Two Radically Different Museums Start an Urgent Discussion
In a unique collaboration, two curators—Amanda Hunt from The Studio Museum in Harlem and Eric Crosby from Carnegie Museum of Art—have selected works by twenty artists from each museum to create a visual dialogue. The Studio Museum in Harlem has played a catalytic role in championing the work of artists of African descent since 1968, while CMOA has collected and presented the art of its time for over 120 years. In bringing these very different collections into conversation, 20/20 intends to promote a timely exchange of ideas about art and life and to offer a look at notions of identity and social inequality that continue to challenge us as Americans today.
Conceived at a tumultuous and deeply divided moment in our nation’s history, 20/20 offers a metaphoric picture of America by mapping the many ways in which artists respond to the social and political conditions that shape our lives. Featuring a diverse array of makers, including many artists of color, the exhibition’s thematic sections consider our democratic ideals, histories of labor and economy, the social and physical landscapes of our country, spiritual introspection, and forms of resistance.
Spanning nearly 100 years—from 1920s photographs by iconic Harlem-based James VanDerZee to a 2016 CMOA acquisition by acclaimed contemporary painter Kerry James Marshall—20/20 prompts conversations across generations about the necessity of art during times of change. While the exhibition’s title evokes a simple premise—twenty artists from each institution—it also proposes a test of our collective vision as a nation. How might museum collections, which often seem suspended in the past, help us better see the present?
In the following conversation, curators Crosby and Hunt offer a path through the thematic sections of 20/20, reflecting on individual artworks as well as their own collaboration.
A More Perfect Union
Eric Crosby: Our narrative begins with a singular painting in the Carnegie Museum of Art’s collection. Even though it’s one of the oldest works in the exhibition, it feels really relevant and contemporary, especially in our polarized political climate. It’s an imagined scene painted by Horace Pippin (above), a self-taught painter whose depictions of moments in American history reflect his values and perspective. The painting shows Abraham Lincoln as a young man, reaching out in the dark for his first book—for knowledge and understanding.
Amanda Hunt: I think it’s important to explain the logic of the exhibition—how you and I entered a conversation, and how we want the public to navigate this visual dialogue of artworks. The Pippin painting is a critical entry point. We are talking about America and its current state, about its history and the complexity of that history, and certainly about how it has specifically impacted communities of color over time.
EC: And we’re talking about how artists respond by illuminating and complicating our ideas of America. It’s remarkable to me that a single painting from 1944 has the power to echo so many concerns of our moment. In it, I see Pippin describing how the quest for knowledge and understanding is a vital aspect of our liberal democracy—maybe more in principle than in practice, sadly. There’s a lot of hope in this image and in Pippin’s impulse to paint it. But that idealized quest feels so compromised today.
AH: We started planning the show as the Obama presidency was coming to an end, so it was from within a moment of national transition. We wanted to use the exhibition as an opportunity to break down this idea of America for ourselves and for museum visitors. We had to find a path through it. I don’t expect viewers to follow a single trajectory, but we wanted to make sure that we expressed certain ideas through thematic groupings in order to allow for choice and to construct our narrative.
EC: So the themes are quite fluid and overlapping. They create a subjective narrative through the space, through our museums’ collections. That narrative would be very different, say, five years ago or five years from now. We wanted this dialogue between collections to respond to our moment. Do you want to give a snapshot of the show?
AH: The first section, “A More Perfect Union,” looks at the ideas of democracy and national identity, and at the principles upon which our nation was founded. We are looking at America lovingly and optimistically but also complicating its role historically, as well as our relationship to it. Eventually, as you move through the exhibition, we get into ideas of labor and the economy, as well as of the American landscape in both a social and a physical sense. We also consider the ways black life was documented in the 20th century by the iconic photographers James VanDerZee and Charles “Teenie” Harris (below). Near the end, we turn to the spiritual and introspective concerns of artists. Then, in the final gallery, we open up to a kind of critique that you and I both value in contemporary practice: critique that lives out in both public and institutional spaces.
