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Curated by Valerie Cassel Oliver, senior curator, Contemporary Art Museum Houston (CAMH), Radical Presence: Black Performance in Contemporary Art was presented in New York over two venues: Grey Art Gallery and Studio Museum in Harlem. Timed to coincide with Performa 13 (the biennial performance art festival held in New York in November), this pioneering exhibition was activated by a number of performance commissions and bridged two legendary neighborhoods long associated with artists: Harlem and Greenwich Village.
The exhibition press release stated that it was the first “to survey over fifty years of performance art by visual artists of African descent from the United States and the Caribbean.” Further, according to the curatorial statement Radical Presence engaged “the history of black performance traditions within the visual arts beginning with the ‘happenings’ of the early 1960s, throughout the 1980s, and into the present practices of contemporary artists.”
The New York presentation was framed by two events: in October 2013, Adrian Piper asked in a letter to Cassel Oliver that her work be removed. Excerpts from the artist’s letter, along with portions of the curator’s response, were taped over Piper’s defunct display at Grey Art Gallery and circulated on the blogosphere. Piper wrote in part:
I appreciate your intentions. Perhaps a more effective way to “celebrate [me], [my] work and [my] contributions to not only the art world at large, but also a generation of black artists working in performance,” might be to curate multi-ethnic exhibitions that give American audiences the rare opportunity to measure directly the groundbreaking achievements of African American artists against those of their peers in “the art world at large” (see Robin Cembalest, “Adrian Piper Pulls Out of Black Performance-Art Show” [ARTnews]).
Who could argue with Piper’s wish to see a truly intermingled history of performative actions, especially during a time when such events were the hottest ticket in town? This was, however, the first time that an overview of black performance had been attempted. Cassel Oliver defended Radical Presence as a necessary documentation that could “one day prove a conceptual game-changer” (also quoted in ARTnews). This public debate, which for some reason took place in New York rather than at the exhibition’s original venue in Houston, was widely tweeted and posted.
Indeed, solid art-historical detective work is necessary for outlining the particulars of events, practices, and chronologies before they are synthesized into larger, more complete and complex narratives. It is almost shocking that such basic groundwork did not exist. Radical Presence intended to provide the missing fundamentals for future generations. Cassel Oliver wrote that her in-depth research for the traveling retrospective Benjamin Patterson: Born in the State of FLUX/us (CAMH, 2010–11) inspired her to undertake this sorely needed venture. Undoubtedly, her equally essential Double Consciousness: Black Conceptual Art since 1970 (CAMH, 2005) also crossed into these territories and contributed to her undertaking. The only recent precedent for Radical Presence was Clifford Owens: Anthology, organized by Christopher Y. Lew for MoMA PS1 (2011–12). In this extremely personal project, Owens researched and invited twenty-six African American artists to create performance scores and send them to him. His assembly took shape as live events, photographs, and video that became a sort of subjective survey in which the artist was the vehicle for his collaborators. The Anthology scores and select photographs are included in Radical Presence and discussed at length in the catalogue.
The debate around Radical Presence was eclipsed by the sudden and sad death of Terry Adkins, also included in the project, at the youthful age of sixty on February 8, 2014, toward the end of the exhibition’s New York run. Adkins was a mercurial, musical figure who made activated sculptural objects. An influential teacher, an “artist’s artist,” and the subject of a recent, lauded 2012 traveling retrospective, Recital (organized by Ian Berry of the Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery at Skidmore College), Adkin’s abrupt loss brought home both the importance and the difficulty of staging a survey of this kind of work. His objects may be included in exhibitions henceforth, but how to ever again experience those shifting, strange performances he instigated with the Lone Wolf Recital Corps? At the Studio Museum opening on November 13, 2013, Adkins, Blanche Bruce, and the Corps performed At Osiris in the theater. Against a projected, split-screen video backdrop that flashed to various Roman obelisks, Adkins and company played music and recited from ancient Egyptian Osirian texts, creating a mesmerizing, atonal environment in which the audience could linger.
Challenges aside, the exhibition Radical Presence was not a dreary archival timeline of events missed, leaving the viewer longing and confused. It was a thoughtful and well-edited mix of documentary and artistic photographs and videos, installations, objects, sound pieces, scripts, and other elements. The gallery experience was rich and varied.
