Less than one week before the July 22nd opening of 20/20: The Studio Museum in Harlem and Carnegie Museum of Art, curator Eric Crosby walked me through the partially hung CMOA exhibit. Over the past one and one-half years, Crosby and Amanda Hunt, at the time a curator of the Studio Museum and currently the Director of Education at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles (LACMA), collaborated on the design of the show, an effort to shed light on both museums’ collections and to make them more responsive to the community.
The resulting “mix-up” of 82 works by 40 artists, 20 from each museum, spanning almost 100 years, provides a potent and provocative look at contemporary art, within the historical context of deeply rooted black culture in communities that flourished in Pittsburgh and Harlem after the Great Migration.
In a stroke of curatorial brilliance, Crosby and Hunt selected Horace Pippin’s Abe Lincoln’s First Book (1944) as the first piece in the exhibit. The painting, which had been hanging in CMOA for 30 years, nestled next to Edward Hopper, seemed the right one to open the show, a work that contrasts with our present moment in American presidential politics. Pippin fought with the Harlem Hellfighters in WWI and, after injuring his right arm, rehabilitated himself through painting, a rebirth through the arts. In this work, he re-imagined an important historical moment in American history. “Here is a painter, painting the democratic ideal, the search for knowledge and understanding,” Crosby said. “Pippin was looking at the nation’s president as a symbol.”
Plucked out of chronology from the CMOA collection, Pippin’s oil painting highlights a young, beardless Abe Lincoln, dressed in a light-colored shirt, reaching for a book in a library, against a black background. The work launches the first section of the show, “A More Perfect Union,” the title drawn from the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution and President Barack Obama’s 2008 speech. Since they began planning the show at a moment of national transition, as the Obama presidency was coming to an end, the work was chosen, Hunt said in the accompanying Gallery Guide, “As a critical entry point. We are talking about America and its current state, about the history and the complexity of that history, and certainly about how it has specifically impacted communities of color over time.”
On an adjacent wall, the curators have installed Jasper Johns’s Flags I (1973) and Glenn Ligon’s Prisoner of Love #1 (Second Version), 1992. Flags appeared to Jasper Johns in a dream, and the work’s layered texture introduces restless green markings into the familiar red, white, and blue icon. Ligon’s black-and-white work, borrows from a passage from Jean Genet’s memoir Prisoner of Love, where Genet wrote that “They (Blacks) are that ink that gives the white page a meaning.” With one significant edit, changing they to we,Ligon gives Genet’s words a deeply felt, personal dimension.
Also included in “A More Perfect Union” are Lyle Ashton Harris’s Miss America, (1987-1988), a gelatin silver print from The Studio Museum, where a topless African American woman, her face illuminated so that it looks white, has an American flag draped around her shoulders; Gordon Parks’s Emerging Man, Harlem NY (1952); and six works by Pope. L, including Black People Are the Tie That Binds (2004-2005), and Black People Are the Glory of a Shared Piece of Candy (2004. These small (12.5 x 10 inch) works from The Studio Museum, done with pen and marker on paper, resemble hand-lettered flyers, that one might find glued to city buildings in gritty, downtown neighborhoods, seemingly simple, but deceivingly complex. In the same gallery, a space was reserved for a large painted wooden sculpture by Louise Nevelson, Homage to Martin Luther King, Jr. 1974-1985), which had not yet arrived. Together, these works speak to the vast and painful divide between the dream of a perfect union and the reality of an imperfect one.
Section II of the exhibit takes its title, “Working Thought,” from a welded steel sculpture by Melvin Edwards (1985), an assemblage of tools and individual scraps of metal. Clearly, Edwards is referencing the role that industry has played in American history and in particular the heavy burden of physical labor carried by Blacks. Hanging from the ceiling is his Cotton Hangup (1966), a welded steel piece that speaks directly to the history of slavery and to the dominance of cotton as a cash crop in the slave-driven economy. “After Emmett Till was beaten and shot for allegedly flirting with a white woman, his body was tied to a cotton gin fan with barbed wire before it was thrown in the river to sink,” Crosby said, looking up at Edward’s menacing Cotton Hangup, looming over our heads.
At eye level, but equally compelling, are Kara Walker’s cut-paper silhouettes, drawn from her portfolio, The Emancipation Approximation (1999-2000), and three paintings from Titus Kaphar’s Jerome series. To research this work, Kaphar, whose father Jerome was incarcerated, mined an online data base of prisoners with the first name Jerome. In Jerome IV (2014), the portrait of one of the Jeromes is part religious icon (with his eyes staring out at us from a background of gold gilt) and part victim (with his mouth and jaw covered with dripping tar). The work is a fierce indictment of the contemporary prison-industrial complex with its system of harsh labor and the toll it takes on the lives of Blacks.
In the same section, David Hammons’s Untitled (2000), a sculpture made of 30 cardboard boxes on a wooden skid, stamped with the words, Made in the People’s Republic of Harlem, speaks to Harlem’s unique identity. Hammons had a special tie to the Studio Museum since he was in one of the first classes of artists-in-residence there. The art selected for Working Thought compels museum goers to view racial conflict through the prism of history. Whether it be life on the plantation or life in a prison, the reality is grim and unforgiving.
