Blues for Smoke

Los Angeles

at Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles


With the recent “Pacific Standard Time” program of postwar art shows, and now the Museum of Contempo- rary Art’s “Blues for Smoke,” Los Angeles has emerged as a place to challenge curatorial conventions. Organized by MoCA curator Bennett Simpson (in “close consultation” with artist Glenn Ligon), “Blues for Smoke” is the realization of a deceptively playful and casual-seeming m.o. that tracks neither artist nor art history, focusing instead on sensibility, an elemental yet intangible component of art.

In the show’s catalogue, Simpson holds that to deal with the blues is “to come near one’s feelings and those of others, sometimes embarrassingly close and [he continues by quoting Cornel West] ‘to allow suffering to speak.’” Often this speech is indirect, expressing both suffering and the determination to overcome it. Some exhibited works name oppressors or their means, such as Henry Taylor’s monumental painting Warn- ing Shots Not Required (2011), on which the ominous title is stenciled, and Lorraine O’Grady’s large, black- and-white photomontage, from 1991/2012, offering a surreal meditation on interracial liaisons. It is not just suffering that speaks in the blues but also bodily sensa- tion (and appetites) of all kinds.

The roots of the blues are buried in African-American cultural soil. Yet the show features works from the 1950s to the present by a multiracial roster of about 50 artists so diverse that the conventional notion of identity politics is rendered moot. Among the older featured works are 1950s- and ’60s-era portraits of performers that celebrate musical expressions related to the blues: from black-and- white photographs of John Coltrane by Roy DeCarava to Beauford Delaney’s colorful expressionistic paintings of luminaries such as Charlie Parker and James Baldwin. More recent works in the show—dating from 1970 and comprising the majority of exhibited pieces—also celebrate community, heritage and kinship, but more obliquely. Ligon’s homage to Richard Pryor, “No Room” (2007), is a series of nearly identical canvases, each bearing the same quotation from the comic’s routine stenciled on a gold ground: “I was a nigger for twenty-three years./I gave that shit up. No room for/No room for advancement.” As Simpson points out, repetition is at the heart of the blues, and the textual rhythms of Ligon’s works arranged in a single row on the gallery wall echo the cadences of sermons heard in black churches.

The sensibility-oriented exhibition encourages unfamiliar connections across genres, generations, geographies and genders. That Simpson avoids clashing differences of mediums and format is an impressive feat in a show that brings together disparate (and evocative) works such as William Eggleston’s seemingly timeless pictures of Mississippi; Zoe Leonard’s 1961 (2002-ongoing), a wistful row of vintage blue suitcases; Jack Whitten’s gorgeous abstractions—such as Black Table Setting (Homage to Duke Ellington), 1974—suggestive of later paintings by Gerhard Richter; Barbara McCullough’s Water Ritual #1: An Urban Rite of Purification, a hypnotic video document of a 1979 action; and David Hammons’s Chasing the Blue Train (1989), an installation in which an electric train travels around a gallery punctuated by stage-set-like mountains in the distinctive shape of grand piano lids. In addition, the show comprises vintage musical offerings at listening stations as well as film and video works that include the gritty HBO series “The Wire,” a disturbing evocation of West Baltimore’s criminal underworld; an engaging 2007 documentary about author Samuel R. Delany; and Sun Ra’s Space Is the Place (1974), a feature-length film collaboration between the larger-than-life Afrofuturist musician, director John Coney and (art and music) producer Jim Newman.

Now available on YouTube, Space Is the Place stars Sun Ra as a Tutankhamun-costumed deity who arrives on Earth in a hilariously homemade-looking spaceship. Unsuccessful at spreading the black nationalist gospel to pimps and hos in Oakland, he takes on an “overseer” nemesis before departing our doomed planet. Although this campy, flamboyantly garish musical epic may not be to everyone’s taste, it is paradigmatic for its simultaneous embrace of black nationalism and the counterculture. I learned after seeing the film that its genesis was a course Ra taught at UC Berkeley in the late 1960s. Ronald Rea- gan was governor of California then and the musician was in the Bay Area, following one of his legendary absences from Earth. The course was called—what else?—“The Black Man in the Cosmos” and is a vivid reminder that the idea of art imitating life is only a jumping-off point for considering larger issues. And let’s face it, you just can’t make this shit up—or find a better antidote for a case of the blues.

Photo: David Hammons: Chasing the Blue Train, 1989, mixed mediums; in “Blues for Smoke” at the Museum of Contemporary Art.