PRINT April 2002


Andrew Ross on “Black Romantic”

WHEN WAS THE LAST TIME a major art museum issued an open call for submissions to an upcoming show? Um . . . never? While open calls are the staple of a thousand regional and community art centers, the metro curator lives or dies by her own deft instincts about where to look, how to prefer, and what to embrace. So when one of the art world’s most sophisticated curators circulates an announcement that begins “Attention Artists!” and goes on to solicit work in the figurative genre of “romanticism,” irony hounds are likely to salivate at the prospect of another juicy morsel of conceptualism coming their way. Even for those with duller appetites, it may not be easy to take such a gesture at face value. Thirty years of tastemaking and art practice have made it habitual to extract conceptual merit from almost every aspect of the commonplace—the cuckoo clock on the mantelpiece, an ad for mail-order brides, Jesus Christ’s visage on the moon, the boy next door. When nothing cannot be redeemed by irony, everything will be.

Thelma Golden is hoping that visitors to “Black Romantic,” her show of popular, figurative black art opening this month at the Studio Museum in Harlem (where she is deputy director for exhibitions and programs), will see fit to check their irony at the door. That will be a lot to ask, though she, more than most, has a shot at winning this gamble (having survived curatorial trials by fire at the Whitney to become the current queen of the hill), and it is the pluckiest wager in many a year. The open call was a practical matter: It gave Golden access to a vast community of artists about whom she knew very little. They include figures like Kadir Nelson, Dean Mitchell, Alonzo Adams, Gerald Griffin, and Philip Smallwood, who have zero name recognition in the art world yet are exhibited widely in historically black college galleries and hold pride of place in the personal collections of Bill Cosby, Oprah Winfrey, Will Smith, Spike Lee, Jesse Jackson, Maya Angelou, and Eddie Murphy. They command top billing at black art stores and galleries in malls across the country, and reproductions of their work can be found in street fairs and festivals, even on vendors’ tables along Harlem’s 125th Street.

The genres these artists favor are frankly pictorial, focused on the dignity of proud, often heroic black figures and steeped in a utopian realism that tends to highlight the strongest, finest, most fearless, and least compromised. Their themes are humanistic and accentuate the positive, even when their subjects are down on their luck. A blue-collar worker, taking a load off his feet. A basketball giant, sculpted, poised, and withholding his power. A grandmother with an achy back, her mind on something higher than the daily wash. A steamy Black Venus, shell-surfing ashore on a moonlit wave. As tableaux of social feeling, they are probably a more accurate distillation of the philosophy of the black majority than are those renditions of black life that are overrepresented in the public eye: the boilerplate media depictions of ghetto distress and thug life on the one hand, and the gold-plated, bling-bling dioramas of high life promoted by hip-hop videos on the other. Even so, they stand foursquare in the dominant black art tradition of figuration, ever popular because it is the most effective vehicle for correcting the long history of visual caricatures of black people.

When the world of taste that mattered was simpler, the art in “Black Romantic” would have been neatly assigned to the middlebrow. With one stroke of Clement Greenberg’s pen, in fact. But that can no longer be the case. For one thing, there are sectors of the art world (and they include prominent black artists dealing with black content) that not only court kitsch but try to achieve its effect in all sorts of knowing ways. Nor are the more familiar landmarks of middlebrow art likely to be of much help in guiding the disoriented. Think of LeRoy Neiman or Thomas Kinkade, whose commercial empires boast an intercontinental span, or even Rockwell himself, whose bittersweet aftertaste, from his traveling retrospective, will surely influence the critical reception of “Black Romantic.” Their universalizing themes and their circuits of distribution and consumption are certainly relevant by way of comparison. But the choice of style and content among white popular artists does not matter in anything like the way that figuration and realism does in the black world. Nor does the dignity (or levity) they bestow on their subjects carry the same political freight as it does for these black painters.

When American art-world cognoscenti speak of “black art,” they have in mind a fine-art tradition that includes Romare Bearden and Jacob Lawrence, or else the more conceptual lineage that runs from David Hammons and Adrian Piper to the younger artists with whom Golden is centrally associated, like Lorna Simpson, Glenn Ligon, Kara Walker, and Gary Simmons. But the term refers to an entirely different echelon in this “art world that is totally outside of my art world,” as Golden puts it, a parallel universe as geographically broad (many of the submissions came from the Deep South) as it is sociologically diverse (from the self-taught to graduates of top-drawer art schools). Unlike in the metro art economy, in which blatant self-promotion and gold lust are required to be guilt-ridden if not entirely verboten impulses, the value system that supports the Black Romantics revolves explicitly around commercial visibility and entrepreneurial accomplishment. While there is a pecking order, governed by inclusion in the private collections of black celebrities, evidence of monetary success, as measured by commissions from Fortune 500 firms, Hollywood, and prime venues of commercial illustration, is just as important. Metro art museums barely register on this scale of achievement. “These artists don’t need me,” Golden observes. “They really couldn’t care less about what I do.”

