YVONNE PICKERING CARTER (b. 1939)
Deeply involved in multi-media art making throughout her life, Yvonne Pickering Carter at times has been a sculptor, painter, performance artist, dancer, and poet. In a career devoted to investigations of limits and connections, she has often broken-down definitional barriers between media through explorations of possibilities and consequences. Carter received her BA (1962) and MFA (1968) from Howard University. In 1971, she became associate professor of art and mass media at the University of the District of Columbia, where she subsequently assumed the position of the chair of the university’s Department of Mass Media, Communication, and Fine Arts. From the early 1970s through the 2000s, Carter actively exhibited her work in solo and group exhibitions, often along with other leading African American artists of the era, including Loïs Mailou Jones (with whom she studied), as well as Lilian Thomas Burwell, Sam Gilliam, Howardena Pindell, Charles White, Shirley Woodson, Joseph Holston, William T. Williams, and Alma Thomas (one of her dearest friends). In 2004, after becoming professor emeritus, Carter retired to Charleston, South Carolina, where in 2006, she opened the Gallery Cornelia, named for her grandmother. There she showcased African American art and contemporary women artists. Carter’s work belongs to several public collections, including the Gibbes Museum of Art, Charleston, South Carolina; the North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh; the University of the District of Columbia; and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia.
Carter has always transformed her surroundings into artistic environments. This was the case in her home on Wadmalaw Island, South Carolina. Built by her father, the large home had been hers since the beginning of the new millennium. In 2019, as an octogenarian she planned to relocate to Washington, D.C. to live near her daughter. When the movers arrived to pack her belongings, they were astounded by the art covering the walls. They alerted the Charleston gallerist Joanna White, who offered to show it. Word spread, and in spring 2022, Carter was included in the exhibition, Ninth Street and Beyond: 70 Years of Women in Abstraction, held at Hunter Dunbar Projects, New York. The story of Carter’s “comeback” was featured in an article in the New Yorker on May 23, 2022.1 Carter’s inclusion in the Ninth Street show—which featured works by such artists as Lynda Benglis, Louise Bourgeois, Elaine de Kooning, Lynne Drexler, Perle Fine, Helen Frankenthaler, Grace Hartigan, Eva Hesse, Agnes Martin, Joan Mitchell, Elizabeth Murray, Pat Passlof, Barbara Chase-Riboud, Dorothea Rockburne, Alma Thomas, Yvonne Thomas, and Charmion von Wiegand—indicates the need to situate her art in a historical context at the intersections of her artistic identity as an African American, a woman, an abstractionist, and a multi-media innovator.
In March 2023, Berry Campbell will exhibit the Linear Variation series from the 1970s, a group of paintings that merges brilliantly colored veils with painterly lines, creating movement and vibrations across their surfaces. The works she produced concur with the ethos of the abstract art of the time. The main art theorist of the era, Clement Greenberg, argued in his promotion of Color Field painting in the catalogue for the 1964 exhibition, Post-Painterly Abstraction (Los Angeles County Museum of Art), that Abstract Expressionism had degenerated into mannerism. He advocated that artists “move toward a physical openness of design or toward linear clarity, or toward both.”2 The influential writer and curator, Lawrence Alloway, stated that a systematic approach could be just as creative and freeing as one that was existential and primal. Beyond that, Alloway argued that the artist’s conceptual order, rather than being distant and detached, was actually personal and autographic, because it represented an artist’s ideas and way of seeing the world.
In the Linear Variation series, Carter creates painterly white backdrops with brightly colored lines and veils rhythmically echoing her body’s cadence through the painting’s surface. While the works at times recall her Color Field contemporaries like Helen Frankenthaler and her Washington Color School contemporaries like Morris Louis, they also embrace the presence and action of the artist’s hand and body, giving a sense of immediacy and vitality to this body of work and previewing her performance work of the 1980s.
Born in 1939 in Washington, D.C. to Esther and Lorenzo Irving Pickering, Yvonne—the second of eight children—grew up in Charleston, where her family shared their home with her paternal grandparents, Charles and Cornelia Pickering. Yvonne’s father, a dentist, was a skilled carpenter, and he taught her to construct furniture. She recalls: “He sent me for an Allen wrench when I was about 11, and I didn’t know what it was, but from then on, I knew every tool.”3 At Howard University, Carter was inspired by James A. Porter, who initiated the field of African American art history, along with James Wells, David Driskell, and Loïs Mailou Jones. Along with Jones, she studied with Lila Asher. Carter also completed work in interior design at the Traphagen School of Design, New York.
In 1971, after receiving her BA and MFA from Howard, Carter established her teaching career, starting out as assistant professor of art, design, printmaking, and painting at the University of the District of Columbia. Throughout the 1970s, Carter exhibited extensively. In 1972, Carter participated in National Exhibition: Black Artists, held at Smith-Mason Gallery in Washington, D.C. Her first solo exhibition was held in October 1973 at the James A. Porter Gallery, Howard University. In June-July 1976, when Carter was featured in a three-artist show with Kitty Klaidman and Polly Craft, at the Fendrick Gallery, Washington, D.C., a reviewer described her watercolors as “lyrical abstract works” with “floating Frankenthaler-like lines and forms.”4 In October 1976, a solo show of Carter’s watercolors was held at the Ware Center, Lincoln University, Pennsylvania.
In 1978, Carter along with seventy-five black women artists including Lilian Thomas Burwell, Mavis Pusey, Betye Saar, and Alma Thomas, were invited to participate in Contemporary Afro-American Women Artists, organized by the Corcoran Gallery of Art and the Renwick Gallery, Washington, D.C. The show was planned to coincide with the 1979 meeting of the College Art Association (CAA) in Washington, D.C.; however, the exhibition never received funding and was cancelled. A paired down exhibition was planned in its place in the basement of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library. The exhibition, Black Women in the Visual Arts: A Tribute to Lois Mailou Jones, was well received but as Jacqueline Trescott of the Washington Post wrote: “The exhibit of 21 local artists…was not considered a complete victory by some but an example of how black women artists are given second-class treatment.”5
Fendrick Gallery, which had begun to represent Carter, contributed her watercolors on Fabriano paper to The Material Dominant: Some Current Artists and Their Media, held in 1977 at the Museum of Art, Pennsylvania State University. In February-March, Carter curated The Eye of Yvonne Carter at the Washington Women’s Art Center, which included her works and multimedia works by art center members. In October–November 1978, Carter was featured in a solo show at the Gibbes Art Gallery, Charleston, South Carolina (now the Gibbes Museum of Art). Both shows included works in which Carter framed pieces of multi-folded paper, exploring paper as a both two- and three-dimensional medium—at once, sculptural and illusionistic. She enhanced the latter with transparent watercolor brushstrokes that showed through her thin papers, producing texture and shadow. She stated in rhythmic cadence to a reviewer: “The slash/ a dot/ a beat/ a sound/ a whisper/ a curve/ a contrast of lives/ cold winds/ softness/ quietness/ movement and shadows/ are the stimuli for my search and investigations of space.”6
While maintaining her teaching job and her presence in Washington, D.C., in 1976, Carter completed the transformation of a Charleston funeral parlor into a studio and home she shared with her then-husband. With knowledge she had derived from her father, she became the contractor for the renovation of the space, and she established her studio in the casket foundry. There she gathered mannequins that she began to drape in brilliant, complex costumes that she used in works she referred to as “paintings,” made of “moiré, netting, painted canvas remnants, ribbons, and tulle instead of paint and paper.” At the same time, Carter considered these works to be performance pieces, related to the dance courses she took at Howard. “There was something about movement that was important to me,” Carter