‘Black Art: In the Absence of Light’ Reveals a History of Neglect and Triumph

“This is Black art. And it matters. And it’s been going on for two hundred years. Deal with it.”

So declares the artwork historian Maurice Berger towards the starting of “Black Art: In the Absence of Light,” a wealthy and absorbing documentary directed by Sam Pollard (“MLK/FBI”) and debuting on HBO Tuesday evening.

The feature-length movie, assembled from interviews with modern artists, curators and students, was impressed by a single 1976 exhibition, “Two Centuries of Black American Art,” the first large-scale survey of African-American artists. Organized by the artist David C. Driskell, who was then-head of the artwork division at Fisk University, it included some 200 works courting from the mid-18th to the mid-20th century, and superior a historical past that few Americans, together with artwork professionals, even knew existed.

The press gave that survey a blended reception. Some writers griped that it was extra about sociology than artwork (Driskell himself didn’t fully disagree). But the present was a common hit. At the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where it originated, and then at major museums in Dallas, Atlanta and Brooklyn, people lined up to see it.

What they were seeing was that Black artists had always done distinctive work in parallel to, and some within, a white-dominated mainstream that ignored them. And they were seeing that Black artists had consistently made, and are continuing to make, some of the most conceptually exciting and urgent-minded American art, period — a reality only quite recently acknowledged by the art world at large, as reflected in exhibitions, sales and critical attention.

The question arises early in the film — in a 1970s “Today Show” interview with Driskell by Tom Brokaw — as to whether the very use of the label “Black American art” isn’t itself a form of imposed isolation. Yes, Driskell says, but in this case a strategic one. “Isolation isn’t, and never was, the Black artist’s goal. He has tried to be part and parcel of the mainstream, only to be shut out. Had this exhibition not been organized many of the artists in it would never have been seen.”

The point of Pollard’s film, which was also the point of Driskell’s 1976 survey, is to demonstrate that, and to demonstrate that Black artists have been making some of the best work and the most relevant work for decades, centuries. But they’ve been making it mostly on the margins, beyond the white art world’s spotlights.

Source link Nytimes.com

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