Los Angeles

View of “Blues for Smoke,” 2012–13. From left: Jean-Michel Basquiat, Undiscovered Genius of the Mississippi Delta, 1983; Kori Newkirk, Yall (detail), 2012; Kira Lynn Harris, But not the kind that’s Blue (detail), 2012; Richard Pryor, Richard Pryor Live in Concert, 1979; Beauford Delaney, Portrait of a Young Musician, n.d. Photo: Brian Forrest.

View of “Blues for Smoke,” 2012–13. From left: Jean-Michel Basquiat, Undiscovered Genius of the Mississippi Delta, 1983; Kori Newkirk, Yall (detail), 2012; Kira Lynn Harris, But not the kind that’s Blue (detail), 2012; Richard Pryor, Richard Pryor Live in Concert, 1979; Beauford Delaney, Portrait of a Young Musician, n.d. Photo: Brian Forrest.

“Blues for Smoke”

View of “Blues for Smoke,” 2012–13. From left: Jean-Michel Basquiat, Undiscovered Genius of the Mississippi Delta, 1983; Kori Newkirk, Yall (detail), 2012; Kira Lynn Harris, But not the kind that’s Blue (detail), 2012; Richard Pryor, Richard Pryor Live in Concert, 1979; Beauford Delaney, Portrait of a Young Musician, n.d. Photo: Brian Forrest.

STANDING AT THE THRESHOLD of “Blues for Smoke,” one could see the following, reading from foreground to background: a video monitor playing Richard Pryor Live in Concert (1979); a painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat; portraits of Jean Genet, Charlie Parker, and James Baldwin by Beauford Delaney; a row of fifty-one old-fashioned hard-top blue suitcases arranged by Zoe Leonard; a black-and-maroonish abstraction by Jack Whitten; a wall drawing by Kira Lynn Harris; and, hovering off to the left, a wall of Glenn Ligon’s black-on-gold Richard Pryor paintings, all inscribed with the same joke: “I was a nigger for twenty-three years. I gave that shit up. No room for advancement.” One could hear the overlapping sounds of John Coltrane (emanating from David Hammons’s installation Chasing the Blue Train, 1989) and Albert Ayler (seeping out of Stan Douglas’s video Hors-Champs, 1992). This opening established many of the exhibition’s leitmotifs: music, identity, discord, humor, repetition, experimentation, and something huge and unfashionable called “Americanness.”

“Blues for Smoke” was installed in the Geffen building at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, the low-slung, cavernous space that has been instrumental in defining the museum’s program of ambitious art-historical exhibitions. Even as it extended this tradition, the show proposed a new model for that very kind of exhibition making. Unlike LA MoCA’s previous attempts to define art-historical “movements” including Minimalism, Conceptual art, performance, and feminist art, “Blues for Smoke” eschewed any such academic and/or market formulations. It tackled neither a chronological period nor a conventional art-historical problem. Instead it borrowed a vernacular American term and bent it, much as the blues is known for bending notes so that they ineffably mirror the high-lonesome condition of adulthood. Curator Bennett Simpson used the logic of the blues—which he defines as a perpetual tension between roots and experimentation—to address the concerns of the blues, which he identifies as “the continual displacement of race and sex and identity and affect.” In other words, this was not an exhibition about abstract painters listening to the blues in their studios (though there were undoubtedly such paintings on view), nor was it a show about how it feels to lose your sweetheart (though such images of loss and longing certainly appear). Rather, as Cornel West says in a remarkable ten-minute video interview, available on the LA MoCA website, the blues is about the catastrophe of life that is visited upon us. The exhibition ruminates upon how we manage that catastrophe—through trial and error, through repetition and difference, through roots and experimentation, through the logic of form, be it the formal strategies of painting or the assignation of gender and race upon our bodies. “Blues for Smoke” was an exhibition about subjectivities—how they come into being, how they are expressed, how they relate to one another. It was an exhibition about the relations between popular culture (all five seasons of David Simon’s masterpiece The Wire were playing on a loop) and their continuity with contemporary art (one got to the room where ­The Wire was installed only by walking through Kara Walker’s excruciating video projection of an antebellum nightmare Fall frum Grace: Miss Pipi’s Blue Tale, 2011). Such a pairing also suggested that the blues is hardly an “authentic” or “historical” form, intimating instead that the blues has always had to negotiate the technology and protocols of the recording industry, producing a dialectic of emotional experience and its mediation. Finally, it was an exhibition about how there can be no adequate accounting of our subjectivities that does not traffic in the histories of race and gender and sexuality.

But none of these aims or attributes were handled in a didactic manner. There were no section headings, no groupings according to themes. One of the most striking features of the exhibition was how little it felt like it had something to prove. It didn’t insist upon its terms or demand recognition for the lesser-known artists it presented, nor did it set out to debunk a master narrative (though it did). Rather, the logic of Simpson’s proposition was found in the installation itself, which reveled in the segue, my experience of which was first encountered in the old-school mixtape.