Since its founding in 1969, the Studio Museum has been on a tireless drive to introduce black figures into the pages of art history and the galleries of historically white institutions. That campaign, which has achieved modest success, has meant turning a blind eye to the art on the street, literally outside its own doors. It was one or the other, not both, and not just for the museum. Black artists were forced to make the same choice. Golden compares it to the predicament of gay black men: “You can either be black in the gay world or gay in the black community. These artists can either be black in the art world or artists in the black world.” Likewise, black writers have become all too familiar with the “Barnes & Noble dilemma”: Should our books be placed in the literature section or the African American section? “Black Romantic” won’t make a whit of difference to that predicament, though it will showcase the consequences of being forced to choose. In so doing, it will call attention to the separatism of the art world in ways that cut more deeply and broadly than, say, the Guerrilla Girls’ protests about the absence of artists of color in major galleries and Whitney Biennials.

Both Golden and Lowery Stokes Sims, the director of the Studio Museum, recognize that, until recently, the museum has been fully complicit in this social and aesthetic separatism. Is it now doing the right thing by opening its doors to the kinds of work and audiences it has shunned for so long? Sims agrees that the dialogue can no longer be put off. “Within the black community,” she adds, “there is a lot of discomfort with postmodern modes of expression that can seem insulting and disrespecting when they change the features of their subjects. Satire and expressionist irony often do not fly because they are techniques that have been used traditionally to oppress black people.” Golden goes even further, viewing the black hunger for figuration in the context of a widespread belief that “there is a distinct conspiracy to keep openly positive images of African American people out of the public view.”

It will be a “happy coincidence,” Sims acknowledges, if this turns out to be the best-attended show in the museum’s history. For pressing financial reasons, museums can no longer afford to exclude potential audiences, and those that cannot get by on noblesse oblige have long been trimming toward populism. Historian of black art Leslie King-Hammond, who applauds the show’s move into “a no-man’s-land that has been taboo for too long” and hopes it “will throw the art world off its center,” coyly suggested that the museum expand its gift shop, even place its own vending table out on the street. With or without the street table, cultural critic Greg Tate points out that Golden and Sims have already made the museum into something of a “crossroads,” in the rich, African American meaning of that term. Acknowledging this show to be an inevitable step for the curator he admiringly calls the “illmatic doyenne,” Tate also sees it as a “necessary and unavoidable opportunity for mutual interrogation” on all sides.

The most interesting interrogation may well come from the artists themselves, some of whom were quite vocal in their criticism of 1994’s “Black Male,” Golden’s landmark avant-garde Whitney show. Dean Mitchell, a seasoned Kansas painter who has learned over several decades exactly what kinds of images black artists are able to sell (white males and black females are easiest), and in which regions of the country (New Orleans is a good market, the Midwest is not), found the Whitney show to be “one-sided.” “Caucasians,” he speculates, “have an easier time accepting conceptual treatments of race in America than they do with black images, in the academic style, that are dignified, regal, or powerful.” Under “the current rules,” he points out, “people will thumb their noses at anything that actually looks like something,” but “the rules can change whenever Caucasians want them to: Rockwell, for example, is now welcome at the Guggenheim.” Mitchell fully expects the Studio Museum show to be “hammered by the critics,” but he couldn’t be happier about the “opportunity for dialogue” it will provide.

When the hue and cry is over, “Black Romantic” will probably have shifted more paradigms per hour than Golden’s last show, “Freestyle,” which put a face on the concept of postblack. “Freestyle” announced the beginning of the end of a period when identity politics required the art world to open some of its doors. “Black Romantic” is a whole new zeitgeist. Tastewise, the show is a move beyond the major plateaus of recent years: high/low, outsider art, and the thrift-store aesthetic. But the leap of educational faith it demands is much bolder and much more rewarding. Art matters, it proclaims, though not necessarily in ways that any of us has been trained to expect.

Andrew Ross is director of the American Studies program at New York University.

“Black Romantic” opens on April 24 at the Studio Museum in Harlem, where it will be on view until June 24.