There was an exhibit at the Whitney Museum of American Art that I wanted to see and another at the Met. Deciding that I can only afford one, I went to the Whitney since Blues for Smoke was closing the next day.
It was a beautiful spring day and crossing Park Avenue was not only the view of red tulips covering the mid-street island but the delightful smell was overwhelming and it felt like I was in a field of tulips.
I arrived early enough so that the Whitney wasn’t crowded. As I was leaving the line to get in was out the door of the museum.
One part of the exhibition is on the first floor. You walk into a dark room with a screen floating in the middle of the room. A film is playing of a group of jazz musicians. It’s the same musicians on both sides of the screen but different POVs. The film, Stan Douglas’ Hors-champs (a French film term meaning off-camera or outside the scope), show the trombonist, saxophonist, bassist, and drummer (both black and white musicians) improvising on “Spirits Rejoice” by Albert Aylers. The music is strong and fierce. And there are elements that seem political (there is a riff from “La Marseillaise”). Obviously this show was not going to be just blues but also jazz and other music that owed its existence to blues.
When the elevator doors open on the third floor the first thing you see is David Hammons’ installation “Chasing the Blue Train” taking up an entire room. There are several overturned grand piano lids, three boomboxes are playing – each a different song – songs by John Coltrane, James Brown, and Thelonius Monk. There’s a little blue train (sitting still) on small tracks and a huge pile of coal (get it? coal + train).
I wasn’t sure what this installation meant but I was sure that the exhibit was not going to be my definition of blues. The exhibit was not music (although there were headphones in every room playing music for you to listen to while looking at the art) but blues as a state of mind. Art could be blues and since the majority of the artists were African-American it seemed that the curators felt that that state of mind belonged to a particular group. I think most (if not all) of the white artists represented were gay. So the works were mostly about oppression and racism and homophobia.
The pieces that looked like painted music, such as “Black Table Setting (Homage to Duke Ellington)” by Jake Whitten (below) or another artist’s piece with painted ridges where I could kind of make out portraits of musicians underneath (not sure if they were really there or if it was my imagination) I liked a lot. Another (didn’t get the name of the artist or the piece) is three 11×14 unlined pages, which look like music notation paper, are ripped out of notebook and taped together vertically and it is a list that starts “She is born” and ends “She dies.” In between are first steps, school achievements, college, marriage, pregnancy, and seeing her children marry. An ordinary life that reads like a symphony.
“Garden of Music” by Bob Thompson has nude musicians (Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Sonny Rollins) playing in a field. “Souvenir IV” by Kerry James Marshall is a grey piece with angel musicians. There were several portraits by Beauford Delaney of both famous and anonymous musicians – all of them colorful and proud. Rachel Harrison’s Amy Winehouse portraits viewed her seen through Picasso’s eyes.
I don’t know what white gay artist Zoe Leonard originally meant with her line-up in the middle of a room of a lot of blue suitcases but I overheard a tour guide describing it as representative of the Great Migration (southern black sharecroppers moving to the urban north). Next to it was Martin Wong’s “La Vida” showing a happy view of ghetto life – in other words ghetto life is not all about the blues.
A highlight for me was a room filled with videos. There were several videos of music and Richard Pryor, which you could listen to through headphones. Two films had the audio playing out loud. Despite them being two different pieces of music it was complementary. One was a live performance by the Art Ensemble of Chicago. The other was a short film of Duke Ellington and Orchestra playing his “Symphony in Black.” The symphony has several movements – one movement, “Triangle,” was divided into “Dance,” “Jealousy,” and “Blues.” The first part of the movement shows a happy couple dancing through an apartment window. A woman watches from the street (a woman? She’s Billie Holiday!) and she confronts him as the couple walks by. He pushes her off of him and she falls to the street. And then she sings. So glorious.
Renée Green’s “Import/Export Funk Office” installation makes fun of how African-American culture is viewed through German eyes. Words like homey were postered around the room with the definitions both in English and German. Steel shelves held books from the 1960s by African-American authors and videos played Germans explaining African-American culture.
Rodney McMillian created an all red vinyl church in “Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe,” showing the roots of the blues both in heaven and hell.
Senga Nengudi shows splayed pantyhose further stretched by sandbags giving a woman balls while stretching her to a point of no return.
There were familiar collages by Romare Bearden and small graffiti pieces about racism and oppression by Jean-Michel Basquiat.
The last room held two powerful pieces. There was Melvin Edwards’ metal sculptures where you can’t think of anything but chains and Leonard’s “Strange Fruit” that is a piece about AIDS but the title, of course, is a reference to Holiday’s anti-lynching song. In 1994 while watching her friends die of AIDS Leonard saved the peels of all the fruit she ate. She then sewed the peels back together to try to make them whole again. After so many years the original pieces are now desiccated but still whole.
I walked down to the second floor to see I, You, Me. The exhibit looks at works from the 1980s and 1990s and how art that is personal and was overlooked at the time is still relevant today. There was Mark Morrisroe, Cindy Sherman, Robert Mappelthorpe, Richard Avedon, and Basquiat among a lot of artists with whom I’m not familiar. The artwork spoke about AIDS, race, and sex and I could have seen a lot of them in the Blues for Smoke exhibit.
By Carene Lydia Lopez