EC: When you describe the exhibition like that, it sounds very ambitious!
AH: Well, we wanted to get to all of that, which I think is important to know as you move through the space. And, with Pippin’s painting, we’re setting it all up in a certain way.
EC: Right. That painting offers a very contemporary founding story of our national identity. I certainly identify with it. Pippin is reminding us of our duty as citizens. We titled this section after a phrase in the preamble to the United States Constitution—“a more perfect Union”—to suggest the character of striving for wholeness and tolerance that’s critical to the American experience and political process.
AH: It’s also the title of Obama’s 2008 speech in which he was responding to racial tensions around his campaign that had reached a flash point. We’re at a point again where we really need to examine the construction of our democracy and American identity. In 2017, we are seeing thousands of people filling our streets in protest against police brutality or in favor of women’s rights, and we seem to be collectively taking stock of our relationship to the flag, to the country, and to what it all means to us as citizens on an individual, personal level.
EC: Exactly, that symbol of the flag. Jasper Johns talks about how he started painting the American flag back in the 1950s because it came to him in a dream. It was a symbol embedded in his unconscious. Translating it into an image and making it public again as a work of art adds so much depth. In moments of doubt and upheaval like the one we are living through right now, national symbols tend to take on new complexity. The Johns print, with its layered colors, is a visual reminder of that—it’s restless (above). Thinking about a work like Lyle Ashton Harris’s Miss America (1987/1988), which also features the flag, I can’t help but see an expression that feels current even though the image was created in the late 1980s. Harris’s subject has such a proud expression on her face; she’s wearing this flag, say, rather than waving it.
EC: Queering the flag, absolutely. It’s an expression of ownership, really. Everyone owns their American identity differently.
AH: If the first section of the exhibition looks at national identity and the country’s principles, the very identities on which the nation is founded and has shifted, it seems to beg the question, who built all this? What sustains a liberal democracy like America? What kinds of disparities have to exist in order for it to move forward?
EC: By titling this section “Working Thought,” we are referencing the work of Melvin Edwards, an artist represented in both museum collections. He is best known for his welded metal works, which use found industrial castoffs and pose questions about not only the history of labor in America but also its histories of violence. He calls them Lynch Fragments, which to me suggests, on one hand, the history of racially motivated violence that has scarred this country and its reputation, but also the idea of the fragment—a part of the whole—as the possibility of abstraction within a kind of searching.
AH: Edwards is speaking directly to the history of industry in America—tools, railroad fasteners, the chains of slavery. He is talking about the way this country has been developed, how empires are built. With his work, in particular, there’s a heavy sense of physical labor in this part of the exhibition. And, quite frankly, that brutality is part of the reality of the construction of this country—it was built on the backs of slaves. One of his pieces from the Studio Museum’s collection is called Cotton Hangup (1966), which points to the history of slavery and the role cotton played as a cash crop in that economy.
EC: There’s a very different expression of that history in the prints by Kara Walker (The Emancipation Approximation, 1999–2000). They are based on one of her epic cut-paper silhouette works depicting the antebellum South. The trauma of forced labor is only one idea addressed in her work, which is always opening up repressed histories, but it is present in the figure of the white slave owner and in the plantation as backdrop.
AH: These are not just historical concerns, though. These artists are looking at present conditions, too, pointing to other manifestations of this in other industries. The idea of labor extends to the contemporary prison-industrial complex, which Titus Kaphar’s work speaks to very directly (Jerome IV, 2014). This was a personal project, a way for the artist to consider the catalog of images of inmates that is available to the public via the internet. The men Kaphar painted all share the name Jerome—his father’s name—and you see the dangerous ways in which they become flattened, or are silenced, in Kaphar’s tarring of their images or suppression of their mouths with gold leaf. We wanted to highlight both the historical and contemporary forms labor has taken, and some of the violence implied in those systems—and, again, we’re teasing out a balance and a dichotomy.
EC: Do you mean a difference between positive and negative representations? In this part of the exhibition, we’re looking at more than histories of exploitation. We’re also thinking about the value of artistic labor.
