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Author’s note: When writing this review last summer, I could not foresee that it would be published just as depictions of anti-black violence in the Whitney Biennial were provoking international debate. These urgent conversations evoke the politics of race, representation, and privilege that animate Susan E. Cahan’s Mounting Frustration: The Art Museum in the Age of Black Power and underscore the value of recovering this underexamined history.
This month, July 2016, police officers shot Alton B. Sperling and Philando Castile, both African American, at point-blank range on successive days. Then a sniper used a peaceful #BlackLivesMatter protest in Dallas to kill five police officers and wound seven more and two civilians. A few days later, a gunman killed three officers in Baton Rouge, one of whom was African American, and wounded three more. The deaths join a roll that counts black men, women, and children all over the country.
Almost immediately, the tragedies engendered artists’ responses. On Friday, July 8, 2016, Dread Scott hung a flag outside Jack Shainman Gallery in Chelsea that read “A Black Man Was Lynched by Police Yesterday,” updating one that the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People hung outside its New York headquarters eight decades ago. In repurposing that iconic artifact, Scott points simultaneously to the grim history and intractability of systemic violence against black people in the United States and to our moment’s appetite for politically engaged art.
Scott’s flag and the grievous losses it signals may seem an unlikely preamble to a discussion of Cahan’s Mounting Frustration, a finely grained history of the New York art establishment’s attempts circa 1970 to reckon with African American representation—except that current conditions were not unfamiliar in the period she covers. Law-enforcement excesses against people of color in the 1960s frequently sparked spectacular interracial violence avidly covered in the mass media. Thanks to Andy Warhol’s Race Riot paintings and prints (1964), the police brutality that greeted peaceful civil rights protestors in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963 is now a fixture of art-historical consciousness, even as the series’s misleading title falsely implies the protestors’ responsibility for the violence. Less familiar is the unrest that erupted year after year in more than a hundred cities, killing scores, injuring thousands, and decimating infrastructure that took decades to rebuild. The chaos was typically localized in inner-city neighborhoods, but its potential to metastasize galvanized civic, social, and cultural leaders—including museum professionals—keen to contain or defuse volatile “mounting frustrations.”
Then, the art world was still largely in thrall to an ideology of apolitical modernism defined by universally recognizable standards, an ideal difficult for museums to square with their ambitions for social relevance. Reconciling those goals was also difficult for artists of color, who were routinely expected to address their identity in ways that left non-representational art open to charges of inauthenticity and representational imagery vulnerable to dismissal as retardetaire—a double bind that often led to their works’ marginalization on grounds of insufficient “quality.”
This particularly voluminous episode in the art world’s cyclical attention to issues of race and representation is a subject of intensifying scholarly interest, as Julia Bryan-Wilson details in her review of Mounting Frustration in Artforum (54, no. 10 [Summer 2016]: 113–15). Cahan frames her study via four cases, split between exhibition histories (the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Harlem on My Mind: Cultural Capital of Black America, 1900–1968 of 1969 and the Whitney’s Contemporary Black Artists in America of 1971) and institutional ones (the Studio Museum in Harlem in the late 1960s, and the Museum of Modern Art’s [MoMA] engagement with African and African American art from ca. 1930 through 1984). Like most museum projects, these were conceived against an array of extra-aesthetic priorities (e.g., the Met’s need to secure city approval to expand into Central Park), and Cahan contextualizes them and the opposition they ignited through close readings of archival documents, interviews, and secondary sources. She is particularly sympathetic to the positions of the African American artists and activists of the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition (BECC), which led the fights at the Met and Whitney, and the Art Workers’ Coalition (AWC), which spearheaded protests at MoMA, whose demands coalesced around calls for dedicated curators and galleries for black and Puerto Rican artists. Cahan argues that the resolutions devised in response to those demands conditioned the museums’ exhibition and hiring practices for decades thereafter.
The brief chapter on the Studio Museum and its inaugural exhibition, Tom Lloyd’s Electronic Refractions II of 1968, indicates fault lines within an African American cultural consciousness often mistakenly cast as unitary. Because Lloyd positioned his abstract, electric-light sculptures as black art (see “The Black Artist in America: A Symposium,” Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 27 no. 5 [January 1969], 248–49), his show seemed a fitting debut for the new, community-based museum seeking to bridge uptown and downtown aesthetics. In practice, his work was rejected by an audience seeking more legible representations of black identity—an inversion of the quality standards to which artists were subjected outside Harlem. By mid-1969, the museum’s modernists had been supplanted by a leadership uninterested in integration, social or aesthetic, instantiating an ideological schism that informs Cahan’s subsequent cases.
