Night and Day at the New Museum is the first retrospective of the artist Chris Ofili in the United States. While the show incorporates sculptures and drawings, it unmistakably showcases the artist’s bravery, skill, and reinvention in painting over the past thirty years. The six bodies of work that span three floors are fearlessly distinct; clearly this is an artist who has no interest in repeating himself or sticking to a singular style. What unites all these works, however, is the cohabitation of conceptual rigor and an unwavering commitment to beauty. Each work is accessible and visually engaging to anyone willing to look. Longer contemplation unearths Ofili’s rich and ambivalent meditations on black identity, consciousness, and representation.
One of the artist’s strategies for striking a balance between content and form is to enforce constraints upon his process. Afromuses, a series of over 100 small watercolor portraits of imaginary black individuals, provides one example. From afar, these same-size works on paper look almost identical, rendering the same criteria: the hair, face, neck, and chest of a figure seen frontally or in profile. Within these parameters, however, is tremendous experimentation with color, pattern, and technique. These are quick studies, each done in fifteen to twenty minutes, but they reveal the freedom, improvisation, and inspiration Ofili finds within his self-imposed restrictions.