New York

Ja’Tovia Gary, An Ecstatic Experience, 2015, 16 mm film transferred to HD video, color, sound, 6 minutes. From “An Incomplete History of Protest: Selections from the Whitney’s Collection, 1940–2017.”

Ja’Tovia Gary, An Ecstatic Experience, 2015, 16 mm film transferred to HD video, color, sound, 6 minutes. From “An Incomplete History of Protest: Selections from the Whitney’s Collection, 1940–2017.”

“An Incomplete History of Protest: Selections from the Whitney’s Collection, 1940–2017”

Whitney Museum of American Art

Ja’Tovia Gary, An Ecstatic Experience, 2015, 16 mm film transferred to HD video, color, sound, 6 minutes. From “An Incomplete History of Protest: Selections from the Whitney’s Collection, 1940–2017.”

Ja’Tovia Gary’s An Ecstatic Experience, 2015, is modestly tucked in the final room of “An Incomplete History of Protest: Selections from the Whitney’s Collection, 1940–2017,” which was organized by the museum’s David Breslin, Jennie Goldstein, and Rujeko Hockley. But even before you see the video screen, you hear the steady beat of its a cappella version of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” This six-minute video—one of the most genuinely moving artworks I’ve seen in recent years—intercuts footage from the “Slavery” segment of a nine-episode 1965 television miniseries called The History of the Negro People with contemporary images of protests in Baltimore and Ferguson, Missouri, in the wake of killings of black men by police. In the excerpts of the program used by Gary, actress Ruby Dee narrates the story of former slave Fannie Moore. Gary has added hand-drawn effects that make the black-and-white broadcast (shot in video) look like old film, simulating purple emulsion bubbles, dust lines, and film clutter, so that the footage seems older than it is, and more ethereal. And she’s drawn on the image itself, as if scoring the emulsion; Dee’s face lights up with halos and starbursts. At one particularly powerful moment in the narrative, Gary scratches out Dee’s face—but her voice will not be silenced. Violence to the black body, Gary suggests, cannot control the narrative.

Other parts of the show are less rewarding. I find irksome the false modesty of the show’s title, and there is something self-satisfied about the inclusion of archival material detailing the history of protests against the museum. To that end, the acquisition dates on the wall labels are telling: Far too many of the show’s significant works were acquired only very recently, such as Mierle Laderman’s Ukeles’s I Make Maintenance Art One Hour Every Day, September 16–October 20, 1976, created more than forty years ago in the downtown branch of the Whitney Museum of American Art at 55 Water Street but not purchased until this year. The two-wall installation of posters from the Daniel Wolf Collection of Protest Posters, also acquired this year, is great fodder for the next time one heads to Trump Tower, but it falls flat opposite Edward Kienholz’s unrealized Non War Memorial, 1970, which proposes dumping fifty thousand army uniforms filled with clay in a meadow in Idaho.

The works that reverberate most fully in this self-styled museum of American art are those that directly engage the exceptionally American problem of slavery and white supremacy. Scattered throughout the exhibition, these works form a throughline amid the patchwork of themes and grievances. Faith Ringgold’s Hate Is a Sin Flag, 2007, is a redesigned Confederate flag with white letters spelling out the work’s title replacing the stars, and with a handwritten text snaking around the border. These words matter-of-factly recount the first time the artist was called the N-word—at the Whitney, in 1968. The profound pain in Ringgold’s drawing reemerges in a second modified flag: Dread Scott’s A Man Was Lynched by Police Yesterday, 2015, which updates an NAACP banner that was flown from the organization’s New York headquarters in the 1920s and ’30s the day after a lynching occurred. Carl Pope’s overwhelming installation of engraved plaques and trophies, Some of the Greatest Hits of the New York City Police Department: A Celebration of Meritorious Achievement in Community Service, 1994, names black men who were killed or brutalized by police over a period of forty-five years along with the officers involved.

It was while reading Pope’s engravings that I first heard An Ecstatic Experience. And it was while leaving his piece to approach the music that I first saw the crowd that had gathered—a group that watched it together, with most visitors staying for the work’s full six minutes. Unlike the isolated experience provided by our private screens, this work offers a communal experience that implicates us as viewers in the conditions it describes and refuses to reconcile pain and beauty so that we can more comfortably digest them. An incomplete response, no doubt, but a prodding, compelling one.

Rachel Churner