stated.7 It was a logical progression that led her to use painting as garment. As a reviewer stated in 1984: “At first artist Yvonne Pickering Carter took her painting out of the frame, then she removed it from the wall and finally she draped it around herself like a garment.”8 Carter thus entered into her own work so that she herself became a living painting, and she added sound to her art through recited poetry and movement. Thus, she combined “all the elements.” She remarked: “I think performance brings together the many things I attempt to do.”9 Her paintings themselves also grew into installations, escaping from conventional “rigidly framed flat surfaces” to hang loosely in folds on limp canvases. One such work “stitched in place and even padded, took on three dimensions, becoming high relief sculpture.”10 Carter also bridged the gap between art and life in installation pieces. One titled Vestibules, Virgins, and Voices, 1983, was made of wood, paint, and drapes of canvas. As a reviewer noted: “The deeper one advances, the stranger the images become. Some make one think of helmets, others call to mind trophies, faces, doors.”11 Carter also created a work referencing a ceremonial or ritual function in Confessional: Weekdays, 1989, described by a critic, as consisting of “props and robes that could almost have been put together from hospital clothing and camping gear” that was then hung “on the wall like artifacts liberated from museum display cases.”12
In 2004, Carter retired and left Washington, D.C. to return to Charleston, and in 2006, she opened the Gallery Cornelia, converting her father’s old dentist’s office into a 600-foot exhibition space. She stated that on coming home, all she wanted to do was “plant, cut grass, and make paintings,” but that didn’t seem like enough. She recalled, “I was lonely for the energy that a gallery brings.”13 Continuing to paint, she exhibited her Pinecone series at the gallery in 2007, but subsequently she remained out of the public arena until the move in 2019 that brought her into the limelight. Her rediscovery provides an opportunity to re-experience a body of work well described as “a multileveled vehicle for messages of both the spirit and the material.”14
—Lisa N. Peters, Ph.D.
© Berry Campbell, New York
1 Emma Allen, “How Some Movers Rediscovered a Neglected Abstractionist,” New Yorker 38 (May 23, 2022).
2 Clement Greenberg, “Introduction,” Post-Painterly Abstraction, exh. cat., Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1964, quoted in Lawrence Alloway, “Systemic Painting,” introductory essay from the exhibition catalogue Systemic Painting, Guggenheim Museum, New York. Reprinted in Babcock, p. 48.
3 Lee Fleming, “Life After Death” An Abandoned Funeral Parlor is Reborn as an Artist’s Home and Studio,” Washington Post, February 4 1999, p. T12.
4 Jo Ann Lewis, Washington Post, July 1, 1976, Yvonne Pickering Carter archives.
5 Rebecca K. Vandiver, “Off the Wall, into the Archive Black Feminist Curatorial Practices of the 1970s,” Archives of American Art Journal 55, no. 2 (Fall 2016): 26-45, https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.2307/26566605.
6 Quoted in “Carter Show,” Montgomery Advertiser, July 29, 1978, p. 29.
7 Terry Bain, “Yvonne Pickering Carter,” in St. James Guide to Black Artists, ed., Thomas Riggs (New York: Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, 1997), p. 99.
8 Henry Scarupa, “Painting Becomes Garment, the Artist Moves, and the ‘Performance Art’ is Born,” Baltimore Sun, January 6, 1984, p. C1.
9 Carter, quoted in Scarupa.
11 Paul Richard, “The Power and the Spirit,” Washington Post, February 19, 1983, p. C6.
12 Michael Brenson, “Sculptors Using the Wall as Venue and Inspiration, New York Times, February 24, 1989, p. C30.
13 Jack McCray, “A Day at the ‘Office’; Family Ties: Woman Opens Art Gallery at Father’s Former Dental Practice,” Post and Courier (Charleston, S.C.), July 23, 2006, p. F1.
14 "Yvonne Pickering Carter,” in Environments of the Spirit, Mind, and Space: The World We Create, exh. cat. (New York: Nathan Cummings Foundation, 1996).
b. 1939, Washington, D.C.
Howard University, Washington, D.C. A.B., 1962
Howard University, Washington, D.C., MFA, 1968
SELECTED SOLO EXHIBITIONS
James A. Porter Gallery, College of Fine Arts, Washington, D.C., 1973.
Ware Center, Lincoln University, Pennsylvania, 1976.
Washington Women’s Art Center, Washington, D.C., 1978.