AH: Absolutely. Take David Hammons’s Untitled (2000), which is made of 30 cardboard boxes on a wooden skid. Each of the boxes is stamped with the words “Made in the People’s Republic of Harlem”—it’s a nod to the self-sustaining “alternative” economies so present in Harlem, a black cultural mecca and vibrant home of the street vendor. Hammons was in one of our first classes of artists in residence at the Studio Museum, and 125th Street in Harlem is a primarily black economy in which people make their money, sustain their families, and build their dreams. So “Working Thought” is a section about survival and thriving as a person of color despite certain larger expectations and conditions.
EC: Noah Davis’s painting Black Wall Street (2008) is a potent reminder of just how fraught that history of economic survival has been. Here, he’s imagining the aftermath of the Tulsa race riot of 1921, in which the booming African American business community of Greenwood, Oklahoma, was razed by a white mob. Are these histories taught in school? Before the area was decimated, it was called “Black Wall Street” because of how prosperous this community was. That prosperity is so fragile in the broader context of an American economy that has systematically disenfranchised communities of color.
EC: When we hear the phrase “American landscape,” I think we are conditioned to imagine Manifest Destiny and the romantic vistas of the American West. With this section, though, we have something very different in mind. First, the title comes from a somewhat darker place—from Jon Kessler’s sculpture, which presents a sinister, Coney Island–like diorama complete with an illuminated roller coaster (above).
AH: The roller coaster and the spectacle become a metaphor for the highs and lows of our lived experience, and perhaps for the market and the ways in which it impacts actual people. I’m also thinking of this in terms of Tim Rollins and K.O.S.’s work in the previous section (By Any Means Necessary, 1986), in which Malcolm X’s initials resemble a sort of stock market chart.
EC: The American landscape we are considering here has witnessed the effects of industry and histories of dispossession. We are thinking about huge swaths of this country that have been afflicted by these realities, and about the communities that live in them. We’re also thinking about the ways in which artists have reflected and documented that. Most intimately, a Pittsburgh audience will be able to recognize in the photographs of LaToya Ruby Frazier the community of Braddock and the effects of industrial withdrawal—of both the steel and health-care industries—on that community.
AH: On the communities, but also on the environment. 20/20 is a dialogue about how history impacts, affects, and shapes communities and culture in America. And this is expressed against the backdrop of the American dream. 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? We see that difficulty in Frazier’s images—an expression of some of the truest consequences of the economic crisis. Entire communities have been foreclosed on. We see this in Zoe Strauss’s pictures of Camden, New Jersey, too. There is one raw, striking image of a house in which exactly half of the structure is missing, and it breaks my heart. You know exactly what happened there.
EC: As we began to think about Strauss’s work in the exhibition, we found ourselves gravitating toward images that are depopulated. Her portraits of Americans communicate so much, and CMOA has collected them in depth, but we were drawn to pictures that present residual traces of lived experience. In that human absence in the landscape, you can start to read the American experience differently.
AH: You start to fill in some of these stories and make connections—connections to post-industrial Pittsburgh, but also across the country. There are so many other ways that artists are describing the American landscape in this space, beyond the photograph as a kind of document.
EC: Right. There are conceptual and abstract landscapes, too. A work like Jenny Holzer’s plaque from her Survival series begins to map a quasi-literary landscape of empathy toward the experience of homelessness in America (Survival: When there’s no safe place to sleep…, 1983–1985). On the flip side, we have the much more densely material works of Mark Bradford and Abigail DeVille. Both are known for bringing traces of the urban landscape—found objects, posters—into the field of painting.
AH: Abigail presented this work (Harlem World, 2011) during her residency at the Studio Museum, and she was literally bringing the streets into the space of the canvas. You’re going to find actual residue of the Bronx and Harlem, where she was working for that year, in this piece—discarded objects, “trash.” This is part of her larger practice and purpose of drawing directly from those communities and experiences and incorporating them into the narrative of contemporary art. She wants to make sure these stories are a part of that fabric and the art historical canon from here on out.
