Post-White? On 'Blues for Smoke' | The Nation


Post-White? On 'Blues for Smoke'

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If, rather than taking the elevator, you happened to walk up the stairs to the third floor to enter “Blues for Smoke,” the recent exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art, you would have heard it before you had seen it: the joyful, roiling noise of John Coltrane’s music, incorporated into David Hammons’s installation Chasing the Blue Train (1989). And you might have later noticed that you’d begun viewing the show before you realized what you were looking at: the reflections flickering on the wall along the stairs and on the third-floor landing, their source the sheets of silver Mylar that form the main ingredient of Kira Lynn Harris’s installation Blues for Breuer (2013). Organized by Bennett Simpson, associate curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, where the show originated, “Blues for Smoke” was the kind of exhibition that sneaks up on you, where the things seen are overshadowed by their resonances and reflections.

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Barry Schwabsky
Barry Schwabsky is the art critic of The Nation. Schwabsky has been writing about art for the magazine since 2005, and...

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But how deep are those resonances, and how illuminating the reflections? After two visits to the exhibition, I’m still not sure. Harris’s piece is too twee and insubstantial for its own good, and its title rings false: Is it really a riff on the many “Blues for…” numbers that have been written in the history of jazz? As for Hammons, his piece—in which a toy train runs at intervals along a meandering track, among scattered piano lids and through a tunnel under a pile of coal—can’t be accused of lacking substantial content; the problem is that the content seems too weighty for the artist’s linguistic scaffolding of puns and free associations. Right, I get it: coal plus train equals Coltrane. From there, it’s up to you to make richer associations between the piece and, say, the underground railroad by which blacks escaped from slavery in the era before the Civil War, or perhaps the A train that Billy Strayhorn advised taking “to go to Sugar Hill way up in Harlem.” Commentators have cited both allusions, and sometimes both at once, which makes for incoherence: Why not the 5:22 to Ronkonkoma? When recommending free association as method, Freud did specify that no association should be excluded, not even on the ground that it might be “too unimportant or irrelevant, or that it is nonsensical and need not be said.” But the analyst’s free associations were not allowed the same liberty as the analysand’s.

Among the virtues of “Blues for Smoke” is that it tilts the interpretation of a piece like Chasing the Blue Train away from speculation about references toward the contemplation of form—in a way, toward abstraction. The room to the immediate right of Hammons’s installation was hung with an array of mostly abstract paintings, but in the center of the room sat Kori Newkirk’s sculpture Yall (2012), a shopping cart sparsely adorned with a few random items—a water bottle, for instance—and whose wheels were aligned with a ring of blue glitter on the floor. Here, the winding journey implied by Hammons’s train track had been rationalized into a perfect circle, and any implication of onward movement flattened into the banality of a daily round: “Same shit, different day,” as the saying goes. For that matter, most of the rooms in the exhibition had at their center either some variation on the repetitive closure of the loop or else the contrasting image of a straight line going nowhere. Among the loopers were Dave McKenzie’s Fear and Trembling (2009), a conveyor belt of the kind you’ve seen at the dry cleaner, from which dangles a single hanger whose paper cover reads Love Me Jesus (the conveyor stands motionless, for the most part, but occasionally makes a full turn); another was Liz Larner’s No M, No D, Only S & B (1990), with its lumpy leather forms enclosing a rough circle of floor. The liners included Zoe Leonard’s 1961 (2002 and ongoing), a procession of old suitcases—empty or full?—that did make me wonder why one of Carl Andre’s similarly modular lines of railroad ties hadn’t been included too. 

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Taken together, these pieces pose questions about recurrence and progress, movement and stasis, that act as a vamp or ground bass turning back on itself to provide a coherent framework for the other works in the show. On the walls surrounding Yall are a selection of paintings that might lead you to think “Blues for Smoke” will be an exhibition about black artists, many of them abstractionists, who’ve been inspired by music. There are a couple of superb paintings by Jack Whitten, one of them dedicated to Duke Ellington. An intricate geometrical composition of great energy is titled Trane (1968), by William T. Williams, while a less successful painting, Jeff Donaldson’s Jampact/Jellytite (for Jamila) (1988), combines abstract patterning with representational fragments to create a lively but rather clichéd representation of a jazz combo at play. In this context, whatever musical analogies one likes can be summoned while contemplating the room’s other contributions by veteran abstractionists, such as Edward Clark’s The Big Egg (Vetheuil Series) (1968) and Alma Thomas’s Late Night Reflections (1972)—both artists are lavish yet subtle colorists—or even the dizzying numerical sequences of Charles Gaines’s conceptual drawings on gridded paper in Untitled (Regression Series: Group 3) (1973–74). And the elegant juxtaposition of these works from the ’60s through the ’80s with Weather, a 2006 collage painting by Mark Bradford, shows that this bent toward abstraction remains strong among midcareer and younger black artists. At the same time, the raw, scarred quality of the surface of Bradford’s painting—redolent of the torn-poster works of the French affichistes of the 1950s, it evokes the remnants of an old torn-away billboard, a thing of the streets, not the drawing room—chimes in with the blunt everydayness of Newkirk’s sculpture. It also draws attention to the abstract qualities in that work, which might otherwise seem like a documentary transfer into the gallery of an object from the life of a homeless person pushing around a shopping cart containing all his worldly goods, here reduced to a last few shreds.

But that’s to imagine another show that “Blues for Smoke” might have been, one about music and abstraction in the work of black American artists since the 1960s. It’s an important show that should be done, for several reasons. It would redress the lack of recognition of black artists in general, and black abstractionists in particular, by the mainstream (i.e., white) art world, at least until very recently. The works by Thomas, Whitten, Clark and Williams are reminders that some of the best abstract painting of the 1960s and ’70s was being done by black artists, yet they are hardly known to the museum-going public (and presumably the prices of their works reflect this relative obscurity). But such an exhibition, if properly done, would not only provoke a revaluation of individual reputations; it would also prompt a broader revision of our understanding of abstract art itself. While the analogy with music has always been an important way for abstract artists from Kandinsky onward to think about their work—and the recent MoMA exhibition “Inventing Abstraction, 1910–1925” underscored this—music has been important to black American artists in a different way and to a different degree from what it has been for whites. This difference has allowed them, at times, a deeper understanding of the unity of the arts. What white painter has ever made a declaration comparable to Whitten’s when he proclaims, “My cosmic guides are: John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, Kenny Dorham, Bud Powell, Ron Carter, Fats Navarro, Dexter Gordon, Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman, Sonny Rollins, Coleman Hawkins, Eric Dolphy, Albert Ayler, Sun Ra, Clifford Brown…I am so blessed.”

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