The Whitney Museum of American Art exhibit, Blues for Smoke, features an exciting array of works by a wide range of contemporary black artists. But it offers so much more. A journey back in time, the combination of works, inspired by African-American music, slips you, with a heady mix of anticipation and foreboding, into a dark, back alley jazz club that would be easily at home in the ruins of Potsdam, Berlin, or along the steamy backwater canals of New Orleans. The mood of the show captures the feeling of folks gathered at smatterings of café tables as you enter, where you sit and listen to live jazz vocals in an atmosphere tinged with the bite of a gin cocktail and the halo of cigarette smoke.
This dynamic exhibit examines the pervasive and interdisciplinary influence of blues music and jazz aesthetics on American art and culture. Drawing together various art forms (video, sculpture, painting, and live performance) across the lines of race, multiple generations and interdisciplinary canons, Blues for Smoke places the idioms of blues, and other distinctly African-American traditions, at the center of the American tableau of creativity.
In a pique of innovation, live, pop-up performances occur along with the exhibit, in which spectators migrate from room to room in a parallel dialogue with the themes of rootlessness, travel, and transience that are integral to blues and jazz aesthetics, the blues as a way of life, and the lives of blues musicians. The day I attended, there were such pleasures as listening to the stylings of Brooklyn-based band, King Holiday, which boasts a range of musical inspirations from blues to rock to reggae. Their sound was a perfect complement to the exhibit’s argument for the wide-reaching influence of the blues on contemporary music and pop culture.
Apart from the hot, sweaty live music den, the main exhibit rests on the third floor. There one is confronted by an overwhelming collection of works. At this stage it becomes important to understand the blues’ beginnings in places like the Mississippi Delta and New Orleans, around the turn of the century, in African-American communities where life was still very much defined by the sociopolitical landscape wrought by slavery. In this way, the blues came to represent hardship, struggle and oppression – a lifelong feeling of being short changed. While the Whitney, somewhat naively, endeavors to transfigure this experience in its program literature, to broaden it and render it as diffuse as a screen of smoke (“a lens through which to look at certain topics in contemporary art”), don’t be fooled. This exhibit accurately chronicles the collective, tormented, and triumphant experience of being black in America.
We see the yoke of slavery represented by twisted manacles of welded steel in the work of Melvin Edwards, progressing to the migration of black people away from the South in the mournful collages of Romare Bearden. Kara Walker also offers an unforgettable and disturbing comment on the horrors of slavery in an animated piece that portrays the rape of a black woman by a white man using her signature paper cut outs in the work “Ms. Pipi’s Blue Tale.”
Simultaneously you have artists such as Lorraine O’Grady, whose serene video projection features a close up of curly textured hair windswept to a soundtrack of wooded wilderness, suggesting in its own way the relationship of the black experience to all — particularly natural — things.
While there are racially diverse artists featured in the exhibit, and works that stray from the primary subject (black people, black culture, and black history), ultimately these renderings – like Martin Kippenbeger’s sculpture of a man with his back turned to the viewer – feel tangential to the core narrative, and in some instances only serve to underscore the commodification of the black experience, the dark side of our musical legacy.
However, where these attempts to make meaningful cross-cultural connections yield the richest and most interesting results is in the finely drawn link between the blues and contemporary queer culture, as evidenced in the well-chosen photographs by Mark Morrisroe.
Known for his images of young sex workers, street youth, and other marginalized figures (it is one of Morrisroe’s prints that graces the alluring advertisements for the show), these portraits manage to tap into what seems key to understanding the blues and jazz, a concurrent feeling of profound dispossession paired with a deep, counterintuitive sense of ownership and pride in that marginalized experience. For both blacks and many gay subcultures, there is also the shared capacity for distinct cultural vernaculars that emerge from these fringe communities.