EC: Shifting the material context—from the street into the studio—has social and historical implications for her work. That’s interesting. Artists are not sociologists; they don’t work with census data. They work with substance, they work with metaphor, they work with impression. The kind of information about place in DeVille’s work is very real and abstract.
AH: There’s a related dynamic in Kori Newkirk’s work (Solon 6:12, 2000). He’s creating complex landscapes out of braided hair and beads. You see the image he’s creating, but you can’t separate the plastic beads he’s using from the idea of a black girl’s braided hair. He talks about the importance of the Williams sisters for a work like this. Kori was responding to that incredible moment of seeing Venus and Serena on the tennis court for the first time with their beautiful beaded braids, including their culture and experience within this white, formal, institutional space.
EC: I hadn’t thought about that. That’s a striking reference, and so personal.
AH: Newkirk also says a lot in the titles of his works. This one is Solon 6:12, which initially seemed to me to invoke a biblical passage or psalm. In researching the piece, I learned that Solon was actually an Athenian statesman and lawmaker. He was remembered for his legislation against political and moral decline in Athens. So this work, though abstract, touches on everything we’ve been building toward so far in the exhibition.
Documenting Black Life
EC: In some ways, this next section is an exhibition on its own—a focused pairing of photographs by Charles “Teenie” Harris and James VanDerZee.
AH: A conversation between the work of these two icons has never been presented before. I’m super proud that we are able to do that. This is a strength of both of our collections: nearly 80,000 black-and-white images by Harris in your holdings at CMOA, and VanDerZee’s comprehensive archive at the Studio Museum. CMOA has the life’s work of one man—one photographer who has documented a time in American history and, more specifically, black history, in the way that James VanDerZee did for Harlem. We’re able to paint a picture of who’s who, of the dress and style, of the social status of some, and give a really rich picture of life in Harlem in a way that Harris does for Pittsburgh.
EC: What I find so fascinating about their work in dialogue is the sense of place, the connection between Harlem and Pittsburgh. Of course, they are very different, but both were important destinations for the Great Migration. Both were important cultural and artistic hubs. And the music!
AH: It is incredible to have these two men, who were working not exactly simultaneously but kind of butted up against each other in terms of their time of production, and to be able to draw out stories or scenes that a lot of people have not seen before.
EC: Making the selection for this part of the show was a team effort. We had an idea of how to approach it, but the prospect of going through the Harris archive was daunting. Early on, we were fascinated by how these two photographers both documented their communities but in very different ways. So we gravitated toward VanDerZee’s posed, formal portraits in interior settings (Sunday Morning, ca. 1932), and by contrast toward Harris’s work capturing moments of everyday life out in the city (Kay’s Valet Shoppe, Hill District, ca. 1938–1945)—on the beat, so to speak. We relied on Hannah Turpin, CMOA curatorial assistant in contemporary art and photography, and on the expertise of our colleagues Charlene Foggie-Barnett and Dominique Luster in the Teenie Harris Archive. They helped us narrow the field and led us to some remarkable images that are being shown for the first time.
AH: This section of the show marks a departure from what comes before and what follows. It is focused, highlighting a lot of straight portraiture and documentary-style photography, and it makes for a more intimate experience in the galleries.
EC: Let’s look at this in context, though. Here we have two incredibly prolific photographers who documented the evolving black middle class in their respective cities. They created entire image worlds against a backdrop of white mass visual culture, which was so often racist and perpetuated negative stereotypes about black people that go back centuries. Both Harris and VanDerZee created vital records of individuality, self-possession, prosperity, family, and community.
AH: It’s showing what life was like at a certain time in these cities, which is so essential to understanding urban American history.
EC: For making that visible, I think VanDerZee and Harris contribute a lot to the visual dialogue of 20/20. AH And to these institutions. Their visual records are now tied to and protected by these museums. Their works afford a personal way to draw people in. And in 20/20, you can have a quieter moment, a more interior reflection about life vis-à-vis some of these photographs.
