“This is black art. And it’s important. And has been for two hundred years. Deal with it.”
This is how the art historian Maurice Berger explains the beginning of “Black Art: In the Absence of Light”, a rich and exciting documentary film directed by Sam Pollard (“MLK / FBI”), which debuts on Tuesday evening on HBO.
Compiled from interviews with contemporary artists, curators and scholars, the feature film was inspired by a single exhibition in 1976, “Two Centuries of Black American Art,” the first large-scale survey of African American artists. It was organized by artist David C. Driskell, who was then head of the art department at Fisk University. It comprised around 200 works from the mid-18th to mid-20th centuries, and advanced a story that few Americans, including the arts, professionals had, even knew existed.
The press gave this poll a mixed reception. Some writers thought it was more sociology than art (Driskell himself didn’t quite disagree). But the show was a popular hit. At the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where it was made, and then at the major museums in Dallas, Atlanta, and Brooklyn, people lined up to see it.
What they saw was that black artists had always done distinctive work parallel to and some within a white-dominated mainstream that ignored them. And they saw that black artists had consistently made, and continue to do, some of the most conceptually exciting and urgent American art periods – a reality only recently recognized by the art world at large and reflected in exhibitions. Sale and critical attention.
The HBO documentary introduces us to this story of long neglect and recent correction by the eloquent voices of three people who lived on both sides: Driskell, a revered painter and teacher; Mary Schmidt Campbell, president of Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia and former director of the Studio Museum in Harlem; and Berger, a respected art historian and curator. (The film is dedicated to the two men who both died as a result of Covid-19 in 2020, Driskell at 88, Berger at 63.)
You are surrounded by artists, most of them painters of different generations. Some had careers that were in full swing until 1976 (for example, Betye Saar and Richard Mayhew, who took the survey). Others were just starting out in the field at this point. (Kerry James Marshall recalls being blown away by visiting the show when he was 21). Still others – Kehinde Wiley (born 1977) and Jordan Casteel (born 1989) – were not born at the start of the survey, but still count themselves among its beneficiaries.
At the beginning of the film, in an interview with Driskell by Tom Brokaw from the 1970s with Driskell, the question arises whether the use of the label “Black American Art” itself is not a form of imposed isolation. Yes, says Driskell, but in this case a strategic one. “Isolation is and was not the goal of the black artist. He tried to be part of the mainstream only to be excluded. Had this exhibition not been organized, many of the artists would never have been seen. “
The film briefly refers to earlier examples of switching off. There is a reference to the Metropolitan Museum’s 1969 exhibition, Harlem on My Mind: Capital of Culture of Black America, 1900-1968, which was advertised as an introduction to black creativity into the Met, but contained little art. Mention is made of artist protests against the 1971 Whitney Museum’s survey “Contemporary Black Artists in America”, which was entirely in the hands of a white curator.
An essay book entitled “Black Art Notes,” printed that year in response to the Whitney Show, accused white museums of “artwashing” through the symbolic inclusion of African-American works, an indictment that remains pertinent. (The collection was recently republished in a facsimile edition by Primary Information, a not-for-profit press in Brooklyn.) Even before the Met and Whitney shows, black artists saw a clear need to take control of how and where their art was done was taken into their own hands. Ethnically specific museums emerged – outstanding, in 1968 the studio museum in Harlem.
We are talking about a dense, complex story. No film can hope to get it all, and this one leaves out a lot. (The mention of the Black Power movement is all but absent here.) Still, there’s a lot that is summed up in short, nifty commentary from scholars and curators, including Campbell, Sarah Lewis of Harvard University, Richard J. Powell of the Duke University and Thelma Golden, the current director and chief curator of the Studio Museum. (Golden is a consultant producer on the film. Henry Louis Gates Jr. is its executive producer.)
Rightly and in a delightful way, most of the voices are those of active artists. Faith Ringgold, now 90, wasn’t on the show or in major museums in 1976 because her work was too political and because she is female. (Of the 63 artists in Two Centuries of Black American Art, 54 were male.) What was your solution? “I just stay outside until I get in,” she says. And the continued existence has paid off: Your monumental painting “American People Series # 20: Die” from 1967 has an outstanding place in the current permanent change in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art.)
Particularly interesting are segments that show artists at work and talk about what they are doing while they are doing it. We visit Marshall in his studio while he explains the many, many colors he uses that are “black”. We follow Fred Wilson into the museum warehouse as he digs up objects that will become part of one of his historic installations. We watch Radcliffe Bailey transform hundreds of discarded piano keys into an ocean of the Middle Passage. And we meet up with portrait artist Jordan Casteel, who recently completed a well-received show at the New Museum while searching for sitters on the streets of Harlem.
There is no question that the visibility of African American artists in the mainstream is much higher now than ever before. (Thanks, Black Lives Matter.) A big increase in shows is a measure. Other important events include the unveiling of the Obama portraits by Wiley and Amy Sherald in 2018.
In an interview in the film, Sherald brings up this sudden wave of attention. “A lot of galleries are now accepting black artists,” she says. “There’s this gold rush.” But where some observers would see interest only as a marketing trend driven by branding of “blackness”, it is not. “I say it’s because we’re doing some of the best and most relevant work.”
The point of Pollard’s film, which was also the point of Driskell’s 1976 poll, is to demonstrate this, and demonstrate that black artists have been doing some of the best and most relevant work for decades, centuries. But they mostly made it on the sidelines, beyond the spotlights of the white art world.
The artist Theaster Gates, who appears towards the end of the film, sees the advantage, even the necessity of this positioning.
“Black art means that sometimes I do it when no one is looking,” he says. “For the most part, that was the truth of our lives. Until we have the light, I am not happy. Until we are in our own homes of exhibitions, discovery, research, until we find a way to be masters of the world, I’d rather work in the dark. I don’t just want to work when the light is on. My fear is that we will only be trained and conditioned when there is a light, and that makes us dependent on something we don’t control. Are you ready “, he asks his artist colleagues,” to do in the absence of light? “
Driskell, who really owns this film and whose presence it ends, also leaves the question of the future of black art open. Around him he says: “There was an awakening, an enlightenment through education, a desire to want to know. On the other hand, in the words of Martin Luther King Jr., we did not reach the promised land. We still have a long way to go. “