New York Magazine

September 12th, 1994
The Controversial New Show at the Whitney
Black Like Them?

By Mark Stevens

The Whitney Museum of American Art has made a controversial name for itself by emphasizing the social and political temper of contemporary art. This fall, “Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary American Art” will unite the twin obsessions of the cultural left- “race” and “gender” – and, as a result, will push all the usual buttons of many people. What will bear watching is how predictable the exhibition and subsequent discussion are or aren’t. Will everyone simply take his or her assigned place for the fireworks (Hilton Kramer versus The Nation, say)? Or will there be fresh and courageous responses, in both art and criticism, to a powerful theme?

The image of the black male in American culture is a deeply troubling subject, in part because that image is so radically unstable and theatrical. The black male has been used over the years to represent both extreme power and extreme weakness, abandon and control, flamboyance and invisibility, moral grandeur and degradation. Only rarely is black masculinity allowed to escape myth-making and exaggeration-or, to put it differently, to become merely human. That American culture remains obsessed with black masculinity is obvious in many ways, from the manner in which journalists report the news to the manifest unease that rap arouses in many people.

According to Lowery Sims, a black associate curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the exhibition at the Whitney is therefore particularly timely. “In the last two or three years. there have been several flashpoints in America’s perception of black masculinity-Clarence Thomas, Rodney King, 0. J. Simpson, and the recent friendly-fire incident on New York’s police force. she says. “If the exhibit can present a variety of images that force us to confront ingrained assumptions about black men, then I think we can develop a good dialogue about how images and perceptions can provoke social behaviors and reactions, toward black men.

Organized by Thelma Golden. a black associate curator at the Whitney, the exhibition will open in November and will include some 100 works from 29 artists. Among the better-known artists represented in the show will be David Hammons, Leon Golub, Robert Colescott, and Robert Mapplethorpe, the gay white photographer who caused a sensation a few years ago with his pictures of black nudes. In addition, the Whitney’s curator of film and video, John G. Hanhardt, has invited five guest curators to prepare programs on black film. These will include both well- known and obscure films from a wide variety of sources. Not only the work of Spike Lee, in short, but also music videos and such films as Melvin Van Peebles’s Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971) and Isaac Juliens Looking for Langston (1989), a movie on the writer Langston Hughes that is also about homosexuality and the Harlem Renaissance.

The exhibition covers the past 25 years, beginning with the shock that the Black Power movement gave to the image of black men in the late sixties. Since then, according to the show’s organizers, there have been many shifts in how black men have been portrayed in both art and popular culture. Artists throughout this period have been particularly concerned with confronting what Golden calls the “representations of the black male as stereotype and/or archetype. Not surprisingly, many artists in the show work with, and recast, these conventions, more often than not in the hope of upsetting them.

For example, the youths charged with rape in the Central Park Jogger trial in 1989 came to embody the widespread fear of young black men in New York City. In response, the artist Glenn Ligon has silk-screened onto canvas descriptions of the suspects printed in the New York Times in order to highlight-and isolate- how the press portrays and, in the view of some people, unjustly demonizes young blacks. Exhibition organizers also seem interested in confronting stereotypes conveyed by artists. The show will include the shocking nudes of Mapplethorpe-by now also shockingly familiar-as well as lesser-known nude self- portraits by the gay black photographer Lyle Ashton Harris.

In an exhibition of this kind, which is built around an idea, the catalogue is particularly important. The theme of black masculinity, moreover, is one about which writers should have as much to say as artists: The subject cries out for a great essayist. For this exhibit, the Whitney has asked the writer Hilton Als to edit the catalogue, which the museum is calling a companion volume to the show. The museum has asked several leading figures in black cultural studies, among them Greg Tate. Tricia Rose, and Andrew Ross, to contribute essays. The show’s organizers and the five guest film curators will also write pieces on the visual portrayal of black men in American culture.

In recent years, the Whitney has not done a very good job with social and politically inspired shows. The last Biennial, for example, was one of the worst exhibitions mounted by a major museum in the past decade, less because the work on display was often poor-a Biennial should be willing to offend and to risk failure-than because the thinking in the show (as demonstrated by the catalogue and wall panels) was so banal, second-rate, and indifferent to intellectual and art history. This great American theme offers the museum a chance to confound its many critics.