Monday, July 14, 2014

Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties at the Brooklyn Museum, closed on July 13

David Hammons (American, b. 1943). The Door (Admissions Office), 1969. Wood, acrylic sheet, and pigment construction, 79 x 48 x 15 in. (200.7 x 122 x 38.1 cm). California African American Museum, Los Angeles, Collection of Friends, the Foundation of the California African American Museum. 
© David Hammons

Yesterday was the last day of one of the best exhibitions of the Spring-Early Summer 2014 Art Season, on view since March 7th at the Brooklyn Museum. I hope you were able to catch Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties, tucked away on the 1st floor, behind the innovative - and a bit overambitious - exhibition Connecting Cultures, which displays the museum's collection.  Witness might have been better served in that very exhibition space.

Barkley L. Hendricks (American, b. 1945). Lawdy Mama, 1969. Oil and gold leaf on canvas, 5334 x 3614 in. (136.5 x 92.1 cm). The Studio Museum in Harlem, Gift of Stuart Liebman, in memory of Joseph B. Liebman, 83.25. © Barkley L. Hendricks. Photo: Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

I have posted a few images that are on the exhibition website.  Click on the link provided here to access more other information about the show. 

Moneta Sleet Jr. (American, 1926–1996). Rosa Parks, Dr. and Mrs. Abernathy, Dr. Ralph Bunche, and Dr. and Mrs. Martin Luther King, Jr. leading marchers into Montgomery, 1965, printed circa 1970. Gelatin silver print, 1338 x 1034 in. (34 x 27.3 cm). Saint Louis Art Museum, Gift of the Johnson Publishing Company, 426:1991. © Johnson Publishing Company, LLC

However, reading cannot substitute for the highly-charged impact of the total installation.   Immediately, upon stepping through the entrance to the exhibition, David Hammon's The Door (Admissions Office), 1969, confronts the viewer.  In this work, the artist used a greasy black ink on his body to smear the real glass of this real door labeled "Admissions Office." Hands raised above his head to convey a sense of frustration and despair, the figure stands behind this closed door, which bars full access to the other side - the side of opportunity, acknowledgement, respect, and participation in all that American life can offer.  Have we sufficiently dissolved these obstacles for African Americans?  Not really.   We still have a long way to go.

Norman Rockwell (American, 1894–1978). New Kids in the Neighborhood (Negro in the Suburbs), 1967. Oil on canvas, 3612 x 5712 in. (92.7 x 146.1 cm). Story illustration for Look, May 16, 1967. Norman Rockwell Museum Collection, Stockbridge, Massachusetts. Printed by permission of the Norman Rockwell Family Agency. © 2013 the Norman Rockwell Family Entities

Other works, such as Norman Rockwell's New Kids in the Neighborhood, 1967, also remind us of persistent injustices, such as the real estate market, which perpetuates de facto segregation.  Have we made progress to curtail these practices?  I don't think so.

Norman W. Lewis (American, 1909–1979). Untitled (Alabama), 1967. Oil on canvas, 4514 x 7312 in. (114.9 x 186.7 cm). National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., Gift of the Collectors Committee, 2009.45.1. © The Estate of Norman W. Lewis, courtesy of Iandor Fine Arts

The sad news about Witness is that the problems these artists address are still with us after 50 years of civil rights action.  Would that art could correct the ills of society. Well, it cannot, but at least, it came raise our awareness of issues that need our attention.  Witness certainly asks us to take stock of where we are now. 
Sam Gilliam (American, b. 1933). Red April, 1970. Acrylic on canvas, 110 x 160 in. (279.4 x 406.4 cm). The University of Iowa Museum of Art, Iowa City, Gift of The Longview Foundation and Museum purchase, 1971.11. © Sam Gilliam

The good news about Witness is that the curators Teresa A. Carbone, Andrew W. Mellon Curator of American Art, Brooklyn Museum, and Kellie Jones, Associate Professor, Department of Art History and Archaeology, Columbia University have created an artistically strong, as well as educationally important, exhibition.   Their catalog is still available at the Brooklyn Museum or online. It is worth studying in order to remind ourselves that indeed we should still try to overcome.

Best wishes for Bastille Day,
Beth New York

aka Beth S. Gersh-Nesic, Ph.D.
New York Arts Exchange

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