The Met’s Harlem on My Mind eschewed fine art for cultural history. Devised by a white curator whose revolutionary ambitions would seem to fit the sensibilities of the Studio Museum’s new leadership, the immersive installation pictured Harlem over the twentieth century via photo blow-ups, sound, and text. The show attracted 450,000 visitors (roughly eight times the museum’s typical audience) but has gone down as a failure thanks to ham-handed public relations, poor critical reception, and the omission of Harlemites’ art—a goad to the BECC. Whereas Bridget R. Cooks in Exhibiting Blackness: African Americans and the American Art Museum (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2011) focused on the exhibition’s impetus to the nascent activist organization, Cahan examines the show’s value to the Met, which used it to demonstrate a commitment to civil engagement that greased the wheels for its aforementioned expansion and refocus on community outreach initiatives.
In the wake of the Met’s debacle, the Whitney organized Contemporary Black Artists in America in response to the BECC’s demand; however, the museum balked at hiring a black curator, another item on the BECC’s list, inciting an artists’ boycott and, hence, abridged hang. In lieu of a prescriptive (and proscriptive) overarching black aesthetic, the show posited a model of stylistic diversity that Cahan frames as the Whitney’s attempt to demonstrate modernist bona fides in a cultural field dominated by better-established museums (115).
Cahan’s final study situates MoMA’s Romare Bearden: The Prevalence of Ritual and The Sculpture of Richard Hunt, scheduled concurrently in 1971, in a broader chronology. By pairing Bearden’s vaunted figuration with Hunt’s equally celebrated abstract sculpture, the museum modeled in microcosm the same contemporary stylistic diversity that the Whitney aimed to demonstrate in its survey. Cahan subsumes Bearden’s and Hunt’s shows, organized in response to the AWC’s demands, in a trajectory extending from MoMA’s foundational engagement with African art in the early 1930s to its exhibition “Primitivism” in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern of 1984–85, both absent Afrocentric art by African Americans. She cites the critical backlash to the star-crossed 1984 show as the first evidence of a durable, albeit overdue, shift in the art world’s recurring amnesia regarding work by artists of color.
Cahan’s epilogue examines the aftereffects of these conflicts, as the Met, Whitney, and MoMA substituted education initiatives and peripheral gallery spaces for the fundamental curatorial restructuring that the BECC and AWC had demanded and, briefly, partially achieved. By focusing on institutional politics, Mounting Frustration illuminates the sub rosa negotiations—conceptual, ideological, and actual—shaping museological practice, a valuable perspective on the mechanisms of hegemony that complements scholarship on art production and reception in the period. Given that focus I am left wishing for a more extensive discussion of the Studio Museum, especially since Cahan elaborates such rich synchronic and diachronic contexts for the other museums. Likewise, I wonder about Harlem on My Mind’s nearly half a million visitors. What can they tell us about the divergent expectations and interests of the museum’s apparently discontinuous audiences—artists, critics, and a presumably segmented general public? Finally, I am curious about formalism’s potential as a tool of redress overall, a rationale implicit in MoMA’s Bearden and Hunt shows and advanced at the time by the Whitney’s director, who argued that black artists are “part of the American experience. And they should be judged by the same yardstick as other American artists” (John I. H. Baur, quoted by Caroline V. Wallace “Exhibiting Authenticity: The Black Emergency Cultural Coalition’s Protests of the Whitney Museum of American Art, 1968–71,” Art Journal 74, no. 2 [April 2015]: 22).
Despite the art world’s progress since the 1960s, it is worth noting that Dread Scott’s pointed, painful, timely intervention is sited in the street and sponsored by a commercial gallery. As I write, the most legible statements on interracial violence on view at the Met, Whitney, and MoMA are from the 1960s: Danny Lyon’s photographs of civil rights protests at the Whitney and, at MoMA, Bruce Conner’s black wax sculptures and Faith Ringgold’s American People Series #20: Die (1967), a new acquisition depicting an interracial melee. Less explicit and more contemporary, Kerry James Marshall’s Untitled (policeman) of 2015, another recent acquisition on view at MoMA, distills our moment in the form of an impassive African American police officer watching his beat—both a surveying subject and the object of our scrutiny.