When visitors step into the Whitney’s first-floor gallery, which currently houses Toyin Ojih Odutola: To Wander Determined, they risk forgetting that they are standing in a museum. There is a softness to the space that distances it from the rest of the building, its warm lighting and the pink color of the walls evoking a feeling of intimacy that is both inviting and disorienting. A proclamation near the entrance, signed by artist Toyin Ojih Odutola in her role as “Deputy Private Secretary,” alerts viewers that the sixteen arresting works spread throughout the gallery are from the private collections of two aristocratic Nigerian families, the UmuEze Amara and Obafemi, connected through the marriage of the Marquess of UmuEze Amara, TMH Jideofor Emeka, and his husband, Lord Temitope Omodele. With this information, the intimate atmosphere is given context: it feels as if visitors have been transported to a private, family portrait gallery.
If not for the aforementioned, rather official wall text bearing the families’ crests, viewers would not know that Ojih Odutola’s subjects were of such prestigious social standing. Even armed with this knowledge, they are confronted with an incomplete narrative, left to question the identities of the elaborately fashioned figures in each portrait. No names are provided, nor are there any indications of the lineage from which each subject descends. What remains in their absence is a vague understanding that the subjects are related, as well as a desire to know how. Perhaps in other circumstances it would not occur to visitors to scrutinize the figures presented to them, but the context both provided and omitted by the artist’s proclamation incites a curiosity that may never fully be satisfied. This is the challenge that Ojih Odutola sets forth for her audience.
The Usable Past: “The concept that a self-conscious examination of historical figures, moments, and symbols can shape current and future political formation.”
This is how the Whitney defines the title of one of five galleries in their ongoing permanent collection exhibition An Incomplete History of Protest. The works in the gallery present memory and nostalgia as both powerful and yet often insufficient vehicles to re-experience the past. Sharing tropes of obfuscation and anonymity, the works materialize the incomplete nature of memory and documentation.
Annette Lemieux’s painting Black Mass (1991), in which she replaces the protest signs in a civil rights march with black, empty squares, hangs across the room from Glenn Ligon’s Untitled (Speech/Crowd) #2, a photograph of the Million Man March which Ligon has blurred and layered with coal dust. These works recall acts of censorship and evoke the fading hope of social change in a world where battles for civil rights must be repeatedly fought. However, the works in the exhibition that truly express the concept of “the usable past” are those which feature the museum as their main subject.
Lining the walls of the museum’s new Meatpacking building, a multiplicity of letters of protest written to the Whitney by artists and organizations related to the institution emerge from the Whitney’s archives. In a letter from 1971 addressed to former director John I.H. Baur, the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition announced their opposition to the 1971 exhibition Black Artists in America and declared their plans to demonstrate on the museum’s premises. Their initial discontent stemmed from the Whitney’s seemingly empty promise to hire and consult with black art leaders for the curating of the show. The BECC’s correspondence with the Whitney attests to the fact that the institution has dealt with issues surrounding the cultural agency of marginalized groups in an art context. Alongside this letter, dozens of other requests from artists implore the museum to remove their work as acts of protest or solidarity during moments of political unrest, and urge the museum to take a stance on current socio-political debates.
Ken Johnson’s controversial review of Now Dig This! Art and Black Los Angeles 1960-1980, currently on view at MoMA PS1 through March 11, has become nothing less than an art world scandal, sparking a deluge of denouncements from readers, an open-letter and petition against the New York Times backed by prominent artists, critics and art historians, and even an attempted rebuttal on the art critic’s Facebook page, with continued debate in the comments section. Some of Johnson’s most problematic assertions focus on questions of originality and “quality,” each clearly sited in the historical standards of high Modernism. “Black artists did not invent assemblage,” he protests. “In its modern form it was developed by white artists like Picasso, Kurt Schwitters, Marcel Duchamp, David Smith and Robert Rauschenberg.” Later, the critic attacks the use of socially-engaged themes during a period in which art was supposed to be purged of realism and representation: “The art of black solidarity gets less traction because the postmodern art world is, at least ostensibly, allergic to overt assertions of any kind of solidarity.”
These accusations would be relevant if Johnson’s concerns were shared by the exhibition’s curator, Columbia Professor Kellie Jones, but Now Dig This! is not intended to de-throne Duchamp and Rauschenberg. Jones presents Now Dig This! as an art historical survey of the African-American cultural scene in 1960s-1980s Los Angeles; she frames the exhibition as an arrangement of episodes rather than a singular narrative. Each gallery focuses on a different theme, style, or institutional network, thus allowing the viewer multiple points of entry into a wide body of artistic and historical material. Johnson’s attachment to the master narrative of Modernism is the first (and perhaps most innocuous) interpretive error of his review, revealing the degree to which this evolutionary historical model remains deeply ingrained in our thinking. Continue reading “Now Dig This! and the Ken Johnson Controversy: A Case For Pluralism in 20th Century Art History”