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.

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.”

The difference is due to the centrality of music to black American culture, and to the near-universal acknowledgment of the validity of that music: its call seems never to fail of a response. Whitten allegorizes it this way:

When my white slave masters discovered that my drum was a subversive instrument they took it from me…. The only instrument available was my body, so I used my skin: I clapped my hands, slapped my thighs, and stomped my feet in dynamic rhythms. I stretched my mouth wide open and allowed my vocal chords to strike a primal cry. I forced the world to listen. I discovered that my pain was a universal pain.

Whitten locates the sources of his culture in a kind of minimalism or reductivism—but not the sort typical of European modernism. It’s certainly not a search for purity, whether that’s understood as an attempt to determine the limits of each artistic discipline, as Clement Greenberg thought, or an irreducible definition of art, as Thierry de Duve or Arthur Danto might say. Rather, it’s an existential minimalism: to be reduced to nothing but one’s own resources is to know oneself, and to discover this knowledge as one that compels recognition is to find a bridge between isolation and universality. Herein lies the grounding for Amiri Baraka’s seemingly counterintuitive observation that “the notes of a jazz solo, as they are coming into existence, exist as they do for reasons that are only concomitantly musical.” The seeming paradox inherent in Baraka’s insight is not so far removed from that reflected in Harold Rosenberg’s contention that for the Abstract Expressionists, “what was to go on the canvas was not a picture but an event.” “You cannot hang an event on a wall,” scoffed Mary McCarthy. If so, then no more can you hang the sound of a drum: its rhythm, its resonance, its message. Yet it has been done. The marks that a painter makes may exist for reasons that are only concomitantly—not purely and immediately, as Greenberg would have it—pictorial.

For a developed and elaborate culture to keep faith with this primal cry may seem a fragile project, but as Whitten says, “Time is a memory bank.” I think he is in agreement with Walter Benjamin, for whom “the past carries with it a secret index by which it is referred to redemption.” There is “a secret agreement between past generations and the present one,” Benjamin continued, but the urgent task involves “appropriating a memory as it flashes up in a moment of danger.” For Whitten, the lesson of the past is encompassed in the word “freedom,” which always calls for its own expansion. Benjamin implicitly glosses this word for the arts when he speaks of the effort “to wrest tradition away from the conformism that is working to overpower it.” A different rendition of “Blues for Smoke” might have included Benjamin’s emblem, Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus. Did Benjamin ever find redemption in music? Whitten certainly has: “I found my stolen drum. I found it while experimenting with the formal elements of space. Evidently, Rashied Ali, Elvin Jones, Philly Jo Jones, Art Blakey, Max Roach, Roy Haynes, Arthur Taylor, and others had retrieved it and stashed it in deep space.”

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“Blues for Smoke” does not claim to be the exhibition that would explicate the connections between the subversive drum of blues and jazz and the “formal elements of space” explored by black artists of the past fifty years, though the seeds of that show can be found here. It would have to include many artists of several generations who are missing, such as Sam Gilliam, Simon Gouverneur, Howardena Pindell, Stanley Whitney and Leonardo Drew. And it would explicate music as a model for painting and sculpture and the other plastic arts, not only as an art of pure form and pure sensation, as Greenberg maintained, but as an essential bid for freedom.

That “Blues for Smoke” even allows for a glimpse of this possibility is a testament to its curator’s adventurous sensibility. That it swerves away from it may reflect that sensibility’s limits, although it also represents the curator’s own stand for freedom. Simpson is pushing awkwardly, and not quite successfully, against the conventions of the typical museum art exhibition. The invocation of repetition and variation in the sequence of sculptures involving loops and lines, and the telling juxtapositions of these assemblages of readymade objects with abstraction and representational imagery, all evince a genuine musicality, an independence from the merely didactic or discursive. There’s a mind at play here, not just at work. And yet the curator of an exhibition does have certain didactic and discursive responsibilities to shoulder; if he wants to operate as a free artist, he must do so through the overtones of his work as a historian and educator. This is where Simpson has faltered.