Gibbes Art Gallery, Carolina Art Association, Charleston, South Carolina , 1978.
Fendrick Gallery, Washington, D.C., 1978.
Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, Virginia, Cameo no. 2, 1980.
South Miami Library, Miami-Dade Public Library System, Florida, 1981.
University of the District of Columbia, Washington, D.C., Constructions/Paintings, 1981.
The ”O” Street Studio Gallery, Washington, D.C., 1989.
Landon School, Bethesda, Maryland, Prayer Book Series, 1991.
University of the District of Columbia, Washington, D.C., Door VIII: Salmon, Smoke, Smoked Salmon, Rose, Raspberry, Smoked Rose and White, 1991.
Berry Campbell, New York, Yvonne Pickering Carter, Linear Variation Series, 2023.
SELECTED GROUP EXHIBITIONS
Smith-Mason Gallery, Washington D.C., National Exhibition of Black Artists, 1972.
New Jersey State Museum, New Brunswick, Black Artists Show, 1972.
Washington Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., Paintings: Y.P. Carter and Doris Colbert Wynn, 1973.
Washington Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., Drawings and Small Works, 1973.
Washington Project for the Arts, Washington, D.C., Drawings from the Studios of Washington Artists, 1975.
Opus 2 Galleries, Washington, D.C., Women Artists Part 2, 1975.
Geoffrey R.W. Smith Home, Washington, D.C., The Board of Directors of Big Sisters of the District of Columbia, Inc. Under the Gracious Patronage of May and Mrs. Walter Washington Presents An Exhibit of Works by Women Artists, 1975.
Bridge Gallery, Washington, D.C., Works of Y.P. Carter, Bernard Brooks, and Joseph B. Ross, Jr., 1975.
Federal City College, Washington, D.C., Line: A Musical and Visual Exhibition of Line by Y.P. Carter, Arthur Dawkins and George H. Smith, 1975.
Fendrick Gallery, Washington, D.C., Introductions 1976: Yvonne Carter, Kitty Klaideman, Polly Craft, 1976.
Federal City College, Washington, D.C., Faculty Exhibition, 1976.
H.C. Taylor Art Gallery, A & T State University, Greensboro, North Carolina, Profiles: Bearden, Biggers, Gilliam, Stovall, Hayes, Carter, 1976.
Franz Bader Gallery, Washington, D.C., Jazz, 1977.
Mayor’s Office District Building, Washington, D.C., Washington Artists Exhibition in Honor of Her Royal Highness The Princess Anne, Mrs. Mark Phillips GCVO, 1977.
Museum of Art, Pennsylvania State University, University Park, Pennsylvania, The Material Dominant: Some Current Artists and Their Media, 1978.
Miami-Dade Public Library, Miami, Florida, New Dimensions: Art Works by Black American Artists, 1978.
Elmer R. Flower’s Historic Gallery, Chicago, Illinois, 1979.
Mazza Gallerie, Washington, D.C., The Closet Chauvinist Review, 1979.
Martin Luther King, Jr. Library, Washington, D.C., Black Women in the Visual Arts: A Tribute to Lois Mailou Jones, 1979.
Fendrick Gallery, Washington, D.C., The Book as Art III, 1979.
Yolisa House Gallery, New York, 1979.
Gibbes Art Gallery, Charleston, South Carolina, Reflections of a Southern Heritage: Black Artists of the Southeast, 1979. (traveled to Greenville County Museum, South Carolina, 1979; Columbia Gallery of Art, South Carolina, 1980)
Miami-Dade Public Library, Florida, Ten-Plus-Ten, 1980.
Arlington Arts Center, Virginia, Elements of Art: Line, 1980.
Washington Project for the Arts, Washington, D.C., Bookworks, Washington, D.C. An Exhibition of Books by D.C. Artists, 1980.
Washington Project for the Arts, Washington, D.C., Black Alternatives, 1980.
Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, Collectors Choice, 1980.
Raku Gallery and Sculpture Park, Washington, D.C., A National Invitational Exhibition of Two and Three Dimensional Works of Art, 1980.
