The Trickster’s Art

Lynette Yiadom-Boakye: Under-Song for a Cipher

an exhibition at the New Museum, New York City, May 3–September 3, 2017
Catalog of the exhibition edited by Natalie Bell and Massimiliano Gioni
New Museum/Kunsthalle Basel, 123 pp., $24.00 (paper)

Regarding the Figure

an exhibition at the Studio Museum in Harlem, New York City, April 20–August 6, 2017

Kehinde Wiley: Trickster

an exhibition at the Sean Kelly Gallery, New York City, May 6–June 17, 2017
The New Museum, New York/Corvi-Mora, London/Jack Shainman Gallery, New York
Lynette Yiadom-Boakye: The Matters, 2016

A few years back I ran into Camille Brewer, a black American curator of contemporary art, on Frederick Douglass Boulevard in Harlem. “Look at this,” she said. She was turning the pages of Artforum, finding black artist after black artist. “It’s like Jet up in here.” Camille was referring to the glossy black news and entertainment magazine that had its heyday in the 1950s and 1960s. “Until you get to the [museum] appointments pages,” she added. “Then things go quiet again.” The black presence in the contemporary art scene continues to feel like a recent cultural phenomenon, though the group and individual exhibitions of black artists that prepared the way for this moment took place some time ago.

A landmark exhibition, “Contemporary Black Art in America,” at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1971, concerned primarily the abstract. It asserted a freedom achieved since the 1950s and 1960s when black artists such as Hale Woodruff, Norman Lewis, Beauford Delaney, and Romare Bearden were criticized for moving away from representation in their work, as if abstraction were a kind of opportunistic calculation. In 1971: A Year in the Life of Color (2016), his study of modernism as a cross-cultural exchange for black artists, Darby English identifies the paradox: if they escape from what he calls the “representationalist, collectivist black-ideological norm,” they end up being thought of as not having much to say on “racialist issues.”

It was therefore important for some to be able to find Africanist traces in abstract work by black artists. “Painting itself cannot practice discrimination,” English wrote. However, by 1970, when Jacob Lawrence’s portrait of Jesse Jackson appeared on the cover of Time, the debate about the representational versus the abstract was becoming a sideline. That same year, a black curator, Kynaston McShine, mounted “Information,” one of the first major exhibitions of conceptual art, at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

“The Short Century: Independence and Liberation Movements in Africa, 1945–1994,” Okwui Enwezor’s exhibition of 2001–2002, seen in Berlin and New York, among other places, put on display art that was a synthesis of African artistic styles and European modernism, almost as a peace treaty between cultures. By this time Glenn Ligon, the black conceptual artist, and Thelma Golden, the director of the Studio Museum in Harlem, had proclaimed the independence of what they called a “post-black” generation. To define “post-black” was one of the aims of Golden’s 2001 exhibition, “Freestyle.” Ligon and Golden spoke in the catalog of “the liberating value in tossing off the immense burden of race-wide representation, the idea that everything they do must speak to or for or about the entire race.” Black artists of the previous generation could say they did not want to be identified as black artists, but there…

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