In the third section of the show, “American Landscape,” the curators looked at photographs, documentary and more abstract works. Included here are a trio of photos by Zoe Strauss, who is better known for her portraits of people living in Camden, New Jersey. Strauss’s Half House, Camden, NJ (2008) startles us with a profound sense of loss. We are not quite sure what we are looking at and we are left to imagine what the whole house (if it ever existed) looked like.
One work by Kori Newkirk, Solon 6:12 (2000) depicts a natural landscape through plastic pony beads, artificial hair, and metal brackets. Newkirk said that the work was his response to seeing Venus and Serena Williams on the tennis court, their beaded braids flying in the air. Somehow, without a distinct political or social edge, “American Landscape” seems less compelling than “A More Perfect Union” and “Working Thought.” Individual pieces resonate but they do not cohere.
In the middle of the show, in a gallery entitled “Documenting Black Life,” Crosby and Hunt have installed (but not intermixed) the iconic work of James VanDerZee and Charles “Teenie” Harris, two photographers who created indelible portraits of black communities in Harlem and in Pittsburgh. The contrast between their images could not be greater: there are VanDerZee’s studio portraits of local residents, dressed in their finery, many of them notables in the Harlem Renaissance Movement. Not a strand of hair out-of-place; not a blemish or imperfection. Posed, poised portraits.
Juxtaposed to VanDerZee’s studio work, is the on-the-beat, street photography of Charles “Teenie” Harris who covered the Black community in Pittsburgh, especially residents of the Hill District, for the Black newspaper, The Pittsburgh Courier.
Harris’s images run the gamut from a man and a woman chatting, while seated on a porch railing (1955), to a congregation in front of the New Covenant United Holy Church (1951), to children in the Ammon Center swimming pool (1940-1945). Whenever possible, people in the shots have been identified as the result of the community outreach done by the Charles “Teenie” Harris Archive at the CMOA. In the photo caption for the pool shot, we learn that Nate is the boy in the center missing a tooth, Beverly Massie is the girl on a boy’s shoulders on the right, and Myra Harris is the girl wearing a striped bathing suit. In another candid moment shot in Harris’s backyard (1948), two brothers spray one another with a garden hose. To date, some 60,000 of Harris’s 100,000 images have been digitized. As a foil to the art in the galleries surrounding it, VanDerZee’s and Harris’s images enable us to zoom in on the lives of Blacks in two prominent communities.
The next room, “Shrine for the Spirit,” looks at artists who have turned inward to create more evocative work. The work is more contemplative and elusive and the politics more remote. Prominent here is Barbara Chase-Riboud’s The Cape (Le Manteau) or Cleopatra’s Cape (1973) from the Studio Museum, a bronze, hemp rope, and copper sculpture which has the power and the pull of a shrine for meditation. For Riboud, its inclusion in the show represents a return to Pittsburgh, since she had been featured in the 1958 Carnegie International.
Another inward-looking sculpture is Georgia Gate (1975) by 91-year-old Pittsburgh resident Thaddeus G. Mosley, an artist who has worked carving in wood for decades. The piece has three wooden poles/posts, set in white marble blocks. Two of the posts reach upward to the sky, the third curves against them, forming a sort of rough-hewn, abstract gate, one that is both natural and spiritual. The final section of the 20/20 exhibit “Forms of Resistance,” forefronts politics. Here, the curators, according to Crosby, “tried to look at ways that artists from the 1980s onward have demanded more of the institutions that serve them.” To Hunt, the section also involved a focus “on the implications of historical omission in those spaces.” Underpinning the choices in the gallery here is the theme of inclusion and the legacies of historic bias in earlier centuries that shaped the collections of CMOA and many other museums.
There’s Kerry J. Marshall’s remarkable painting Untitled (Gallery) (2016), just purchased by CMOA, a work that depicts a single Black subject leaning against the wall of a gallery. In the painting, the subject stands next to a small, framed photo of a nude figure with a teddy bear on a rug. Marshall leaves us with many questions: Who is the Black figure? The artist? The subject? The curator?
There’s a 12.5 minute video by Howardena Pindell, Free, White and 21 (1980), from The Studio Museum, where the artist speaks about the racism that she experienced growing up as a Black woman in America. The video begins with Pindell in whiteface and wearing a blond wig, representing a white woman from the 1950s or 1960s. Crosby believes that the recording from 1980 is just as relevant today.
Elsewhere in the gallery is Lorna Simpson’s Dividing Lines (1989) , a work that focuses on the backs of two Black women in white dresses, surrounded by phrases in red type that play with the word line. Dominating the gallery is Collier Schorr’s The First Lady (Diplomat’s Room, Rihanna, 20 Minutes), (2016), a dye transfer sublimation print, mounted on aluminum. The work brings us full circle, making us look backward and forward. We see Michele Obama as a beautiful, strong, and intelligent woman.
Schorr took the original photo for the New York Times Style Magazine. Amanda Hunt commented on the significance of the work in the CMOA Gallery Guide: “The potency and potential of that image, what it allows, and the opportunity for some viewers to see themselves reflected in it. That is what President and Mrs. Obama did for an entire generation of children in this nation. How powerful is it to see yourself reflected in spaces that were once inaccessible to your ancestors?”
We leave the exhibit with our eyes opened, our vision sharpened, our sensibilities heightened, and with our thoughts focused on racial justice and injustice. We leave this superb show with 20/15 vision.