Black like Me?

John Haber
in New York City

Blues for Smoke: Art and Jazz

Let me tell you a story, about a white kid in New York. Yes, "Blues for Smoke" surveys some fifty years of mostly African American art, at the Whitney, but this is all about telling stories. David Hammons's Chasing the Blue Train (photo by Dirk Pauwels, collection S.M.A.K., Ghent, 1989)

This white kid is listening to jazz, a lot of jazz, free jazz, the freer the better. He never thought he would listen to jazz at all, but this is not his parents' music. It has the crazy rhythms and clashing harmonies of the rock he had found not all that long before, in nights at CBGB on the Bowery—but with far more virtuosity and even more of the poetry. It has the equally crazy, clashing personalities that a kid just out of college can appreciate, like Sun Ra, for whom "space is the place." Rigorous and demanding, it holds out the promise that music naturally finds its future. In all that, it is also like art.

At least it is like the art that he had come to New York to create. This is around 1980, when one could nurse a drink through a set without a cover almost anywhere in the Village, and jazz is one of the few pleasures that a young painter can afford—except for galleries and museums. And those have their shocks, too. Apparently, there is more to art, much more, than a relentless march toward abstraction. Come to think of it, going back past John Coltrane, to classic jazz and the blues, there is more to music, too. Maybe it is time to listen harder, both to what is changing now and to his parents' music as well.

For one thing, he might notice that there is more to jazz than abstraction. For African Americans, there has to be. Jazz is a part of their heritage and their identity—and their contribution to the culture and identity of others, too. So is music a matter of tradition or form, the vernacular or high culture, identity or ambiguity? What about art? "Blues for Smoke" asks just that, but without waiting for an answer, and of course what lingers throughout is what can constitute art or race, when subject matter or science cannot. Alternately resonant and confusing, it is less a history of African American art than a quirky guide to the present, with a great soundtrack.

Off camera

I opened with someone much like me and my friends some time back, except that they could paint and I could not. (Yes, I had other business.) "Blues for Smoke" feels achingly like my own history, and I suspect that others will feel the same. I went in with low expectations for a boilerplate theme. I left still hearing the music, if also wondering whether the show will make sense to someone with a different past or a shorter memory. The Whitney may cover the last fifty years, but it really works its way forward from the 1980s, after a quick glance back.

I also left wondering what much of the show was doing there. Did I really need Martin Kippenberger yet again? His clothed self-portrait in aluminum faces the corner like a shamed child, but whatever does that have to do with grown-ups—or the blues? Did I need German art at all, even when Jutta Koether pays tribute to Robert Johnson, the Delta blues legend of "Crossroads" and "Hellhound on My Trail"? Her diptych combines a slapdash image with simplistic text like aura, astral, spiritual, and obsession. How about Rachel Harrison, who fawns on Amy Winehouse of all people, in the style of a groupie with a colored pencil and a notebook?

When "Blues for Smoke" misses, often as not it is aiming high. It asks what jazz or the blues means for others, black and white alike. Although it omits a jazz fan in Norman Lewis or Herman Leonard, it insists on the importance of African American art by not setting it apart from others, much as Kira Lynn Harris calls her silvery wallpaper by the stairs Blues for Breuer (as in Marcel Breuer of the famous chair and the Bauhaus). And then it asks how the broader culture (or my white kid) understands what it sees and hears. It does not identify artists as black or white, and you may find yourself wishing you knew. And then you may find yourself feeling guilty that you asked.

Context here is everything, starting with music. It starts right in the lobby gallery, with four musicians on video performing a composition by Albert Ayler, the sharp-edged tenor sax player of "energy music," who died in 1960 at only thirty-four. Stan Douglas uses both sides of the screen for the performance, with the soloist on one side. On the other side of Hors-Champs ("off camera," or literally "out of field"), musicians wipe their brows, hold their instruments poised to their lips, withhold them again, and finally kick in. While they amount to outtakes from an actual music video, the two sides come together seamlessly in real time, as sound art. One feels not only questions about space and meaning, but also like being there.

The show's title may mention the blues, but one hears mostly jazz. It refers to a song by Jaki Byard, the jazz pianist and one of the show's patron saints. He is on headphones at one of the handful of listening stations set amid the art. He is also in a darkened central room, for film and video. The exhibition's heart and literal center, the room ranges back in time to Big Mama Thornton, the field recordings of Alan Lomax, and Henry Flynt's memories of "hillbilly blues," forward to the edge between jazz and rap. Still, expect a heavy dose of the avant-garde, in the likes of Sun Ra, Cecil Taylor, and the Art Ensemble of Chicago.

The largest projection, of Duke Ellington's 1935 Symphony in Black, anticipates today's music videos (with a cast including a young Billie Holiday). It cuts between concert footage and elusive sexual encounters, both in elegant dress. It points not just to the past, but away from abstraction and toward a dark intimacy as well. The entire show alternates in much the same way. Jazzy and upbeat, it keeps returning to African American art and a troubling history. It also keeps asking what African Americans remember that others forget.

Chasing red and blue memories

Live performers appear at the Whitney throughout the run, but the show upstairs starts with music, too. A model train set snakes in and out of a pile of coal and piano lids. Depending when you arrive, John Coltrane, Thelonius Monk, or James Brown's "Night Train" might be in the air. With Chasing the Blue Train, David Hammons combines Coltrane's album Blue Train with his song "Chasin' the Trane"—not to mention coal and train. (Get it?) He is also up to his usual tricks.

The bright blue model train is going nowhere, and the pianos are not playing, although both are looking good. A big part of black history, however, was about going somewhere, whether from Africa in chains or north to something still less than the American dream. That kind of dislocation turns up again inside—first with Zoe Leonard and her row of blue suitcases and then with a four-channel video of cities, railroads, highways, and a girl in need. Jeff Preiss just happens to be documenting her change in gender, next to Mark Morrisroe's photos of friends in a time of AIDS. Apparently Ellington had it right about fashion and sex, just not in the way he knew. The blues may or may not justify the turn from race to LBGT, but camp, sex, and death return later with Wu Tsang's Mishima in Mexico as well.

Is the show just hitting its stride or losing it altogether? That question never goes away, and the Whitney pretty much welcomes it. The layout departs from chronology, to create a context in music and the past. One hits older artists first whichever way one proceeds. I followed an echo of Blue Train in a circle of blue glitter on the floor, by Kori Newkirk, broken by a beat-up shopping cart bearing a water bottle. Here, too, life on the street is going nowhere fast.

Newkirk is working in 2012, but the walls hold black abstraction from the early 1970s. William T. William's Trane is like a jazzier Frank Stella, with Stella's Protractors crammed into a painted rectangle. Ed Clark's The Big Egg transforms Abstract Expressionism into shaped canvas, Charles Gaines draws shifting shapes with numbers, Jack Whitten finds optical activity in night colors and a squeegee, and yellow seeps out from Late Night Reflections by Alma Thomas. Is the blackness African American? No one but you is here to say. The next room hits the theme of dislocation, with much of the show's bad notes, but it is still chasing the train.

Another room tries instead for relocation. It has some desperate shots at positive thinking in oil, like a ghetto fire escape for Martin Wong and Barkley L. Hendricks's Double Barbara. It has its disturbances, though, like the torn and abstracted posters of Mark Bradford or Dave McKenzie's Fear and Trembling—an empty bag on a dry cleaner's rack ceaselessly turning. Senga Nengudi's stockings filled with sand offer a woman with balls. I have no clue what Amy Sillman is doing here, Sillman's abstraction broken by a dead hand and subtle hints of a crouching body, but the animation next to it dances. And then, after the room for video, art lingers on the 1990s and into the present.

It is a present of memories. Lorraine O'Grady remembers the calm after a storm, in her video of plants in a strong wind and the sounds of crickets and birds. Lorna Simpson and Carrie Mae Weems remember their families—the first in framed sepia tones up and down a wall, the second in photographs accompanied by text, like a diary. Kerry James Marshall remembers old samplers, on a large unstretched canvas invaded by gold and angels. Rodney McMillian remembers a country church in vinyl, now empty except for you. His bright red paint stains the tarp, the pulpit, and a cross, as if slick with fresh blood.

