Immediately after walking out of the Carnegie Museum of Art’s 20/20: The Studio Museum in Harlem and Carnegie Museum of Art, I glanced down at my phone to read the news that a homicidal alt-right-er mowed down a group of counter-protesters in Charlottesville, killing Heather Heyer. Not only a terrifying, sobering moment, it also brought into focus the dire significance of 20/20, an institutional collaboration between the Harlem and Pittsburgh museums aiming to take stock of America, particularly in regards to its communities of color. From the United States’ long history of subjugation and violence to representations of Black lives and radical methods of countering white supremacy, the work in 20/20 shows the various ways artists confront, critique and transcend the histories that still have a dangerous influence in our country.
At once sequestered from the violence in Charlottesville, wandering through the Pittsburgh exhibition also raised questions about the role and responsibilities of institutions in 2017. As we’ve seen recently in New York with Dana Schutz’s Open Casket at the Whitney Biennial, as well as other museums around the country such as the uproar over Kelley Walker in St. Louis, art institutions and their curators have been particularly ill-equipped at recognizing the violent impact of the exploitation of Black pain and protest by white artists. For many institutions, “opening conversations” has become an excuse, a cover-all for a number of sins.
But, with the white supremacist and neo-Nazi violence in Charlottesville and elsewhere raging, museums unavoidably have a bully pulpit. What are the responsibilities institutions share in supporting and representing POC lives, as well as rejecting white supremacy, when the KKK is rallying without hoods? And what standards should they be held to?
It should be said museums, whether they like it or not, are not apolitical spaces. In their essay “Legacies of Prejudice: Racism, Co-production and Radical Trust in the Museum,” Bernadette T. Lynch and Samuel J.M.M. Alberti write, “Western institutions continue to maintain borders and privilege particular ways of knowing. Consciously or not, those who staff museums and galleries have been trained and socialized to think and know in those ways, and museums are not set apart from global economic injustice and the reality of racial conflict and prejudice.” Asserting that there is “nothing ‘post’ about colonialism as a view of the world that persists,” Lynch and Alberti find “traces of institutional racism in even the best intentioned of projects.”
However, some institutions are better at addressing and rectifying the exclusionary power dynamics in museums than others. Here the 20/20: The Studio Museum in Harlem and Carnegie Museum of Art can act as an example of how institutions can harness their collections in order to respond to both past and contemporary histories of violence and resistance, as well as better serve their communities of color.
Curated by the Carnegie Museum’s Eric Crosby and the Studio Museum’s Amanda Hunt, 20/20 features forty artists in total–twenty from each collecting institution. The show is primarily made up of artists of color, as well as a selection of white artists like Collier Schorr and Louise Nevelson whose work engages with blackness, both as an identity and color. These artists span the 20th and 21st century from James Van Der Zee’s early 20th century photographs of Harlem life such as wedding photos and sports teams to Charles “Teenie” Harris’s mid-century documentation of Pittsburgh’s Black community in the Hill District and recognizable contemporary art names such as Jean-Michael Basquiat, Kara Walker, David Hammons, Kerry James Marshall and Lorna Simpson.
Overall, the show reflects on the state of our country thematically, using the collection as a means to consider America through a wide lens. The introductory room is entitled “A More Perfect Union” and begins with a painting from the Carnegie’s collection by Horace Pippin Abe Lincoln’s First Book. In the painting, a young, apparently teenaged Abraham Lincoln, lit by candlelight, grabs for his book, highlighting the desire for and illumination of knowledge. In contrast to some of the chilling histories presented later in the show, Pippin’s work introduces America at its, perhaps, most ideal–intellectually curious and egalitarian, a far cry from the concurrent riots over Confederate monuments.
Surrounding Abe Lincoln’s First Book, the curators gather a number of works that examined various relationships to “the union” including Glenn Ligon’s painting, which repetitively reads, “We are the ink that gives the white page a meaning,” eventually filling the white canvas with black. The strength of these thematic sections lies in the unexpected conversations between seemingly disparate works. Take, for example, the juxtaposition of Jasper Johns’s Flags I with Lyle Ashton Harris’s black-and-white photograph Miss America. While Johns’s flags present a more formalist study of the stars and stripes, Lyle Ashton Harris’s photograph depicts a nude Black woman with the flag wrapped around her like a cape. Her face turned in profile, she appears proud and strong, a, as co-curator Amanda Hunt notes in the Gallery Guide, “queering of the flag.” Not only recontextualizing the flag in Harris’s photograph itself, this reclaiming of the flag also seems to lend new meaning to Johns’s flags too.