For my generation, the making of a mixtape was a declaration of love. Frequently a gift, it was also an early foray into the logic of curating: choosing, presenting, and caring for cultural expressions. Simpson’s pacing and arrangement of objects felt like a mixtape to me. The show cohered not because of an art-historical or theoretical paradigm but rather due to the force of Simpson’s sensibility. At first this made me nervous: Was it too dandyish? Too belletristic? Did it privilege the authorship of the curator too much? But as I walked through the exhibition, stopping to listen to the audio clips of blues, rap, country, and experimental jazz, I found myself thinking about how important it is to try to render time nonchronologically. Now, I’m a huge fan of chronology. I loved mastering the linear logic of my undergraduate art-history survey class. But chronology doesn’t prompt you to install Melvin Edwards’s abstract welded-steel sculptures, which hang at face height and evoke lynchings, in a room with Liz Larner’s abject floor-bound stuffed leather form. Two of the Edwards sculptures are from 1991 while a third is from 1975, and the Larner piece is dated 1990, but dates seemed beside the point.

The title of Larner’s No M, No D, Only S & B can be read as standing for No Mom, No Dad, Only Sister and Brother. I’ve always found this object perversely liberating, a queer fantasy of a family built on parity rather than hierarchy. But placing No M, No D, Only S & B in the room with Edwards’s works allows the historical violence of slavery, which ruthlessly denied access to one’s father and mother, to tarry with the childlike desire to be free of them. Such historical and psychic incommensurateness is the point. The segue—literally the beat of syncopated silence between objects—rubs in both directions, like an electrical charge, animating both works, complicating the mix of desire and legacy, fantasy and history. The works were not asked to complement each other’s formal explorations so perfectly as to neutralize their profoundly different affects, nor were they placed in a hierarchical relation to one another; instead their adjacency permitted their play with form and innovation (roots and experimentation) to articulate the simultaneity of vastly divergent relations to power. And this was not done in the name of pluralism but in the name of a complicated ambivalence that asks us to test our identities and subjectivities against the larger cultural fabrics of histories shared and histories denied. The grammar of “Blues for Smoke” was not the dyad of “compare and contrast” that governs art history but the perpetual “and” of the unconscious.

This is not to say that art history wasn’t somehow at stake in the exhibition. One of the more remarkable results of “Blues for Smoke” was that it ended up being a surprising meditation on a non-Warholian version of the subject. If Warhol can be seen to have articulated a shift toward postmodern subjectivity—disaffected yet affirmative, and so closely identified with media and popular culture as to be for all intents and purposes at one with them—then art history has taken this shift, particularly in its recent fetishization of the term contemporary, as a kind of implicit telos. “Blues for Smoke” looks at what happens when this point of reference is not given pride of place. What constellations converge across time when this stealth teleology no longer structures our thinking?

The show revealed a model of subjectivity that is not antecedent to Warhol’s but that inhabits the circuits of pop culture and mass media through intimacy and affect and vice versa. This was accomplished in large measure through its selection of intimate photography—made by the likes of William Eggleston, Mark Morrisroe, Carrie Mae Weems, Leslie Hewitt, and Roy DeCarava. It’s a nonspectacular, nondigital, non-large-format version of the photographic image. Part documentary, part diary, part Conceptual proposition, the photograph is divorced from any association with stardom or fandom. There was no fifteen minutes of fame won through cool diffidence or disengagement. There was no photograph in which mastery—over form or content—was privileged. We can see the evidence of Morrisroe’s hand scratching at the edges of the image; we are aware of Hewitt’s careful stacking of books, magazines, and found photos into precise compositions; and we are aware of the physical proximity of DeCarava to his subjects, while in Weems’s work a thick network of familial relations includes both the subjects and the artist herself. This affective relation to intimacy and creation, to experimentation and failure, was not advanced as a pre- or post-Warholian condition—that version of chronological time was simply not permitted. Instead the blues was offered as a way to think about the simultaneity of time—slave time and cable-TV time, Robert Johnson and hip-hop, Romare Bearden and Mark Bradford—which is analogous to the simultaneity of putatively competing emotional states of sadness and joy, or bewilderment and knowledge, pairings structural to the blues.

For the past decade or so LA MoCA has been, in my estimation, the standard-bearer for contemporary art museums. Its commitment to mapping the field of art post-1945 made it unique. It wasn’t content with a safe program of midcareer survey exhibitions and biennials; it got its hands dirty in the murky business of history making. Artist-centered, it challenged the all-too-dominant academic models of art history with exhibitions that held off firm conclusions, largely by permitting art objects to live their weird and unruly lives. Simpson’s exhibition marks a generational shift on this innovative path. Instead of imagining the museum as a site of Adamic naming, or a teleology of form, or a presentation of greatness, “Blues for Smoke” bends the notes of time, allowing both the art objects and their viewers to exist in the liminal space between laughter and tears, between confusion and comprehension, between pleasure and discord, between roots and experimentation, between making art and listening to it. It suggests that every once in a while we might just want to take leave of ourselves and traverse the segue, the bittersweet beat of silence that exists between all things, and ideas, and people, and words, and . . . One can only hope that this subtle new model of rigorous, intellectual exhibition making marks a continuation, and not the end, of the LA MoCA tradition. If not, we will have to laugh to keep from crying.

Travels to the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, Feb. 7–Apr. 8; Wexner Center for the Arts, Columbus, OH, Sept. 21, 2013–Jan. 5, 2014.

Helen Molesworth is the Barbara Lee chief curator at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston.