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The Shape of Abstraction: Selections from the Ollie Collection presents paintings, drawings, and prints by five generations of black artists who have revolutionized abstract art since the 1940s. The exhibition includes Norman Lewis’s gestural drawings, Sam Gilliam’s radically shaped paintings, James Little’s experiments with color, and Chakaia Booker’s explorations in printmaking, among many others. Despite their significant contributions, many of these accomplished artists have remained largely under-recognized and omitted from the existing narrative of art history. However, the re-examination and celebration of this history is underway. 

In 2017, St. Louis native Ronald Ollie and his wife, Monique, gave the Saint Louis Art Museum a transformative collection of 81 works by black abstractionists. Ollie, who passed away in June 2020, spent decades collecting, often befriending the artists and forming long, collaborative relationships. He grew up visiting the Museum with his parents, who nurtured his deep appreciation for art. This exhibition draws from and celebrates the Thelma and Bert Ollie Memorial Collection, which was named in honor of his parents.

The Shape of Abstraction: Selections from the Ollie Collection is curated by Gretchen L. Wagner, Andrew W. Mellon Fellow for Prints, Drawings, and Photographs; and Alexis Assam, 2018–2019 Romare Bearden Graduate Museum Fellow.


Trumpet and Voice, Call and Response

Noted author and poet Quincy Troupe and jazz trumpeter Keyon Harrold respond to the exhibition through poetry and music in this collaborative performance.

Saint Louis Art Museum, 2019

Poetic Inspiration for The Shape of Abstraction

Recognizing the synergistic relationship between images and words, collector Ronald Ollie invited acclaimed writer and poet Quincy Troupe to respond to the abstract art in his collection. Troupe’s resulting poem The Shape of Abstraction; for Ron Ollie, which also inspired the title of this exhibition and the accompanying publication, appears below. Troupe, like many of the artists in this exhibition, is inspired by jazz music’s pace and variation, and his verses reflect this energy.


The Shape of Abstraction; for Ron Ollie

by Quincy Troupe

the shape of abstraction is what the mind believes
it sees, figures, colors emerging from a canvas
(or a block of steel, limestone, wood chipped & cut,
chiseled, shaped into a memory, sanded down,
refined into grace, polished to a high sheen, almost
a mirror, reflects a creative imagination, where
the artist leaves their heart inside a language
born from power of a hammer’s head, artistry evolves
from there, fertile dreams of makers are transferred
in boogie-woogie riffs from bebop, deep in delta blues,
live inside a clean womb, hard surfaces birthing faces,
where voices scat, rap over hot jazz licks in harlem, zing
original forms, create words—like razzmatatazz—sling them
sluicing colors into living language—whatever raises to life
& sings, shocks, or disgraces the senses—as long as we are
here in the world, if it doesn’t burn, or explode into wars
created by man-made nuclear infernos—when horror,
conflict is chosen over beauty—a brushstroke can evoke
memory as love, heard sometimes in whispers),

is what a painter’s brushstrokes bring to life from empty
blank white wombs of canvases—they could be red, brown,
black, tan, or yellow canvases—until unknown pulse beats
birth embryos from there, raise them into breathing forms
from deep inside creative impulses, splashed with colors,
tones, as when we look up at cloud formations & see
in the sky wonders, images created up there are their own
music, rhythm, as when the sea rolls in clapping waves
foaming, roaring, then snarling into what eye imagine
mad animals might hear when suffering with rabies,
on the other hand eye imagine eyeballs bulging to see
what a ship way out on the infinite, razor-sharp blade edge
slicing the sea in half might mean from our view here on shore,
on a gray day full of silhouettes, contours of waving figures,
outlines of fluctuating images, forms dissipating
inside exhaust gasses belching from a smokestack vessel’s
burner trailing shapes behind it as it sails eastward
toward some unknown port it will reach in the dark dead
moment right before midnight, a star shining bright high
above in the night, is a white echo of light showing the way,
or is a one-eyed cyclops blinking down from history,

they are paintings after all, disintegrating on that blue
grey canvas of sky, is a rorschach test of faith, of what
one thinks the eye recognizes as art, transfers back to
probe the brain in an instant of volatility—which
is the push & pull of capricious decision-making
filled with impulsive hints of what or what not to choose
when eyeing creative choices offered up as barter,
in exchange for banknotes, trade, switch or swap,
is a form of negotiation, is a haggling bargain point,
which is an art form of sorts too, though not the same
creative level of expression true art springs from—

because art is shrouded inside mystery & magic
it is a force that can enrich, sustain life,
nourishing through beauty, joy, mirroring truth,
questioning what we know of ourselves, or don’t know,
asking us questions—why are we here & where
will all these shapes take us to through colors splashed
with beauty—or shock—where music evokes lines
tap-dancing through forms, breaks into rhythms,
takes us to a place where imagination wanders,
fills up space with magical, mysterious wonder


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Large Print Labels

Large print labels for The Shape of Abstraction are available online.

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