What is the right way to present art made by overlooked Black and Asian American artists working between the 1950s and ’80s who had reason to distrust the enterprise of art history? The obvious approach is to resuscitate their work by giving it a critical reevaluation — an effort, for instance, that writers, major museums, and publications have energetically undertaken in the past year for conceptual artist and poet Theresa Hak Kyung Cha. But for those whose suspicion of the institutions of art and culture runs deeper, salvaging that which is “lost” only ends up reinforcing a racist, capitalist system.
Curator Genji Amino belongs to the latter camp, which makes their job of curating a prickly one. With Dead Lecturer / distant relative: Notes from the Woodshed, 1950-1980 at Columbia University’s Wallach Art Gallery, Amino considers a time period during which Black and Asian artists in the United States were expected to formulate their claims legibly, forcefully, and politically, but focuses primarily on artists who experimented with abstract and poetic visual and verbal vocabularies. Not all of the featured artists have been neglected, at least in recent years: the exhibition’s roster includes names like Amiri Baraka, June Jordan, Sam Gilliam, and Howardena Pindell (among 50 others in this expansive show). Amino approaches the show with ambivalence about placing these artists in a racist record that has historically arbitrated what is and is not worthy of attention. On more than one occasion, they reiterated to me, “Experiments are lived out [by regular people] every day; we don’t need ‘Art’ with a capital A to tell us that.”
Dead Lecturer prompted about a dozen separate but related questions for me, including: To whom are the artworks addressed, and what does it mean for both curators and artists to embrace the inevitability that any messages will be lost or garbled in translation? What is the role of language in curating, and can poetry offer new ways to think about abstraction? And, finally, what is the curator’s role if it is neither to render artworks legible and accessible nor to establish their significance by placing them in an art historical lineage?
Theresa Hak Kyung Cha poses one possible answer to the first question in her 1982 book Dictee: that the audience is a “distant relative,” and that even if “neither you nor i / are visible to each other,” “i can only assume that you can hear me / i can only hope that you can hear me.” The late artist and poet, though distant in every way from her readers, forges intimacy with them through her assumptions and hopes. In “Mouth to Mouth,” an eight-minute single-channel video Cha made in 1985, the artist’s mouth is seen close-up as she silently mouths eight Korean vowels; the act suggests a break in communication, yet her mere effort to communicate creates a bridge between the artist and viewer.
In another room is a large photographic print by Canadian Nisei artist Roy Kiyooka, “StoneDGloves” (1970), taken at a construction site in Osaka, Japan. In this photograph, the subject is touch rather than speech, but the structure of the attempt is similar. The worn, dirt-speckled knit gloves doubly signify thwarted touch: human hands are absent from the frame, and the gloves don’t touch. These works broach whether the difficult tasks of expressing oneself and communicating with others — and our attempts to overcome this difficulty — might form the basis of intimacy.
A rare copy of N.H. Pritchard’s The Signs hand-illustrated by the artist — who was active in Umbra, a collective of young Black writers based in Manhattan’s Lower East Side in the 1960s — greets visitors at the entrance, immediately establishing text and language as fulcrums of the show. Amino urges a close reading of the last two lines: “they took advantage of the signs / they took advantage of the signs.” Large canvases by Japanese artist Shusaku Arakawa, who created diagrams signaling the difficulty of representation and perception with inscrutable arrows and blank spaces, question the severed relationship between words and meaning. Amino seems to ask visitors to reflect instead on what taking advantage of the signs — that is, the signifiers of meaning and communication — rife in Dead Lecturer might mean for them, whether they are found in seeing the world through two of Fred Eversley’s colorful parabolic lenses or in phrases like “what is most precious, because / it is lost” in Amiri Baraka’s poem “I Substitute for the Dead Lecturer.”
The final question is about the purpose of curation, and Amino’s apparent approach is, as they put it, to arrange “interesting juxtapositions,” sometimes with no definitive argumentative thesis. Is such an approach necessarily confined to academic spaces like the Wallach Art Gallery? I don’t know the answers to these many questions — but I do know that it is thrilling to see abstract works like a yolky Beauford Delaney canvas and a Charles Gaines “color regression” in my peripheral vision while watching Howardena Pindell’s “Free, White and 21” (1980), a video about the artist’s experiences of racism as a Black woman in the art world — first shown in a 1980 exhibition, Dialectics of Isolation: An Exhibition of Third World Women Artists of the United States, curated by Ana Mendieta. In this case, Amino’s juxtaposition does not go so far as to ascribe a political program to the abstract works in the room, but it does question their frequent presentation as defanged, depoliticized expressions of pure feeling.
“To say we must be free of air, while admitting to knowing no other source of breath, is what I have tried to do here,” Afro-pessimist scholar Frank Wilderson wrote in his film criticism monograph Red, White & Black. In Dead Lecturer / distant relative, Amino follows in Wilderson’s footsteps, advancing more questions than answers, steadfast in maintaining a productive antagonism toward conventional art histories.
Dead Lecturer / distant relative: Notes from the Woodshed, 1950-1980 continues at Wallach Art Gallery (Lenfest Center for the Arts, Columbia University, 615 West 129th Street, South Harlem, Manhattan) through October 2. The exhibition was curated by Genji Amino.