Visual Art of the Blues

Wexner Center, Fall 2013

Jacqueline Trescott

Jean-Michel Basquiat, Undiscovered Genius of the Mississippi Delta, 1983, acrylic, oil on paintstick & paper collage on canvas, five panels, 48 x 184.” The Brant Foundation Inc., Greenwich, CN, 2012 The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat/ ADAGP, Paris/Artists Rights Society, New YorkRoy DeCarava, Hallway, New York,  1953, gelatin silver print, 14 x 11.” Courtesy of the DeCarava ArchivesBeauford Delaney, Portrait of Charlie Parker, 1968, oil on canvas, 28 ¾ x 23 ½. ” Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, New YorkWhen you hear the blues, the songs excite those deep feelings of loss, burdens, mistakes, heartaches, poverty and warnings about being wronged.  The visual art that salutes the blues music and culture doesn’t evoke bad feelings—it is usually more celebratory.  The recent exhibition, Blues for Smoke, which I saw at its New York venue, the Whitney Museum of American Art, reflected the deep feelings of the blues that has traveled through several generations of artists.   Organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (MOCA), the show travels to the Wexner Center for the Arts at Ohio State University, September 21 –December 29, 2013.

Walking into the Whitney’s treatment of the show had the familiarity of a homecoming. Nearly 50 artists offered some interpretations and some points of view. The artists we love were represented: Romare Bearden, Kerry James Marshall, Alma Thomas, Jeff Donaldson, Kara Walker, Glenn Ligon, Roy De Carava, Carrie Mae Weems, Beauford Delaney, Barkley L. Hendricks, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Mel Edwards.  For the younger generation, just beginning to appreciate past generations of minority artists, as well as the contemporary hipsters, the superb show was an important introduction, no matter what the themes.

For these artists, the blues provided a background for memory, tapping into the musicians of the times, the faces of the times or just something that was literally blue. Alma Thomas, the Alma Thomas, Late Night Reflections, 1972, acrylic on canvas, 28 ¾ x 44.” Collection of the Nasher Museum of Art, Duke University.  Museum purchase, Fund for Acquisitions and bequest of Marjorie Pfeffer by exchange. Estate of Alma W. Thomas. Photo:  Peter Paul Geoffrioncelebrated abstract artist of the 20th century, produced Late Night Reflections.  Her canvas is a sky of indigo blue and yellow dashes.

And one artist who was haunted by the blues, the rhythms of black life, always prompts a multi-layered inspection.  Pittsburgh Memory  by Romare Bearden is a haunting addition to his exploration of ordinary lives. This canvas is dominated by two faces that have a weathered, down and out expression.

Included in the show, and this will make you sit down and marvel,  is a 1935 film that captured the process composer Duke Ellington took during the creation of “Symphony in Black.”  The William Eggleston, Untitled (Holly Springs, Mississippi), 1984, pigment print, 20 x 16.” Courtesy of the artist, the Eggleston Artistic Trust and Gagosian Galleryorganizers spotlight this priceless artifact, done by Paramount Pictures, which marked the film debut of a searing Billie Holiday, and the great Ellington band.  The film, a much better quality than the one on YouTube, shines with creative output. Your toes are tapping and you are entranced by the shear genius.

The show didn’t aim to produce a visual definition of the blues; instead it showed out the blues breaks out and then seeps into what you are thinking about, being blue about. Basquiat creates a long panel. Jumping out is a bold statement about “undiscovered genius” in the Mississippi Delta. Yes, how many musicians are unknown? But just as the Delta gave us so many memories and talents, it also had some unfortunate side effects. Basquiat writes the words “a diet rich in pork products” and then scratches them out.

Glenn Ligon, No Room (Gold) #42, 2007, oil and acrylic on canvas,  32 x 32.” Courtesy Regen Projects, Los Angeles Glen Ligon. Photo: Joshua WhiteSome pieces make you wonder.  Rodney McMillian did an installation of a vinyl red church. From Asterisks in Dockery  leaves you catching your breath at its unified redness.  The cross,  the windows, the benches, the floor.  And then you think, is this the blood of the ancestors, spilled on the plantation?  Is this the suffocating of slaves, the uncertainties of freedom, the disappointment of post-Migration life?  Is the blues just one step from dying and a red-lined coffin is the final resting place.  McMillian creates a chapel, giving a simple place so many meanings.  