Perhaps the most haunting thematic section was the subsequent “Working Thought,” which delved into the continued legacies of slavery and labor from Kara Walker’s silhouetted The Emancipation Approximation to Titus Kaphar’s Jerome Project. Many of these works engaged with the histories of subjugation through its materials such as Melvin Edwards’s metal sculptures, which he calls Lynch Fragments. These sculptures like Working Thought, which gives the section its name, combine railroad fasteners, chains and metal trowels to reference the physical materials of forced labor. Similarly, Nari Ward’s All Stars features a cotton and nail-covered baseball bat, pointing to the continued physical pain endured by Black bodies.
Now, not all the works in “Working Thought” dealt with the historical experiences of labor–forced labor didn’t end in the 1860s. In particular, Titus Kaphar’s gilded Jerome Project paintings present a confrontation with Black lives rendered invisible. Appearing similar to Byzantine icons with their golden backgrounds, Kaphar’s portraits are culled from a publicly accessible prison database, which records people who have been recently arrested. Searching for his father’s name–Jerome, Kaphar came across these men and began to paint them. Dipped in tar, Kaphar represents these men’s silences–their mouths disappear into the dripping yet solidified tar. Not only does Kaphar render prisoners, who often go invisible, visible, he also represents the ways in which they continued to be subjected to and silenced by the prison industrial complex.
Other works in this section also reveal the locally based practices and productions developed in communities of color to make up for lacking institutions through works like David Hammons’s Untitled, which reveals a series of boxes emblazoned with “Made In The People’s Republic of Harlem.” However, the show also portrays the instability of economic progress in Black Wall Street, which has chilling resonance with the white-driven violence in Charlottesville. Noah Davis’s painting depicts the aftermath of the 1921 Tulsa Race Riots in which a group of white supremacists destroyed Greenwood, Oklahoma, a profitable Black business community, which was dubbed, in its success, “Black Wall Street.” The painting, devastatingly, shows just how quickly progress can be annihilated. As Amanda Hunt explains in the Gallery Guide, “We strive to be self-sustaining and self-sufficient: you stake your claim in the economy and build your world. But what happens when that’s not protected, or sustainable?”
But perhaps even more than the timely engagement with troubling issues of progress in the United States, 20/20, as a whole, questions the role of art institutions to support artists of color and engage with their viewers, especially museums such as the Studio Museum and the Carnegie Museum located in neighborhoods and cities with large communities of color. The final section “Forms of Resistance,” in some ways, deals with this issue through institutional critique with works like Kerry James Marshall’s Untitled (Gallery). This painting shows a Black woman standing in front of the white (and I mean, White) wall of a gallery, placing blackness within the traditionally and all-too-typically white space of art institutions. The curators also devote an entire wall to Lorraine O’Grady’s photo-series Untitled (Mlle Bourgeoise Noire), documenting her interventions in institutions by forcing her black female body into their space.
But, at the end of the day, it’s not only up to artists of color to make sure their bodies are seen and their voices are heard. It’s the responsibility of art institutions to correct centuries of silence and invisibility. In the abstract to “Legacies of Prejudice,” Lynch and Alberti write point-blank: “Museums have been complicit in the construction of physical and cultural hierarchies that underpinned racist thought from the Enlightenment until well into the twentieth century, in marked contrast to the inclusionary role many now see to fulfill.”
In 20/20, both institutions seem to be attempting to find ways to fulfill these inclusionary roles. Of course, it’s much different for the Studio Museum, founded in 1968, than the Carnegie, founded in the late 19th century. As co-curator Crosby explains in the show’s Gallery Guide, “The Studio Museum is the product of the late 1960s, but the Carnegie Institute is a product of the 19th century, and a lot of assumptions and baggage come with that. It’s only in the 21st century that museums like CMOA are even earnestly talking about inclusion. Of course, this isn’t just true of CMOA; it applies to the historical idea of the museum itself, the museum with a capital M. Many institutions are only just beginning to understand how complex legacies of implicit bias have shaped them and their audiences’ opinions of them.”
By collaborating on 20/20, the two institutions, at once, draw formal and thematic comparisons between their collections and showcase how art institutions can use their collections to radically address pressing issues in 2017. It’s not enough to just slap up images of protest on the walls and act as if you’re doing something. Viewers need and should see sustained, observable commitment to promoting and showing work by and for people of color–not as a cheap ploy for “diversity” but as a meaningful long-term engagement. Collecting institutions have even more responsibility to build a collection that represents their community and deals with issues that matter to them.
As Crosby writes in the Gallery Guide, “We’re not only talking about critique from within, but we are also thinking about identification. There are so many visitors to museums today who wander the halls of these white spaces and find very little to identify with, very little that reflects their concerns or experience. This is not only a matter of race but of generational difference, gender identity, sexual orientation, and so on.”