Left: Nari Ward, Blue Rung, 2008, wooden ladder, metal gate, shoe tips, plastic, zapper, blue pigment, 78 x 21 x 38". Installation view. Right: View of “30 Seconds Off an Inch.”

Naomi Beckwith is an assistant curator at the Studio Museum in Harlem. She organized the exhibition “30 Seconds Off an Inch,” which explores the intersection of identity politics and dominant tendencies of the 1960s, from conceptual practices to Arte Povera. The show is on view until March 14.

I DON’T WANT TO BRAND something called “Black Conceptual Art.” It’s less a question about who produced the work than of the object’s material history. If you can get to that history, and if that can take you to a very specific place, culturally and racially, then that’s where you locate the blackness. It becomes a secondary discovery rather than a necessary attribute of the work itself.

“30 Seconds Off an Inch” does not look at the conceptualisms that followed Minimalism. Instead, it investigates the kind of art that asks the viewer to think about something beyond the sheer materiality of the object, beyond formalism and formal practice. The works ask you to wonder where the trash originated, for instance, and about the history of a specific cloth and clothing, or whether the work is appropriated. There is a history and a lineage to all the works in the show that lend themselves to conceptual thought beyond the objects.

The viewer should have a sense of recognition when walking through the exhibition. There is not a lot of tape around the objects—I want visitors to be able to put their noses up to the works. The objects in the show are not to be seen as metaphors, but very literally, and you don’t need an advanced degree in art history to read them.

Nari Ward’s Blue Rung, 2008, is a pivotal object in the show; it’s a work that is completely opaque. The only way to get into it is by engaging with its constitutive elements. It’s both a collage and a sculpture. It’s familiar, even though it looks like nothing he’s ever done. It was important to me to ask, How can a three-dimensional object be both abstract and speak to a specific cultural background?

More often than not, culturally specific institutions and artists identified as gender or ethnic “others” are asked to speak about and for political and social issues. Oddly, exhibitions and works are assumed to be political statements even above art and aesthetic objects.

The Studio Museum has done an interesting job probing how and where one can locate blackness. It’s become a place where you can ignore race, or foreground it, or set up a more complicated relationship between aesthetics and social questions of race and identity. This is when we are at our best, when we allow artists to challenge the viewers, with art that pulls us through conversations that question where race is located and its relationship to aesthetic history.

It is important for me as a curator to provide a space in exhibitions where those discourses can thrive. “30 Seconds,” as a project, takes no position about race and contemporary race relations, nor are the works expected to do so. The show examines practices and conceptual tools that allow for art to encompass and include politics as an attribute. My goal for this exhibition was to present works, many of them abstract, that ask viewers to locate the socius within the aesthetic and then think about what the social realm implies.

— As told to Ian Bourland