Simpson, who is white, apparently did not want to curate an exhibition on the importance of black musical culture for black artists, or even about its influence on American artists in general. Boldly, he wants to invent a new meaning for the word “blues.” But if he is not going to “lend definition to an established aesthetic,” then what is his counterproposal? Neither synthetically, in his catalog essay, nor through plastic invention, in the (mostly excellent) artworks he has brought together and juxtaposed, has he succeeded in establishing some new, more extended sense of what might be understand as the blues. In fact, the show is filled with works, primarily by artists who are not black, in which the relation to the blues is moot. Everybody loves Martin Kippenberger’s sculpture Martin, Into the Corner, You Should Be Ashamed of Yourself (1992), but why drag it uptown from its home at the Museum of Modern Art for this exhibition? The wall label explains: “Operating at a remove from the historical and cultural roots of blues music, Kippenberger nonetheless relates to the blues through his freedom with found materials, his improvisatory attitude, and his canny explorations of identity.” Nearly every good artist has that relation to the blues; if that’s your criterion, this exhibition could have taken its title not from Jaki Byard’s great solo piano record of 1960, but rather from John Coltrane’s quartet outing of the following year, or the surprise hit single that came from it: “My Favorite Things.” 

The Kippenberger wasn’t the only one of my favorite things I was happy to see at the Whitney but puzzled as to why. Jeff Preiss’s remarkable two-hour film STOP (1995–2012)—here smartly presented across four side-by-side video monitors—is incredibly moving: a tour de force of montage, it has been pieced together from thousands of brief clips taken from seventeen years of home movies. The film inadvertently traces the transition of Preiss’s child from female to male. Again, the wall label uses phrases like “lyrical flow” and “almost improvisational”—but that’s a big “almost,” and I remain unconvinced that this work has any special connection to the blues or jazz. Equally arbitrary seem the decisions—but were they even decisions, rather than simple oversights?—not to include various artists whose work would seem to have, on the face of it, a more concrete relation to the blues. I’ve already mentioned a number of black artists who might have been included in a show on black music and abstraction; those names are merely the tip of an iceberg. There are also white artists who have responded deeply to black music. I particularly missed Archie Rand’s “Letter Paintings” of 1968–71, a remarkable suite of tributes to jazz, blues and Motown musicians made through the simple—and yet, in these works, not so simple—act of inscribing names. As Roberta Smith wrote about them in 1991, “the look and sound of the names and the music they conjure mingles with rich textures and tones of paint,” while “the relatively private act of looking at a singular handmade painting is animated by the more collective, widely accessible experience of music, its memories and associations.”

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The problem with “Blues for Smoke”  goes deeper than who’s in and who’s out. It has to do with the difficulty of knowing how to draw on black culture in a period that ostensibly allows for identities that are—to use Thelma Golden’s famous phrase, as Simpson himself does—“post-black.” As Simpson quotes Golden, “Post-black artists are adamant about not being labeled ‘black’ artists, though their work [is] steeped, in fact deeply interested, in redefining complex notions of blackness.” More than a decade after Golden introduced the term, it’s still unclear how and to what extent an artist can be post-black. But what “Blues for Smoke” suggests is that—for a curator, an artist, a critic, any interested party—it is not yet possible for a white person to be post-black, because we don’t yet know how to be post-white. That seems a much harder task.

Nearly thirty years ago, in his classic essay “Repetition as a Figure of Black Culture,” James Snead observed, “The outstanding fact of late twentieth-century European culture is its ongoing reconciliation with black culture.” In this early patch of the twenty-first century, such reconciliation remains elusive. But the important thing to remember is that it’s European—or, better, Euro-American—culture that must complete and transcend itself through a reconciliation with black culture, not the other way round.

This week Barry Schwabsky also writes in the editorials section about the Museum of Modern Art’s plans to raze the adjacent building that formerly housed the American Folk Art Museum.