Flash Art Vol. XXVIII, no. 180

p. 91
January, 1995
Spotlight – Black Male

Jen Budney

Fred Wilson’s Guarded View makes a pointedly ironic introduction to art exploration of black male identity and representation. His four headless black male mannequins, dressed in the guard uniforms of major art museums, including the Whitney, are set off from the lines of Ralph Ellison: “I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe, nor am I one of your Hollywood movi ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids – and I might even be said to possess a mind.” Likewise, the presence of the Whitney’s real-life guards, almost all African-American men, serve as a reminder to racist social and economic injustices which continue to render the black male a subject to be scrutinized and criminalized, or when appropriate (as in the museum most of the time), made invisible.

Thelma Golden, associate curator at the Whitney, has taken the pivotal year 1968 as the beginning of this exhibition. Adrian Piper’s I Embody, the 1975 drag self-portrait with the text I embody everything you hate and fear, itself embodies the rage and assertion of the Black Power movement from which “Black Male” takes its cue. But rather than staking out a militantly unified identity of hypermasculinity associated with Black Power, the broad range of work in this show instead rattles this notion of black subjectivity and draws heavily from black feminist and queer scholarship of recent decades. The results are intense and timely, both as a display of some of the best of contemporary American art, and as political intervention. 

Much of the power of this show comes from the contrasts of various works set against and alongside each other. Leon Golub’s monumental depictions of men idly gathered on the street (Four Black Men. Three Seated Black Men) are eloquent, yet unsentimental: they demand empathy and simultaneously refuse it. Conversely, Lorna Simpson’s fragmented portrait Gestures/Reenactments appears sparse and cautious, only to delicately undermine common representations of black men through allusions to her photographed subject differently as friend, lover, and son. Lyle Ashton Harris’s self-portraits, though ubiquitous, effectively counter the fetishization of rite black male body by artists such as Robert Mapplethorpe (whose “Black Book” nudes are also present in this show) by asserting his own sexuality and power, and as he says, “giving life back to the black male body.”

Disturbing dialogues play between other pieces, like Gary Simmons’s funky Lineup and Carl Pope’s Some of the Greatest Hits of the New York City Police Department. Lineup positions a row of dazzling gold plated sneakers below a police lineup, recalling a stage and casting call. Opposite, Pope has installed a wall of trophies commemorating the actual killings of black men by police. On view just one week after a guileless American audience received Susan Smith pegging an anonymous black man (read: all black men) for the murders of her children which she herself committed, these two works are only too raw. 

Twenty-nine artists are represented in this show, with vital contributions from Carrie Mae Weems, Barkley L. Hendricks. Robert Colescott. David Hammons. Glenn Ligon, Pat Ward Williams and many others. A few works feel crowded, their resonance lost in somewhat artless thematic groupings (such as Simmons boxing ring Step in the Arena (The Essentialist Trap) next to Ligons and Byron Kim’s punching bag Rumble, Young Man, Rumble. But this kind of blandness is rare, for “Black Male” is a most important radical art event. It is expansive and inclusive, with an ongoing lecture and artists workshop series, and a film and video program extending to March, 1995. If only all exhibitions felt this way. “Black Male” has power, and something is actually happening at the museum. 

At the Whitney Museum, New York.