Alexis Assam

Alexis Assam, Saint Louis Art Museum 2018-19 Romare Bearden Graduate Museum Fellow and cocurator of “The Shape of Abstraction,” discussing Stanley Whitney’s “Out into the Open” painting during a press preview of the exhibition that opened Tuesday and continues through March 22, 2020.

“And all of these artists are African American,” American Photojournalist Wiley Price said to no one in particular – or to everyone.

He was so struck by the pieces featured in the Saint Louis Art Museum exhibition  “The Shape of Abstraction: Selections from the Ollie Collection” that after capturing images during the gallery talk, he put his camera to the side and walked around the gallery again to further examine the art.

The 40-plus pieces on display offer scale to the full donation, which is 80-plus pieces of art as well as photographs, books, catalogs and other reference materials donated to the museum by St. Louis native Ronald Maurice Ollie and his wife, Monique McRipley Ollie.

Price and other members of the media engaged with the art a day ahead of the exhibition’s September 17 opening.

When co-curators Gretchen L. Wagner, Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Fellow for Prints, Drawings and Photographs and Alexis Assam, the 2018-19 Romare Bearden Graduate Museum Fellow, encouraged questions or comments following their gallery talk for the exhibition, Dickson Sonbeall made a bold proclamation.

According to him, the Ollies with their gift – and the Art Museum with their public display of the work that was donated in memory of Ron's parents, Thelma and Bert Ollie – have inserted a chapter into art history. Patrons and guests will now have an opportunity to dialogue regarding African American artists’ contribution to abstract art.

“It closes a gap and is very necessary,” Sonbeall said.

The Thelma and Bert Ollie Memorial Collection  includes significant works by such American artists as Terry Adkins, Benny Andrews, Robert Blackburn, Chakaia Booker, Ed Clark, Nanette Carter, Adger Cowans, Herb Gentry, Sam Gilliam, Bill Hutson, Jacob Lawrence, Norman Lewis, James Little, Al Loving, Jack Whitten, Stanley Whitney, Frank Wimberley, and William T. Williams. Works by British artists Winston Branch and Frank Bowling also are included in the gift.

“The Ollie Collection does far more than enhance the Saint Louis Art Museum’s existing strength in postwar abstraction,” said Brent R. Benjamin, the Barbara B. Taylor Director of the Saint Louis Art Museum. “It places the museum squarely within an expanding field of exploration, as the narratives around the history of abstraction grow more inclusive and heterogeneous.

The exhibition’s title was inspired by a poem written for Ron Ollie by fellow St. Louis native son Quincy Troupe. The famed poet and author will visit his hometown next month with another St. Louisan, Grammy Award-winner Keyon Harrold as part of the programming framed around “The Shape of Abstraction.”

The gift is a full circle moment for Ollie. The New Jersey-based collector developed a love for the visual arts when his parents brought him to the Saint Louis Art Museum as a small child.

He was never shy about his love for visual arts, even if it meant him getting teased by his fraternity brothers for taking dates to there during his college days.

His love for art led to voracious research and study and eventually the acquisition of his own collection and fellowship with black artists.  

When his beloved parents passed away, he used his inheritance he received from them to purchase additional art.

His generosity in sharing his passion and championing African American abstract visual artists provides a special opportunity for the Saint Louis Art Museum.

“This gift illuminates the diverse body of abstract work made by black artists, whose profound contribution in this mode of expression have begun to receive greater recognition,” Benjamin said.

And allows Ron Ollie to share the transformative experience that comes with exposure to the arts with a broader audience – for generations to come.

“My life has been so greatly enriched by  the arts,” Ollie said in a conversation with Simon Kelly, curator of modern and contemporary art at the Saint Louis Art Museum and Elizabeth Wyckoff, the Museum’s curator of prints, drawings and photographs.

“ I can’t imagine my life without the arts – and it was my parents who gave that to me. That’s one of the reasons I’m dedicating this to them.

The Saint Louis Art Museum’s exhibition of “The Shape of Abstraction: Selections from the Ollie Collection,” is currently on display through March 22, 2020. For more information or programming related to the exhibition, visit or call (314) 721-0072.

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