New York

Cameron Rowland, 7.5', 2015, exit height strip, 36 × 1". Installation view, 2021. The height strip allows for identification. Typically it is used at the door of gas stations and convenience stores. Photo: Dario Lasagni.

Cameron Rowland, 7.5', 2015, exit height strip, 36 × 1". Installation view, 2021. The height strip allows for identification. Typically it is used at the door of gas stations and convenience stores. Photo: Dario Lasagni.

“Grief and Grievance: Art and Mourning in America”

Cameron Rowland, 7.5', 2015, exit height strip, 36 × 1". Installation view, 2021. The height strip allows for identification. Typically it is used at the door of gas stations and convenience stores. Photo: Dario Lasagni.

Conceived by Okwui Enwezor; realized by curatorial advisers Naomi Beckwith, Massimiliano Gioni, Glenn Ligon, and Mark Nash

THE EXHORTATIONS BURN/ITD/OWN, KI/LL, and FUCK 12 greeted visitors to “Grief and Grievance: Art and Mourning in America,” the late curator Okwui Enwezor’s exhibition at the New Museum. Conceived by Enwezor in 2018 and realized after his death the following year by artist Glenn Ligon and curators Naomi Beckwith, Massimiliano Gioni, and Mark Nash, the show was initially intended as a commentary on the Trump administration and was projected to open in the run-up to the 2020 election. But history intervened. During the convulsive interlude between the show’s conception and its opening, as prisoners on Rikers Island dug mass graves for Covid-19 victims and millions took to the streets in the largest wave of national protests since the war in Vietnam, the valence of the terms grief and grievance changed.

Jack Whitten, Birmingham, 1964, aluminum foil, newsprint, stocking, and oil on plywood, 165⁄8 × 16".

In the museum’s lobby, a suite of works by Adam Pendleton resembling photocopies from an insurrectionist zine had been digitally enlarged and pasted everywhere you looked, like combative wallpaper. In addition to the above-quoted phrases, inspired by last summer’s demonstrations against the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, Pendleton’s smaller silk screens on Mylar were framed and hung on top of the wall works. The framed pieces featured high-contrast distorted images of traditional African masks, European modernist sculpture, and, in tribute to Enwezor, photos from the catalogue for the curator’s watershed exhibition “The Short Century: Independence and Liberation Movements in Africa, 1945–1994.”

Deana Lawson, Congregation, 2012, ink-jet print, 35 × 44".

Pendleton’s was the sole work in the show to directly reflect the new significance of what Nash, preempting critique of its morbidity, referred to as the exhibition’s “so-called melancholic attachment to the necropolitical.” Nash was alluding to the show’s central theme, on which Enwezor expounded in his wall text, writing of Black grief as a “national emergency” and white grievance as a Confederate sentiment renewed and orchestrated by Donald Trump. In what seemed to be a sort of rebuke to this dichotomy of Black grief and white grievance, and in apparent acknowledgment of the profoundly legitimate grievances animating the summer’s civil unrest, Pendleton’s first text panel read GRI/EFME/NOT. The lobby paired his deconstructed signs of insurgency with Cameron Rowland’s brilliant and subtle modifications to the museum’s entrance: 7.5', 2015, a measuring strip of the kind attached to gas-station doors to capture the height of suspected thieves as they come and go under the eyes of surveillance cameras, and Presumption of Guilt, 2020, an alarm that sounded whenever visitors set foot in the museum. The gap between Pendleton’s almost decorative residue of the riots and Rowland’s actual augmentation of the museum’s security system broadly set the parameters for the other conversations and tensions, spanning half a century, that reverberated among the works of the thirty-seven artists on display.

During the convulsive interlude between the show’s conception and its opening, the valence of the terms grief and grievance changed.

View of “Grief and Grievance: Art and Mourning in America,” 2021. Foreground: Julia Phillips, Drainer, 2018. Walls: Works by LaToya Ruby Frazier, 2002–11. Photo: Dario Lasagni.

One such dialectic unfolded in a second-floor gallery shared by Deana Lawson and LaToya Ruby Frazier. Instead of the intimate portraits for which she’s best known, Lawson showed two photographs depicting teeming crowds: Congregation, 2012, an infinitely detailed, God’s-eye view of plainly dressed worshippers thronging an out-of-frame religious ceremony in Port-au-Prince, and Jouvert, 2013, a dusty glimpse of revelers gathering for the West Indian Day parade in Brooklyn. Between the two images was Lawson’s Funereal Wallpaper, 2013, a claustrophobic shot of wallpaper depicting a rocky bluff, its jaundiced tone attributable to the fact that the artist found it lining a wall of an old funeral parlor in Jamaica. Across from this trio were selections from Frazier’s signature series “The Notion of Family,” 2001–14, which uses the language of photojournalism to make visible the abstract domination of social relations by capital flight, weaving together postindustrial cityscapes and family portraits to show the human cost of disinvestment and to document organized resistance to these depredations. Each set of photos conjured a side of contemporary debates in Black studies—the former an emphasis on multitudes, micropolitics, and the vaunted “social life of social death,” the latter a focus on personal and political consciousness, organized labor, and the unglamorous work of reform and revolution. Between them hung the grisliest work in the exhibition, Julia Phillips’s Drainer, 2018, a sculpture composed of a thin, bent ceramic pelvis suspended above a concrete drain. In this context, the piece called forth thoughts of twentieth-century regimes of racial hygiene: showers used by South African miners as depicted by Ernest Cole; the “delousing” chambers at Birkenau.