Curating as improvisation

I remember that generation more for its detachment and disdain, but here it seems haunted. William Pope.L, for one, is haunted even by irony. "Black people are the trees in the park," his jazz rhythms begin, and "white people are the leaves on the pond near the crematorium." The haunting extends to grimmer memories, like the chains and bolts of Lynch Fragments for Melvin Edwards. Leonard's Strange Fruit of desiccated banana and orange peels remembers lynchings, too, and the stuffed leather of Liz Larner's bloated limbs or punching bags have absorbed blows as well. Both Leonard and Larner are white.

The show has come full circle into the past, and the last (or first) room brings older names, but again not in strict chronology. For the South in art, William Eggleston photographs vines in Mississippi on the way to Eggleston's "Los Alamos," like a close-up of the region's hot and entangled past, while Kara Walker enacts that history in black paper cutouts and ink extravaganzas. Roy DeCarava photographs the New York of Billie Holiday and Coltrane, and Beauford Delaney glibly paints Charlie Parker, while Bob Thompson places Coltrane in a more primal Garden of Music. Romare Bearden here has a density and darkness that exhibitions of his collage so often forget. Jean-Michel Basquiat turns up, too, with text in pen and oil stick, maybe because he admired be-bop. For once with Basquiat, I can hear the music of psychic automaticity instead of the whirr of automatic pilot.

You will have your own doubts when it comes to omissions and inclusions. I sure did, but every so often I was fooled. Renée Green's Import/Export Funk Office has boom boxes, walls for German translation of ghetto slang, and shelves for such paperback "reading materials" as Hunter S. Thompson, Frantz Fanon, and Black like Me. It could be a trendy college course on "negritude" and the 1960s. In fact, Green means to question Europe's assimilation of the lives of others. The show as a whole is just as savvy, but it still risks becoming an excuse for almost anything.

Jazz could easily have served as an excuse for a politically correct and ultimately dismissive history lesson, maybe with classroom pairings of black and white. The show could instead have become the cartoon side of Pop Art. It could have traced American art and music "from the cradle," with or without Eric Clapton. People often compare Jackson Pollock to jazz improvisation, to find something uniquely American in the triumph of American painting. "Blues for Smoke" supplies a welcome alternative to all that, as well as to talk of drip painting as Surrealism, but it never quite asks who was listening to what and who was using whom. It shuns the obvious alternatives, but does that leave anything at all?

One can enjoy it as simply a smart curator's wildly personal choices. Bennett Simpson consulted with Glenn Ligon, the artist, which explains much of the time frame. It very much centers on African Americans born in the 1950s and 1960s, too early for LaToya Ruby Frazier. Ligon's silkscreens of a joke from Richard Pryor, in bleary typewriter font, position him firmly in the "Pictures generation" along with Richard Prince. In a sense, the entire show is an artist's improvisation. Simpson, from LA MOCA, may explain the reach to LA artists like Hammons, Edwards, John Outterbridge, and Henry Taylor.

One can take "Blues for Smoke," too, as a present moment coming together—a moment obsessed, as Sigmund Freud would be glad to see, with a generation ago. It overlaps MoMA PS1's "Now Dig This!" about black Los Angeles, "NYC 1993" at the New Museum, and the Whitney's own "Sinister Pop." It follows "The Bearden Project," in which the Studio Museum in Harlem invited artists to riff on the master. There Harris contributed an impressive chalk mural based on Bearden's The Block. If art seems stuck in the past right now, one can take this show as an assertion that artists are still creating. And then it gives their rootlessness its roots.

BACK to John's arts home page

"Blues for Smoke" ran at The Whitney Museum of American Art through April 28, 2013.


Browse or Search by artist or critic Browse by period in art's histories Browse by postmodern ideas Check out what's NEW Some of my own favorites Museums, galleries, and other resources online Who is Haberarts? Return HOME