Capitol East Graphics, Washington, D.C., In Our Own Image: Regional Women Artists, 1980.
Women’s National Democratic Club, Washington, D.C., 1981.
The Atrium, Sheraton Washington Hotel, Washington, D.C., Washington Urban League Art Exposition, 1981.
Bucknell University, Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, African-American Art, 1981.
S.S. Paul and Augustine Catholic Church, Washington, D.C., An Odyssey: Images, Words–Music: An Exhibition of Art, Music, and Theatre, 1982.
Moton Institute, Gloucester, Virginia, New Art, 1982.
Annadale Campus, Northern Virginia Community College, Virginia, An Exhibition of Faculty Painters from the Washington Area Colleges and Universities, 1982.
Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., Ten-Plus-Ten: Washington Painting, 1982.
Alma Thomas Gallery, Shaw Junior High School, Washington, D.C., The Gallery Curators: An Exhibit of their works; Lilian Burwell, Yvonne Carter, Adolphus Ealy, Martha Jackson-Jarvis, and Michael Platt, 1982.
National Corporation for Housing Partnership, Washington, D.C., Washington, D.C. Area Artists and Art Historians, 1983.
Martin Luther King Library, Washington, D.C., Martin Luther King Highlights of the Year, 1983-1984.
Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library, Washington, D.C., Five Installations: A Mixed Media Art Exhibition, 1983. (organized by Sam Gilliam)
Alma Thomas Gallery, Shaw Junior High School, Washington, D.C., Studio Faculty of the University of the District of Columbia, 1983.
The Butler Institute of American Art, Youngstown, Ohio, 47th Annual National Mid-Year Exhibition, 1983.
Bayly Art Museum, Charlottesville, Virginia, Contemporary Afro-American Painting and Sculpture, 1984.
Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., Washington Watercolors, 1984.
Foundry Gallery, Washington, D.C., Foundry and Company, 1984.
California College of Arts and Crafts, Oakland, Albums, 1985.
Nairobi University, Kenya, Work by Women Artists, 1985.
Sheraton Washington Hotel, Washington, D.C., Washington Urban League, Inc. Second Annual Art Expo, 1985.
Miami-Dade Public Library, Florida, 1985.
The Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., The Washington Show, 1985.
Parents Association Art Gallery, University of Maryland, History in the Making…, 1985.
Metro-Dade Cultural Center, Miami, Artists’ Books from the Miami-Dade Public Library System Collection, 1986.
Touchstone Gallery, Washington, D.C., Myth and Ritual, 1986.
Gudelsky Gallery, Maryland College of Art and Design, Silver Spring, An American Album: Images by Women Artists, 1986.
Bethune Museum and Archives, Washington, D.C., Black Women Visual Artists in Washington, D.C., 1986-1987.
Wells College, Aurora, New York, Lilian Burwell and Yvonne Pickering Carter, 1987.
George Washington University, Washington, D.C., Afro-American Art Now, 1987.
Transco Gallery, Houston, Women and Watercolor, 1988.
Kenkeleba Gallery, New York, Pillar to Post: Wall Works by Contemporary Artists, 1989.
Art at 100 Pearl, Hartford, Connecticut, Celebrate African American Art: Yesterday and Today, 1989.
California Afro-American Museum, Los Angeles, Introspectives: Contemporary Art by Americans of African and Brazilians of African Descent, 1989.
Gibellina Museo Civico D’Arte Contemporanea, Universita di Palermo, African-American Contemporary Art, 1990.
Museum of the Arts, Bronx, New York, Contemporary Art by Americans and Brazilians of African Descent, 1990.
Flossie Martin Gallery, Radford, Virginia, Coast-To-Coast: A Women of Color National Artists’ Book Project, 1990. (traveled to Artemesia Gallery, Chicago; Eubie Blake Center, Baltimore)
New Visions Gallery of Contemporary Art, Atlanta, Georgia, Continuing Traditions: Contemporary African-American Craft Artists, 1990.
George Mason University, Fairfax, Virginia, Faculty Art Exhibition, 1990.
Anacostia Museum, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., Gathered Visions: Selected Works by African American Women Artists, 1990.