Shrine for the Spirit
EC: From this point forward, the exhibition pivots to consider artistic approaches that we’ve talked about as feeling particularly relevant at this moment of political and social upheaval. Even if, in some instances, we are looking back historically, these artworks speak to our current moment. In this section, which takes its title from a work by Ben Jones (Shrine for the Spirit, 1976), we begin to think through the value of introspection as artistic response and the importance of spirituality, insofar as it has shaped and informed the motivations of many artists of color over the course of the 20th century and particularly from the 1960s forward.
AH: And the importance of a more interior, solitary space in terms of one’s self-preservation. Here, we are reflecting on how artists need to process and develop their work and ideas in the sanctity of the studio, particularly in difficult times. This idea of a quiet, reflective space that I mentioned in relation to Harris and VanDerZee carries forward here, but in very different material ways.
EC: How does that resonate for you?
AH: I’m thinking about quieter modes of production, and also about a return to the individual. We’ve been doing some heavy lifting so far in the show, exploring our political atmosphere, labor, the social landscape, and so forth. Here, we carve out a space for the individual. We’ve created a gallery that allows our viewers to do that as well, maybe to take a pause and check in with themselves about some of the content of the show and—perhaps in the ways that some of the artists in this gallery have over time—in their own lives, too.
EC: The noise of Tr**p politics and our constant feed of late-breaking news are our new normal. I just heard a report on the radio that national self-reported stress levels are higher than ever. I think people forget about the value of art and how consoling, how palliative, art can be.
AH: Which of these works offer that for you?
EC: There are a lot of very direct material sensations in this part of the exhibition. I think the most affecting object in this space is the sculpture by Barbara Chase-Riboud, who, for six decades now, has explored the material resonances between fiber and metal, creating evocative totems and quasi-figural sculptures that suggest shrines or shields (The Cape [Le Manteau] or Cleopatra’s Cape, 1973). There’s something very meditative about them, very comforting. She’s created a protective sentinel.
AH: It’s an interior space that you can imagine folding yourself into for a bit of respite and protection. It’s also very elegant.
EC: And there’s history here, too. Many of Chase-Riboud’s sculptures memorialize the life of Malcolm X, so her contradictory materials seem to come together symbolically in powerful ways, suggesting strength, unity, integration. Can you believe she was featured in the 1958 Carnegie International? I’m very happy we get to show her work again 60 years later.
AH: I didn’t know that! It’s funny, we’re kind of picking each other’s favorites now. That Chase-Riboud piece is in the Studio Museum collection, but the work I’m thinking about as representative of an introspective impulse is Quentin Morris’s painting from CMOA’s collection (Untitled [January–February 1994], 1994). You could look at this deep-black monochrome as a void or pool. There’s a kind of eternal reflection in this painting. It’s a large black circle, and maybe on first glance it’s just that. But once you spend time and take several moments with it, there’s a kind of meditation involved in looking at the interiority, the tactility, the time, the care. Morris has been working for over 50 years in a very specific way, and for a large portion of that with very specific Buddhist principles. For me, this work is the essence of this gallery.
EC: No matter how abstract some of these works are, they are still strongly tied to history. Looking at a work like Jones’s Shrine for the Spirit, or Morris’s Untitled, these are works, ideas, and practices that point back to the very fraught period of America in the 1960s and ’70s, and to the civil rights movement.
AH: Some of these more introspective practices offer a kind of respite from the social realities and violent conflict that defined that moment and this generation of artists, and they seem very helpful to us today as we reflect on the past and present.
EC: This is truly responsive work that resonates inward. I’m thinking of how Pittsburgh’s own Thaddeus Mosley has consistently worked carving in wood for decades, discovering an abstract essence within something rough-hewn (Georgia Gate, 1975). It takes dedication. Of course, times have changed, and some of the struggles of that era have evolved, but many of these artists, like Mosley, are still at it. We can learn a lot from their commitment and history.
