended toward "hot" colors, such as red, accented with cool touches. Collage, Loving told the Detroit Free Press (in an interview quoted by Michigan State University's Shannon Bonner) "has a wonderful ability to make a string of extreme things go together." In the 1980s Loving learned the craft of papermaking and incorporated his own handmade paper into his collage works.

It is tempting to liken Loving's abstract creations with the vivid abstract patterns that appear in certain traditions of African art. Nevertheless, asked by Bonner whether he consciously tried to incorporate African elements into his work, Loving replied, "I absolutely never think about it." Loving has argued that African Americans will produce works that differ stylistically from those of their white counterparts, but he is skeptical about the existence of a specifically African-American aesthetic or artistic outlook.

At a Glance …

Born on September 19, 1935, in Detroit, MI; died on June 21, 2005, in New York, NY; son of Alvin Loving, an educator and Mary Helen (Green) Loving; married Eleanor Jean Randles (divorced); married Wyn Cortes Reiser, 1969 (died 1990); married Mara Kearney; children: (first marriage) Alvin III, Lauri (died, 2001), (second marriage) Alicia, Ann. Education: Flint Junior College, associate's degree, 1958; University of Illinois, BFA, 1963; University of Michigan, MFA, 1965.

Career: Artist, 1960s-2005; guest lecturer and artist-in-residence posts at University of California at San Diego, Ohio University, Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, Maryland Institute, University of Kansas, Virginia Commonwealth University, Notre Dame University, University of Vermont at Johnsonville, Cornell University; City College of New York, instructor, 1988, associate professor, 1992-?.

Selected awards: National Endowment for the Arts fellowships, 1970, 1971, 1975, 1976, 1985; Guggenheim fellowship, 1986.

Loving, who joined the faculty of the City University of New York in 1988, soon began to work in a style he calls material abstraction. His work in this style was marked by the use of paper spattered or sprayed with paint, cut into shaped pieces, and then arranged on a surface. In the 1990s and early 2000s the prices his works commanded were helped by the emergence of a strong market for art among African Americans. His works were often shown at the G. R. N'Namdi galleries in Detroit and Chicago, and he found that Detroit, from which he had fled as a young man in the late 1960s, actually provided him with his strongest sales.

In 2001 Loving completed what would be his last commission: a mosaic wall of colorful glass windows for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority on display at the Broadway-East New York subway station. Loving died in New York, on June 21, 2005, from complications of lung cancer. Erik Chan wrote in his Detroit Free Press obituary for Loving: "Like one of the spirals he was so known for painting, Al Loving's life spread continuously outward in concentric rings, touching and teaching and awing and astonishing more people than an art museum could contain." Loving's work remains on permanent display in several art museums.

Selected works

Permanent collections

Detroit Institute of Arts, MI.

Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY.

Philadelphia Museum of Art, PA.

Studio Museum, Harlem, NY.

Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, NY.



St. James Guide to Black Artists, St. James Press, 1997.


Boston Globe, September 29, 1988, p. 79.

Christian Science Monitor, June 22, 2001.

International Herald Tribune, July 1, 2005, p. 8.

Jet, June 1, 1992, p. 18.

New York Times, June 30, 2005, p. B9.


"Al Loving: Maker of Art." www.msu.edu/∼bonnersh/alov.htm (July 31, 2005).

—Ashyia Henderson, James M. Manheim, and Sara Pendergast

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Brief BiographiesBiographies: Al Loving Biography - Loved Painting from Early Age to Alice McGill Biography - Personal