The Blues Aesthetic: Black Culture and Modernism | Catalyst

The Blues Aesthetic: Black Culture and Modernism

Sept. 14-Dec. 9, 1989.

Artists: Berenice Abbott, Gertrude Abercrombie, Billy “Fundi” Abernaty, Terry Adkins, John Ahearn, Candida Alvarez, Diane Arbus, Anthony, Barboza, Lynda Barry, Jean Michel Basquiat, David Bates, Romare Bearden, Frederick G. Becker, Dawoud Bey, John Biggers, Camille Billops, Willie Birch, Douglas Bourgeois, Roy de Carava, William Christenberry, Robert Colescott, Paul Colin, Houston Conwill, Miguel Covarrubias, Stuart Davis, Aaron Douglas, Langston Hughes, Arthur Dove, Mel Edwards, Mikki Ferrill, Ke Francis, Robert Frank, Roland Freeman, Lee Friedlander, Sam Gilliam, John Gutmann, Robert Gwathmey, Keith Haring, Margo Humphrey, Martha Jackson-Jarvis, William H. Johnson, Jacob Lawrence, Norman Lewis, Roy Lewis, Bert Long, Danny Lyon, George B. Luks, Gjon Mili, Keith Morrison, Archibald J. Motley, Nikolas Murray, James Orellana, Joe Overstreet, H.M. Pettit, Jackson Pollock, Archie Rand, Winold Reiss, Larry Rivers, Alison Saar, Viktor Schreckengost, Coreen Simpson, Beuford Smith, Frank Stewart, Prentiss Taylor, Bob Thompson, Martin Wong,  Videos by Peter Harvey and Mario Thomas, Doris Chase and Thulani Davis, Johanna Sophia, Geraldo Mello, Julia Meirelles, Caio Magri and Lucila Meirelles, Tony Cokes, Lawrence Andrews, Carlos de Jesus, Philip Mallory Jones.

Curator: Richard Powell

The Blues Aesthetic celebrated black culture through the exhibition of 80 works of art by 67 artists. Curator Richard J. Powell, director of WPA programs and now a professor of art and art history at Duke University, selected works in a range of media that reflected modernism’s broad interest in materials and methods, from painting, to sculpture, to collage. The works were not only by black but also by white artists, however, which permitted Powell to demonstrate the impact of African American art on the broader cultural spectrum. The exhibition drew an impressive crowd, with the WPA audience numbering over 17,000 and an additional 50,000 visitors during the national tour that followed.

The earliest work in the show was an illustration by black artist H.M. Pettit published in a weekly serial in 1899, in which white bystanders watch a performance by black dancers. The relationship between the visual and musical arts threaded through the exhibition to the most recent works on display, namely, photographs of black musicians, including one by Diane Arbus called “James Brown is Out of Sight” taken in 1966, which shows Brown having his hair teased. Other works were rooted alternatively in black music, including an installation by William Christenberry that paid tribute to Stephen Styles, a resident of Aberdeen, Mississippi, who collected roadside signs and folk art sayings in his home. Some artists in the show, including Christenberry, were household names in DC and across the nation: Sam Gilliam, Jackson Pollock, Arthur Dove, Romare Bearden, and Robert Frank.

Yet some visitors did not identify race as the exhibition’s driving force. Critic Paul Russell wrote in a review of The Blues Aesthetic for The Washington Post that without labels that identified the artists, it was difficult if not impossible to separate works made by black artists from those made by white artists, although he acknowledged that all paid homage to black culture.

Race was the driving issue, however, in a work commissioned for The Blues Aesthetic by WPA: a 17 x 17-foot billboard portrait by New York artist David Hammons that was installed outside, near the WPA building on 7th Street NW. Hammons’s work, in which the title words “How Ya Like Me Now?” were scrawled across the surface, represented the Reverend Jesse Jackson with the light skin, blonde hair, and blue eyes of a white man. “How Ya Like Me Now?” became a point of deep contention and a vehicle for violence when white WPA staff members who were installing the work were confronted by a group of black passers-by. The group was offended by the image, attacked it with a sledgehammer, and left it in partial ruin. Hammons later stated that he expected the portrait to evoke an angry reaction. Powell, who is black, was “absolutely devastated” by the reaction, for he believed the painting asked a key question: “Are our expectations of people based on their race?” Jackson, for his part, was not offended by the image itself but rather by “the reality behind it.”


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