Exhibiting Blackness: African Americans and the American Art Museum
Bridget R. Cooks
by Franklin Sirmans
Over the course of about 200 pages, Bridget R. Cooks lovingly and critically maps out a well-read course of African American art exhibitions in the 20th and early 21st century. That her work is held close to home is apparent through the cover of her book. There we are confronted by a figure of the author, blurred beyond recognition. In a way she is a bridge and this work is her story. It becomes more so when we understand the other elements of her cover image. On her right sit her parents, back to back, with their gazes drawn to separate paintings. They are at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where Cooks first began to look at art as a child. On her left is Abraham Agonafir, a gallery attendant who the author befriended while working at the museum several years ago and subsequently learned much about the collection and the museum’s visitors. Her mother’s eyes fall on Mary Cassatt’s Mother About to Wash Her Sleepy Child (1880) and her father stares at Winslow Homer’s The Cotton Pickers (1876). Though both paintings are pillars of the museum’s American Art galleries, one can imagine the significance for Cooks as a young woman finding her way as an art scholar.
Surely these two paintings must have spoken volumes to Cooks, and they are the perfect starting point for her discussion, which has as much to do with artists as it does viewers, and that is a good thing. Who needs another survey through the work of the usual suspects of African American art history? Actually, I take that back, we all do! I can remember having no problems lugging my entire semester of books on “Afro-American Art from 1850 to the Present” around campus. While that was long ago, a quick view of similar syllabi hasn't made that bag much heavier.
In Exhibiting Blackness Cooks lays out a history, not artist by artist, as in many standard academic texts, but by telling the story as a curator, one who has identified pivotal exhibitions worthy of extended exploration. Those exhibitions are not limited to African Americans in scope or representation. Her purview is refreshingly broad. We learn the significance of Edward Steichen’s groundbreaking Family of Man exhibition (MoMA, 1955) on the controversial Harlem on My Mind show at the Metropolitan Museum, in 1969. Early American art, like that of Cassatt and Homer provide the backdrop and they are joined by black contemporaries like Edmonia Lewis, Robert Douglass and Henry Ossawa Tanner.
The first chapter delves into the solo exhibition of William Edmondson at MoMA in 1937 and the group show Contemporary Negro Art (1939) at the Baltimore Museum of Art. Questioning the concept behind the two different modes of curatorial address, Cooks raises questions around the outsider and naïf Edmondson in contrast to the young, though already highly-trained Jacob Lawrence, “whose forty-one panel General Toussaint L’Ouverture (1937-38) was called ‘easily the most remarkable exhibit,’ of all.” The debate around outsider and insider continues but at the dawn of the discussion it is easy to see how the stakes were higher when questions of intellect were so tightly bound to the reception of Negro art.
Chapter two, focused on the Harlem on My Mind exhibition, illuminates how closely tied the art was to the larger societal discussion around race and culture. Organized by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, under the directorship of Thomas Hoving, the show purported to be about Harlem while involving no one from Harlem. Questions of cultural license and awareness led to a galvanized civil rights movement of artists aimed at opening up the discussion in the museums. This would lead to a host of changes that continue to reverberate today in terms of the presence of blackness in our museums, amongst artists, curators and viewers.
A detailed discussion of one of those shows that occurred after the groundswell of demand led by black artists and activists is Two Centuries of Black American Art (1976), organized by the eminent curator and artist David C. Driskell. His exhibition, at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, travelled to the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts and the Brooklyn Museum. One of the most important aspects of that show was the fact that Driskell mapped African American art as an extension of African art thus giving the subject a sense of tradition that had eluded all previous discussions in the curatorial dimension. While Alain Locke exhorted artists to represent Africa in their work, Driskell’s selection of paintings and sculptures showed how abstract and conceptual such an idea could be rather than simply filling a painting with empty signifiers.
Cooks concludes with commentary on the exhibitions Black Male and The Quilt’s of Gee’s Bend, returning us again to where she opened, with the now universally resonant question of intent versus intuition and insider versus outsider. It’s a good place to be and the artists discussed along the way are an interesting and diverse group. Yet, one must note that two immensely important shows go missing in the discussion. I would love to hear Cooks’ take on Some American History (1971) and The Deluxe Show (1971), both organized by the Menil Foundation in Houston. The former was curated by Larry Rivers and included his own work amidst that of black artists including William T. Williams and Joe Overstreet, among others. The latter was organized by Steve Cannon, a New York poet, and a motley bunch of artistic personas including Clement Greenberg, Sam Gilliam, Peter Bradley and Ken Noland. The show was about abstraction and was probably one of the first instances of aesthetics being the only line of inquiry for an exhibition that included several black artists. And, I think that is the future Cooks alludes to in her conclusion, African Americans After the Art Museum. She talks of an expanded American Art and that seems to be the direction we are heading.
Franklin Sirmans is the Terri and Michael Smooke Department Head and Curator of Contemporary Art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Sirmans is also the Artistic Director of Prospect.3 New Orleans.