Forms of Resistance
AH: Let’s flash forward to the present. In this section, we focus on the role of art vis-à-vis institutional structures, as well as on the implications of historical omission in those spaces.
EC: Here we are talking about structures of bias in our schools, our government, our criminal justice system, the healthcare industry, our museums—and the ways in which artists can resist the often-discriminatory assumptions of those structures: resistance as a way of working, a counterpoint to the quiet introspection of the previous gallery.
AH: Let’s turn back to the Studio Museum’s founding. A diverse group, including many artists, got together in 1968 to create a space in the art world specifically to provide a platform for artists of color. That didn’t exist before. We’ve come a long way, but in 2017 we have to take stock, describe the evolution and hard work that’s been done to expand opportunity, create other kinds of spaces, and continue to shift expectations of who we might find there. This space is a nod to the generations before and the work they have done.
EC: You’re right to come back around to the respective histories of our museums. 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.
AH: Yes, let’s go deeper into that idea. How are we dealing with that here?
EC: I think it is important at the conclusion of the exhibition to focus on this question that you and I often ask each other: who are these institutions for? The artists featured in this gallery have a lot to say on the subject. I’m thinking of Howardena Pindell’s video in which she looks down the barrel of the lens and narrates to the camera a very personal history of her experiences with institutional racism (Free, White and 21, 1980). It’s a recording she made in 1980, but it’s just as relevant today.
AH: For me, a prime example is Lorraine O’Grady’s performance (Untitled [Mlle Bourgeoisie Noire], 1980– 1983/2009). O’Grady performed this piece in a number of museum spaces in the early 1980s to assert her presence, demand more of institutions, and ask that museums take more risks by including women, women of color, and artists of color. These demands are just as relevant today. You and I are making these demands, as evidenced in our exhibition. There are a lot of women represented in this section. If you look at the contemporary landscape of galleries and institutions, it is not simply people of color who have been omitted.
EC: Kerry James Marshall’s painting is a present-day echo of these concerns (Untitled [Gallery], 2016). This artist has used the genre of history painting to feed back into the museum as institution and rewrite the codes of the canon. In this painting, the traditional white cube of the gallery is an institutional backdrop against which Marshall can explore many different meanings of blackness and identity. Sure, it’s a portrait, but it’s also a critique. Pindell, O’Grady, Marshall … these artists are inventing forms of resistance—political and aesthetic—that resonate today in very necessary and meaningful ways. For me, they echo Horace Pippin’s painting and the desire, the necessity, to insert our most resolute democratic values into a conversation that only art can have.
AH: We’ve come full circle, then: we are looking back but also forward. I have to touch on Collier Schorr’s photograph of Michelle Obama at the end of her reign as a black woman in the white space of the White House (The First Lady [Diplomat’s Room, Rihanna, 20 Minutes], 2016). It’s just incredible. The potency and potential of that image, what it allows, and the opportunity for some viewers to see themselves reflected in it. That is what President and Mrs. Obama did for an entire generation of children in this nation. How powerful is it to see yourself reflected in spaces that were once inaccessible to your ancestors?
EC: So 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. For 20/20, we’ve tried to stress the point of identification as an American experience in the broadest sense.
AH: I think our show was prompted by a shared urgency to describe what our country looks like to us today, and what it is shaping up to be in the not-so-distant future. But it is also meant to remind ourselves that we rely on others. The importance of dialogue and the spirit of collaboration and respectful debate is something that’s been foregrounded in this collaboration between us as curators, and between our institutions and their legacies and collections. It gives me hope that we are creating a new possibility for institutions looking at each other, together. And while it is important to uphold the ideals of our democracy, it is equally important to uphold ideals of inclusion and respect for others. You cannot do this work on your own; you do not exist in this world alone. Take away these artworks, and what are we doing here? We’re working together, and that is essential to our survival.
20/20: The Studio Museum in Harlem and Carnegie Museum of Art is on view in the Heinz Galleries at Carnegie Museum of Art from July 22 to December 31, 2017.
- Topics: Contemporary Art