Of the thirty-seven artists included, twenty-four were presented at Grey Art Gallery and twenty-seven at the Studio Museum, with several included in both of the challenging, small venues. Rather than presenting a straight chronology, works were clustered thematically. This offered rich intergenerational relationships, but could be frustrating for those seeking, finally, a history of clearly outlined generations of “pioneers” and then the many younger figures exploding on the contemporary scene.
Many stellar and provocative pieces were included. The pioneers were concentrated at the Grey Art Gallery, intermingled with younger artists working with similar concerns. There, Pond, Patterson’s 1962 action score was activated by spectators using windup frogs on a floor grid taped out by the artist. Impresario and Exit Art cofounder Papo Colo’s canonical action, Superman 51 (1977), was presented on video, documenting the artist’s run along the West Side highway with fifty-one sticks of lumber tied and trailing from his body until he collapses in exhaustion. Perhaps a commentary on the unacknowledged fifty-first state, Puerto Rico, the wood is dragged along, clashing, eventually weighing down the healthy body. Senga Nengudi (included in both locations) had color photographs along with her important piece, RSVP (1976–77), performed by artist Maren Hassinger (who was also included in Radical Presence). Nengudi’s loops of pantyhose, nailed at both ends to a wall, were entered and activated through a composed sequence of corporeal movements, an exploration of flexibility and restraint within a fabric associated with the strictures of femininity. The pantyhose remained as sculptural objects. Black-and-white photographs of Lorraine O’Grady’s 1980s interventions as Mlle. Bourgeoise Noire were presented. The artist would arrive at gallery and museum openings wearing a tiara, white gloves, and a gown, loudly declaiming a poem or striking herself with a cat o’ nine tails to call attention to racial, class, and gender divides in the art world at that time. David Hammons was also represented at both exhibition sites. Aside examples of his 1970s body prints, a slide carousel documented his 1983 Bliz-aard Ball Sale, in which Hammons joined the street vendors along Cooper Square to sell extra-small to extra-large snowballs. Other works at the Grey Art Gallery, including a video of Sherman Fleming’s (a.k.a. RODFORCE) Pretending to be Rock (1993), were spellbinding. The artist, naked, stations himself on hands and knees while wax from some two hundred white candles drips down and accumulates on his body. In Eating the Wall Street Journal (2000) William Pope.L sat high above the audience for several days, smeared in white flour, on a grotesque and jerry-rigged toilet tower, while eating—and eventually evacuating—strips of the newspaper covered in ketchup. Here, the setting alone served to conjure the “Friendliest Black Artist in America’s” harrowing work.
Coco Fusco (also included at both venues) was represented by her video and photo series a/k/a Mrs. George Gilbert (2004), in which she stages imagined surveillance footage of the FBI search for Angela Davis, which unjustly arrested hundreds of black women in its ultimately acquitted search for the so-called “terrorist” activist. At the Studio Museum, Fusco presented a new, wryly funny lecture piece entitled Observations of Predation in Humans: A Lecture by Dr. Zira, Animal Psychologist. Rounding out the Grey Art Gallery’s younger artists, Satch Hoyt’s Say It Loud! (2004) piled five hundred books that address the Black Diaspora around a ladder-style podium alongside the soundtrack of James Brown’s 1968 hit, “Say It Loud! I’m Black and I’m Proud!” Deleting the word “black” from the chorus, Hoyt invited viewers to mount the microphoned platform and offer instead a word of their choice. The hilarious 2010 YouTube video series Art Thoughtz by Jayson Musson offers straight-up “advice” by his crude alter ego, Hennessy Youngman, on creating art, having studio visits, and otherwise interacting with a mystifying art world. Jacolby Satterwhite, incorporated in both galleries, creates costumes, green-screen videos, and live performance as he references the digital era, all the while drawing on Surrealism, outsider art, and popular practices such as breakdancing and voguing.