The exhibitionwas developed over several years by MOCA curator Bennett Simpson, in close consultation with artist Glenn Ligon.

Blues for Smoke invites you to bring your own interpretation; the artists certainly did.

Jacqueline Trescott is a cultural journalist and editor based in Washington, D.C.

Zoe Leonard, 1961, 2002 ongoing, Blue Suitcases, dimensions variable, courtesy of the artist & Galerie Gisela Capitain, Cologne, Germany. Photo: Bill JacobsonThe Video Series

The Blues for Smoke video series features personal interviews with the curator, philosopher Cornel West, artist Rodney McMillan  and guitarist Gary Clark Jr.  They discuss questions such as "What is the blues?" and "Where is the blues today?"

Kerry James Marshall, Blue Water Silver Moon, 1991, acrylic and collage on linen, 63 x 55.” Collection of JoAnn Busuttil, Los Angeles. Image courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New YorkMOCA also has published the hardcover book, Blues For Smoke, with and overview by curator Bennett Simpson and essays by artist Glenn Ligon (on the blues imagination of the hit HBO drama The Wire) and musician and historian George E. Lewis (on the blues in relation to avant-gardism and ideas of improvisation) join commissioned poems by Greg Bordowitz, Fred Moten, and Nathaniel Mackey, and an artist statement by Jack Whitten. Reprints include Wanda Coleman’s seminal essay “My Blues Love Affair,” an essay meditation on growing up with the blues in black Los Angeles of the 1950s and 1960s, and excerpts from Harryette Mullen’s major lyric poem cycle Muse and Drudge. The publication features an extensive bibliography and discography compiled by the curator.
Jack Whitten, Black Table Setting (Homage to Duke Ellington), 1974, acrylic on canvas,  72 x 60.” Collection of the Art Fund, Inc. at the Birmingham Museum of Art; Purchase with funds provided by Jack Drake and Joel and Karen Piassick

 Of Related Interest From the IRAAA — Blues on the Brush

“Blues on the Brush: Rose Piper’s Blues and Negro Folk Songs Painting of the 1940s” by Graham Lock was published in the International Review of African American Art print journal, vol. 22, no. 1, 2008.

Martin Wong, La Vida, 1988, oil on canvas, 96 x 114,” Yale University Art Gallery,  Charles B. Benenson, B.A. 1933, Collection. Photo courtesy of Yale University Art Gallery

Excerpt from article: 

One evening in 1926, Bessie Smith’s travelling tent-show company arrived in a little town near Cincinnati and, because the streets were flooded, had to be transported by boat to their lodgings above an undertaker’s parlor.  This inauspicious event engendered three remarkable works of art.  First Smith wrote “Backwater Blues” and, with the help of James P. Johnson on piano, turned it into one of her finest recordings.  When, by chance, the disc’s release coincided with the terrible Mississippi floods of 1927, the song gave moving voice to the suffering of more than half a million displaced people along the delta.  Then, marking its status in the black community, Sterling Brown used the song in his “Ma Rainey,” widely regarded as the definitive blues-related poem of the 20th century.  Nearly two decades later, a young painter, Rose Piper, who had just bought the Smith recording on Sterling Brown’s recommendation, was inspired to make Back Water, a canvas of haunting emotional power.

However, while Smith’s performance and Brown’s poems are now rightly acknowledged as great art, Piper’s work has for a variety of reasons, remained largely overlooked by the art critics and little-known to the wider public. (End of excerpt.)

For her times, Rose Piper was an uncoventional, free-spirited African American woman.  The article provides an account of the Piper’s life including her 1946 trip to the south to research the blues, a detailed discussion of her work, color reproductions of her paintings,  Back Water (1946) Slow Down, Freight Train (1946-47), Grievin’ Hearted (1946). The Death of Bessie Smith and from the slave song series, I Want Yuh to Go Down, Death Easy/An’ Bring My Servant Home (1988), and photographs of the artist, herself.  

The IRAAA issue with the “Blues on the Brush: Rose Piper’s Blues and Negro Folk Songs Painting of the 1940s” article can be ordered from the IRAAA back issues page.

 All art works shown here are from the “Blues for Smoke” exhibition.