Astrea Bookstore, Washington, D.C., Impulse: an Exhibition of Fax Art, Works on Paper: Paintings Writings, and Drawings, 1991.
Arlington Arts Center, Virginia, Medicine Dance: Objects and Spaces of Power, 1991.
Meyerhoff Gallery, Maryland Institute, College of Art, Baltimore, Fiber: The State of the Art, 1991.
George Mason University, Fairfax, Virginia, Faculty Exhibition, 1991.
Martin Luther King Memorial Library, Washington, D.C., Visible Difference, 1991.
Dance Place, Washington, D.C., Celebrating the Four Directions, 1991.
Stouffer Madison Hotel, Seattle, Box Project: WCA Washington Chapter, 1993.
Insights Gallery, Seattle, Washington, Revising Boundaries: Southern Women Artists, 1993.
George Washington University, Washington D.C., WCA/DC Members Show, 1993.
George Washington University Breast Care Center, Washington, D.C., Works of the Women’s Caucus for Art of D.C. Honoring National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, 1993-1994.
District of Columbia Superior Court Jurors Lounge, Washington, D.C., 1994.
National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, D.C., Book as Art VI, 1993.
Florida State University Art Gallery and Museum, Tallahassee, My Magic Pours Secret Libations, 1996.
Philips Museum of Art, Franklin and Marshall College, Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Something to Look Forward To, 2004.
Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, The Chemistry of Color: African American Artists in Philadelphia, 1970-1990, 2005.
Hunter Dunbar Projects, New York, Ninth Street and Beyond: 70 Years of Women in Abstraction, 2022.
Armand-Hammer Auditorium, Corcoran School of Art, Washington, D.C., Performance Piece: Warriors, Wombs, and Wounded: A Work in Progress, 1982.
Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library, Washington, D.C., Vestibule, Vestiges, Virgins, and Voice, 1983.
Washington Project for the Arts, Washington, D.C., Isolation: Visions Through the Window: Walk, Walks, Walked, Seashore, and Icicles, 1984.
Artscape Concert Langsdale Auditorium, University of Baltimore, Maryland, Lament: A Multimedia Theater Piece with Composer, Lawrence K. Moss, 1984. (also performed at Maryland Art Place, Baltimore; Res Musica, Multi-Intermedia Festival, Baltimore Museum of Art)
Strathmore Hall Arts Center, Rockville, Maryland, On Combining Past Lives, 1986. (also performed at Bethune Museum-Archives Inc., Washington, D.C.)
The New Art Center, Washington, D.C., Tea Time Trilogy, 1987.
Catholic University Center for the Study of Youth Development Auditorium, Washington, D.C., A Play No Play and Tangible Evidence, 1987.
University of the District of Columbia, On the Other Side of Romanticism: Relic, Ritual, and Region (Electronic Version), 1988.
University of Maryland, College Park, Relic, Ritual and Region (Piano Version), 1988.
Walters Art Gallery Auditorium, Baltimore, Maryland, Lament, 1988.
National Museum for Women in the Art, Washington, D.C., Confessions: The Making of a Sinner or Saint, 1990.
Rockville Arts Place, Maryland, Grapes: A Three-Minute Piece, 1990.
Women’s Caucus for Art National Conference, Three R’s: Retinue- Retort – Retrace, 1991.
Anacostia Museum, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., Door XI: Latched, 1991.
University of District of Columbia, Washington, D.C., Mystical Rose, Dreams, Daylight, Tales and Other Stories, 1991.
Harris Theater, George Mason University, Twelve Books, 1991.
The National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, D.C., Operation Forward: Fear, Fearlessness, Flowers and Hermits, 1992.
Dock Street Theatre, Charleston, South Carolina, Maverick Street Litany, 1992.
Artery Organization, Chevy Chase, Maryland
Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, Virginia
Gibbes Museum of Art, Charleston, South Carolina
Miami-Dade Library Collection, Florida
Montgomery Print Collection, Maryland
North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh
Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art, Philadelphia
University of the District of Columbia, Washington, D.C.