Alvin Loving

Rational Irrationalism

Not on view



Acrylic on shaped canvas

Overall (Irregular): 82 1/8 × 97in. (208.6 × 246.4 cm)

Accession number

Credit line
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; purchase, with funds from the Robert C. Scull Fund for Young Artists not in the Collection

Rights and reproductions
Courtesy the Estate of Al Loving and Garth Greenan Gallery, New York


In 1969, three years after Alvin Loving had moved to New York City from the Midwest, he had a solo exhibition at the Whitney. Unlike other African American artists whose art focused on the racial politics of the era, Loving was an abstract artist whose works from this period, including Rational Irrationalism, were built upon strict yet simple geometric shapes, often hexagonal or cubic modules. Inspired by German Abstract Expressionist Hans Hoffmann (who taught Loving’s mentor from Michigan, Al Mullen), Loving concentrated on the tension between flatness and spatial illusionism. He explored this tension using a hard-edged geometric vocabulary related to Minimalism and Op art—as in Rational Irrationalism, which utilizes a strategic layering of cubic forms and juxtaposition of warm and cool colors to create an optical play of three-dimensionality on a flat support.

Visual Description

Alvin Loving,Rational Irrationalism, 1969.Rational Irrationalismis an acrylic painting on a shaped canvas. The painting measures 82 ⅛ inches tall by 97 inches wide.

This work plays with spatial illusion, and Loving intentionally created a geometric shape that looks like it’s almost popping off the wall at the viewer. Depicted are two large overlapping open-faced cubes positioned diagonally on their sides, with the corners of the cubes oriented up and down, creating multiple right-angled edges on the outsides of the work. This work itself is not rectangular, but instead takes the shape of the diagonally-tilted overlapping cube forms. Each of these large cubes is made up of four smaller sub-cubes. All sides of the sub-cubes are visible and differentiated with thin outlines of glowing neon hues like yellow, pink, green, red, blue, purple, light orange, and rust. Where the two large cubes overlap in the center of the work, there sits yet another, smaller cube, like a nesting doll. The inner cube has yellow base lines, light orange and rust inner lines, and a white top lines. Some lines on the edges of the shape are dark, filled in areas to indicate shadows. The shadows are inconsistent allowing this piece to be viewed from multiple angles and initiate shifting perspectives.

Conceptually, Loving mediates and meditates on optical illusion within the limitations of painterly expression. Relationships of geometric harmony and balance form the central precepts of this composition. It is important to note: after making this artwork, Loving began to think about quiltmaking. Much of this work expresses the mathematical rigor that hallmarks the quiltmaking tradition, and his attempts to investigate the dimensionality of this tradition through another medium.