The Usable Past

Black Mass, 1991, Annette Lemieux (1957-). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Promised gift of Emily Fisher Landau © Annette Lemieux

The Usable Past: “The concept that a self-conscious examination of historical figures, moments, and symbols can shape current and future political formation.”[1]

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.

Glenn Ligon (b. 1960), Untitled (Speech/Crowd) #2, 2000. Screenprint ink, coal dust, oil stick, ink, graphite, and glue on paper, 40 x 54 in. (101.6 x 137.2 cm)

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.

The Black Emergency Cultural Coalition and Black Artist’s Correspondence, 1969-1971. Eight sheets. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Frances Mulhall Achilles Library and Archives

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Now Dig This! and the Ken Johnson Controversy: A Case For Pluralism in 20th Century Art History

Installation view of Now Dig This! Art and Black Los Angeles 1960-1980 at MoMA PS1, © MoMA PS1. Photo by Matthew Septimus.
Installation view of Now Dig This! Art and Black Los Angeles 1960-1980 at MoMA PS1. Photo by Matthew Septimus.

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.”[1]

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”