Like many writers, I feel centered when I write, or it might be better to say, when I don’t write, when I can’t write for whatever reason, I feel, frankly, de-stabilized. It’s dangerous for me not to write.
Part of the Editor's Choice series.
Duke University Press, 2016
A 1971 photograph by Jan van Raay shows artist Cliff Joseph leading a group of artist-activists—members of the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition (BECC)—in the dead of winter protesting the Whitney Museum’s controversial exhibition Contemporary Black Artists in America (months before its opening on April 7, 1971). The show was in response to the museum’s previous exhibition The 1930s: Painting and Sculpture in America (1968), in which curator Bill Agee neglected to include African Americans despite their involvement in the visual arts, specifically through the Works Progress Administration. In November 1968, the newly founded Studio Museum in Harlem had quickly responded with its own exhibition, entitled Invisible Americans, showcasing the works of African American artists working in the 1930s, including Jacob Lawrence, Horace Pippin, Norman Lewis, Charles Alston, and Romare Bearden, among many others. The Whitney’s 1971 Contemporary Black Artists in America was meant to be a “corrective exhibition” (as we might call it today), but proved to be, yet again, another disaster. Then director John Baur, despite the BECC’s efforts to include more black artists in the museum’s programming, refused to hire a black curator to coordinate the show. Instead he hired Robert Doty, who declined to consult an expert on African American art and culture. As a result, many BECC members boycotted the show, and several invited artists withdrew their participation.
This was the apex of the civil rights movement, a time that saw a pivotal change in the elitist (white) ethos prevailing in New York City’s art museums—government-based education programs were implemented along with a new emphasis toward decentralization of cultural and public institutions. Black artists and artists of color were fighting for the right to have their work seen in galleries and museums. This tumultuous period is the topic that Susan E. Cahan, associate dean for the arts at Yale College, bravely grapples with in her new book Mounting Frustration: The Art Museum in the Age of Black Power. She presents four test cases: the founding of the Studio Museum in Harlem (1968); the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s blunder of a show, Harlem on My Mind (1969); the Whitney’s Contemporary Black Artists in America; and Richard Hunt’s and Romare Bearden’s joint solo exhibitions in 1971 at the Museum of Modern Art, which Cahan discusses along with its controversial “Primitivism” in 20th Century Art exhibition of 1984.
“Museums were forced to face artists’ demands for justice and equality,” states Cahan in her introduction, setting the stage for an exegesis of a subject that is woefully undocumented and rarely addressed in art historical discourses. It is a topic that is replete with complexities, idiosyncrasies, incongruities, and, above all, racial baggage. And yet the author has immersed herself in the matter with great commitment and poise. Her command of the subject allows for new insights, for instance about Allon Schoener’s curatorial debacle with Harlem on My Mind. Riding on the wave of his previous curatorial success with Portal to America (1967) at the Jewish Museum, Schoener was hired to present Harlem’s cultural history at the Met. He had progressive ambitions—creating “spatial films” in the museum galleries with photographic reproductions of famous African American figures, videos of members of the Harlem community, and recordings of jazz music—but not a single artwork by a black (or white) artist was included. Museum curators were perplexed and artists of color were enraged, picketing outside the museum in protest of the show. But Thomas Hoving, the museum director at the time, was pleased, calling the show a “most exotic” exhibition. As Cahan contends, Harlem on My Mind became a public relations stunt to advocate Hoving’s “Master Plan” for extending the Met into Central Park, which received approval in 1971.
What is provocative (if not shocking) about Cahan’s book is that the words “racism” or “racist” are seldom used to describe the individuals or institutions discussed, unless it appears in quotations (e.g., “[Linda] Goode-Bryant [ … ] shouted that the Met is ‘a racist institution’”). As an alternative, Cahan coolly formulates subtle remarks on the prejudices, arrogance, and ignorance of the curators and directors in question. In her admonishment of MoMA’s “Primitivism” show and its curator William Rubin, she states:
Rather than acknowledge modern European artists’ indebtedness to African and other indigenous arts [ … ], the exhibition followed a well-trodden path. “Art” was defined as the creation of white European and European American artists. [ … ] The show perpetuated the exclusion of black subjectivity from modernity. In Rubin’s view, only two African Americans warranted inclusion: Romare Bearden and Martin Puryear. Their works were illustrated in the last few pages of the two-volume catalogue with little or no explanation as to how they fit into the exhibition as a whole.
When asked about her avoidance of the overwrought terms, Cahan noted that she used “analytical language to describe racist operations that would be more accurate to the situation.” Quoting Imani Perry, professor of African American studies at Princeton, in her introduction, she states: “The role of the individual as an agent of racism does not deny the existence of racism; rather, it ‘allows us to recognize that we have a cultural practice that is diffuse.’” The use of the words “racist” or “racism” are, for the author, reductive statements to describe a complex and intertwining affair in the history of New York City’s art world, which is without question attached to the issue of race. Instead, Cahan attempts to expose a more complex web of racial encounters forced by integration. As she reveals throughout the book, integration was not only a threat to the culture of the white majority, but established a legitimate fear held by African Americans and people of color of “whitewashing” their culture and local communities.
Cahan should be lauded for her meticulous investigations, starting her research in 1990, and conducting numerous interviews with the artists and administrators in question. She relays a taxonomical breadth of information that is as nauseating as it is intoxicating. The book, however, places an overwhelming emphasis on the curators and directors of New York City’s museums, whom she describes as misguided, often arrogant, idealistic, and ignorant. The work, almost tragically, is not about the achievements of practicing artists and activists: the BECC, Henri Ghent, Benny Andrews, Betty Blayton, Kenneth B. Clark, Faith Ringgold, Tom Lloyd, and many others. While Cahan honors the accomplishments of the Black Arts Movement, highlighted in her text are the failures and misdeeds of the white male curators who disrupted or obfuscated these artists’ crusade for integration and inclusion.
As Cahan puts it, “it’s a history of the art system,” a system of hierarchies implicated by racial prejudice. It is not, however, a book on the history of African American art. It shines a whole new light on the inner workings of New York’s art museums at the height of the struggle for racial integration, and yet gives little insight on the racist operations that continue to plague our art system today—which perhaps is made most evident when Cahan solemnly asks, “Why five decades later, do we find many of the same challenges in the major museums?”
Terence Trouillot is BOMB’s Andrew W. Mellon Fellow for Oral Histories.