Howardena Pindell, Autobiography: Water (Ancestors/Middle Passage/Family Ghosts), 1988, acrylic and mixed media on canvas, 118 × 71".

To stage an exhibition that grasps the specificity of the Trump era while keeping its vision trained on American racism in the longue durée is no small task. And it was largely left to the catalogue contributors to deal with the broader sweep of history. With a few exceptions—e.g., Howardena Pindell’s surrealist collage tackling the transatlantic slave trade—the works operated on a smaller timescale. None referenced the source of the exhibition’s conceit, the Civil War, but many drew on the movement for civil rights and its immediate aftermath. Melvin Edwards’s wall-mounted “Lynch Fragments” sculptures, 1963–, have a brilliant transversal quality; their idiom, developed over the past six decades, has lost none of its disquieting contemporaneity over time. The same could be said of Daniel LaRue Johnson’s Freedom Now, Number 1, 1963–64, and Jack Whitten’s Birmingham, 1964. Modernist canvases with newspaper clippings, buttons, and other relics of the movement embedded in them, they grounded the show in midcentury politics and in the aspirations of the postwar American avant-garde. The renewal of Black Lives Matter has entailed, in addition to the proliferation of anarchist slogans, a refreshed collective desire to preserve, expand, and restore the gains of the 1960s. The show revealed the unresolved tendencies of that era, setting radical and liberal artworks and authors side by side as though they shared a common project. While the catalogue contributors’ warnings against the allure of “myths of progress” are well taken, many of these contributors (Ta-Nehisi Coates in particular, in an essay first published in 2017) have been at pains to deny that relevant changes have taken place at all, a position that seems untenable at the current conjuncture. Gioni writes of the show’s “almost militant” character in the context of Enwezor’s oeuvre. Symptomatically, said militance was deflated by the museum’s allegedly union-busting director’s extension of a “special thanks” in the catalogue to the president of the Ford Foundation, Darren Walker. Walker’s spirited defenses of the donor class are often dressed in the sonorous rhetoric of civil rights and the phraseology of contemporary social-justice movements. Two years ago, Angela Davis called for a protest outside the foundation’s Manhattan headquarters after Walker announced his support for a plan to replace the Rikers prison complex with four jails dispersed across the boroughs—in the name of ending mass incarceration. (“We cannot let the perfect be the enemy of progress,” he wrote, perfectly evincing the tension between abolitionist and ostensibly reformist carceral approaches.)

Carrie Mae Weems, The Capture of Angela, 2008, ink-jet print, 61 × 51". From the series “Constructing History,” 2008.

The inclusion in “Grief and Grievance” of Carrie Mae Weems’s 2008 photographic series “Constructing History” cast an ironic light on Walker’s support for the show. Weems asked art students too young to have lived through the tumult of the long 1960s to reenact the era’s key events in tableaux that emphasize the artifice of photography, forcing the viewer to retain a certain critical distance, as with The Capture of Angela, an elegant restaging of the veteran abolitionist’s 1970 arrest at the Howard Johnson Motor Lodge in Hell’s Kitchen—only in Weems’s image, the backdrop is not a motel but the immaculate grounds of the Savannah College of Art and Design’s Atlanta campus. Like Karl Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1851–52), a text quoted by Beckwith and constantly invoked during Trump’s presidency, Weems seems to say, as Davis might, too, that we must find ways to reconstruct history without aping the past; we have to let go of the tempting self-delusions of the present, such as the notion that an exhibition can credibly frame itself as near militant without so much as naming its institutional contradictions, or that an adequate appraisal of the Trump phenomenon can avoid a hard-nosed look at the Democratic Party establishment and its donor base—engines of Black grief in their own right. This letting go is part of the process Marx was describing when he said the coming social revolution—such as the one we glimpsed last summer—“cannot begin its own work until it has sloughed off all its superstitious regard for the past. [It] must let the dead bury their dead.” Shut down Rikers—no new jails. Let the dead bury their dead.

Ciarán Finlayson is the managing editor of Blank Forms.