The Studio Museum’s installation focused on more contemporary works alongside a few prescient, historic pieces. Standouts included Dread Scott’s I Am Not a Man (2009), in which color photographs and a placard gave insight into Scott’s performance where he walked the streets of Harlem wearing the sign, referencing those worn in the 1968 Memphis Sanitation Strike. Wayne Hodge’s 2011 Negerkuss includes color photographs and a sculpture that derive their title from a German sweet. In a German performance, Hodge blackened a replica of the bust of Cleopatra (housed in the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin) while wearing a “black savage” German carnival mask. Theaster Gates’s See, Sit, Sup, Sip, Sing: Holding Court (2012) was located in the museum’s street-level atrium. Created from furniture and chalkboards salvaged from a closed Chicago Southside public school (where the artist lives), this environment set a stage for conversations among museum staff and publics. Holding Court meant to foster community participation, although the artist also staged invitation-only events in the theater, composed of art-world luminaries. Jamal Cyrus’s Texas Fried Tenor (2012), part of his series Learning to Work the Saxophone (whose title derives from the Steely Dan song), explores the instrument so crucial to American, and particularly Texas Tenor sax, music. During a performance held at the High Line in New York, Cyrus fried a saxophone. Less amusingly, Tameka Norris cut her tongue with the slow, deliberate stroke of a knife blade, and then dragged it across the gallery wall. While substituting traditional artistic mediums for her body and bodily fluids, Norris’s complex untitled action left a pale, bloody trace across the Studio Museum’s mezzanine drywall, as she refers to historical action and endurance, as well as a long history of the human body used directly in artworks, particularly women’s bodies. One of the most recent works included was Xaviera Simmons’s color photographs of 2012 actions she carried out on a train in Sri Lanka. In Number 14 (When a Group of People Comes Together to Watch Someone Do Something) Simmons transforms, with the help of fellow passengers, from her shorts and a T-shirt to a more culturally integrated female figure, covered with clothing and scarves.
Each artist’s installation had an extended label. An ambitious slate of public programs enriched the presentation, and a dedicated website remains as a crucial resource. Finally, the excellent catalogue, which regrettably came at the end of the Houston debut, was available for New York. The publication’s timeline has already been updated with additions by Sur Rodney (Sur) and helpfully put online.
Careful exhibition goers will have noticed overlap: some of the same works featured in Infinite Island: Contemporary Caribbean Art (Brooklyn Museum, 2007–8); Arte ≠ Vida: Actions by Artists of the Americas, 1960–2000 (El Museo del Barrio, 2008, which I curated); Now Dig This! Art and Black Los Angeles, 1960–1980 (Hammer Museum, 2011–12; and MoMA PS1, 2012–13) (click here for review), to name a few, reappeared here in different contexts: Désert and Hoyt from Infinite Island, Colo from Arte ≠ Vida, and Nengudi from Now Dig This! are all included. At the Studio Museum, there was also some positive overlap and resonance with The Shadows Took Shape, a project exploring Afro-Futurism taking place on the first floor that bolstered the presentation on the nicely installed but awkward mezzanine. A few of these artists were also presented in the Whitney Biennial 2014 (click here for review) shortly after Radical Presence closed: Adkins, Hammons (in collaboration with Gaylen Gerber), Dave McKenzie, and Satterwhite. It is still not enough; yet contrary to Piper’s plaint, audiences are seeing a bit more of these artists in different contexts.
Some clarification of the selection parameters, particularly vis-à-vis the Caribbean, would have been good. For example, although I could not agree more with their inclusion, only a few New York figureheads such as Colo (Puerto Rican) and Fusco (Cuban-American) are included, while other U.S.-based Caribbean artists who clearly could have fit into this project, such as Ana Mendieta, are not. As well, no island-based artists from Puerto Rico, a commonwealth of the United States, are represented, an opportunity lost.
But this is a minor note. Radical Presence is a significant effort. Nonetheless, much scholarship remains to be done to create a full and complete history of performance by black visual artists. Each artist in the exhibition has multiple works to expound, and there are artists not included who could have been. Many moments, movements, and constellations require further study in dissertations or books. Numerous other events could be added to the timeline. Finally, this separate yet rich chronology should of course be folded into the larger, global history of performative actions—compared, contrasted, and scrutinized. As Piper beseeched, only then will we begin to see a more complete picture. But for now, at least we have a window.
Director and Chief Curator, Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Art Gallery, Columbia University