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.