In MoAD's 'Black Refractions,' Harlem's Studio Museum Collection Shines

Njideka Akunyili Crosby, 'Nwantinti,' 2012. (© Njideka Akunyili Crosby; Courtesy the artist, Victoria Miro, London / Venice and American Federation of Arts)

It's not every day a museum takes a proud and purposeful stance against collecting artwork. But in September 1968, representatives from the brand-new Studio Museum in Harlem, a space dedicated to supporting black artists and educating the surrounding community about contemporary art, did just that.

“When you have the vested interest of a collection you lose the desire to innovate,” Eleanor Holmes Norton, then-vice-president of the Studio Museum (and current congresswoman for the District of Columbia), told the New York Times. “We’re trying to do something other museums aren’t.”

While the Studio Museum succeeded in fulfilling half of that statement (doing something other museums don't), it utterly failed to remain a non-collecting institution. Within its first two years of existence, enthusiastic young artists started gifting their own work. And by 1977, a collections committee began accessioning pieces in earnest. Today, five decades after its founding, the Studio Museum houses over 2,500 artworks by approximately 700 artists—a collection spanning over 200 years.

Dawoud Bey, 'Harlem U.S.A. (A Man in Bowler Hat, 1977),' 1976.
Dawoud Bey, 'Harlem U.S.A. (A Man in Bowler Hat, 1977),' 1976. (© The Artist; Courtesy of the artist, Rena Bransten Gallery and American Federation of Arts)

Which brings us to the present day, and the second and third floors of San Francisco’s Museum of the African Diaspora. The Studio Museum is currently constructing a new building for itself in Harlem, and has taken the opportunity to travel its impressive collection around the country in the form of Black Refractions: Highlights from the Studio Museum in Harlem. Its first stop is at MoAD, where the exhibition runs through April 14.

It’s an exciting show for a number of reasons, not least of which is seeing incredible work by contemporary artists of African descent in a local institution devoted to, as a Studio Museum rep says, “proactive and radical cultural specificity.” There’s a who’s-who quality to the Studio Museum’s holdings; among the artists included in the MoAD exhibition are Njideka Akunyili Crosby, Mark Bradford, David Hammons, Glenn Ligon, Kerry James Marshall, Chris Ofili, Mickalene Thomas, Carrie Mae Weems and Kehinde Wiley.

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But some of the most exciting pieces in Black Refractions are by artists previously unknown to me. In Jack Whitten’s Khee I from 1978, a Moiré-esque pattern appears on a large-scale canvas covered with tight stripes of alternating black and white. Even in the somewhat dim lighting of MoAD’s third floor, the painting acts like a giant hypnosis tool, threatening to pull viewers into an altered state.

Mickalene Thomas, 'Panthera,' 2002.
Mickalene Thomas, 'Panthera,' 2002. (© 2018 Mickalene Thomas / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; Courtesy American Federation of Arts)

Another personal discovery was Jennifer Packer’s work, represented in the show by a mauve-tinged portrait of a seated man. Though his face, hands and bare feet are rendered distinctly, Packer allows the rest of his body to blend and almost disappear into the canvas’ overall brushwork, carving details out of the thin layers of paint by scraping away the edge of his jaw, an emblem on his sweatshirt and the seam of his pant leg.

Packer, like most of the artists in Black Refractions, was an artist in residence at the Studio Museum. This added level of information on the Black Refractions wall text demonstrates the many levels of support offered by the institution to generations of artists, and the ongoing relationships created within this structure.

Tom Lloyd, 'Moussakoo,' c. 1968.
Tom Lloyd, 'Moussakoo,' c. 1968. (Courtesy American Federation of Arts)

The touring show, which is a collaboration between the American Federation of Arts and the Studio Museum, will continue on to five locations across the U.S., and borrows its name from the very first exhibition held at the Studio Museum—Electronic Refractions II—Tom Lloyd’s 1968 solo of electronically programmed light sculptures.

At MoAD, in a gallery filled with other video and time-based work, Lloyd’s Moussakoo (also exhibited in that 1968 show) flashes colorful lights in rhythmic patterns through what look like plastic tail-light covers. The blinking is an approximation of the original programming—three of the piece's four motors were lost before the work entered the museum's collection. Considering what else could have been lost, Moussakoo is a persuasive argument for the necessity of the Studio Museum's collecting efforts.

But this piece also tells a story about the trajectory of black artists and their work over the past 50 years. Linking the current exhibition to the Studio Museum's earliest public presentation, curator Connie H. Choi underlines the issues and ideas circulating during the institution’s founding—so many of which, often unfortunately, are still relevant today.

Faith Ringgold, 'Echoes of Harlem,' 1980.
Faith Ringgold, 'Echoes of Harlem,' 1980. (© 2018 Faith Ringgold; Courtesy American Federation of Arts)

Lloyd’s abstract art was, according to the Studio Museum, “a controversial choice” in 1968. Against a backdrop of social unrest, assassinations, anti-war protests and police brutality, audiences expected black artists to create work that either spoke directly to those conditions or was figurative.

Lloyd’s sculptures were neither. And yet that argument—or belief—that black artists must limit themselves to certain subjects and forms, persists even today. It exists in the advice given in art schools across the country, in the way exhibitions featuring artists of color are framed curatorially, and in the words of criticism that are used to describe these artists and their work.

But in its sheer variety of subject matter, approaches, materials, geographic and temporal points touched within the exhibition, Black Refractions explodes any such narrowness of thought. Here's to another 50 years of that.

'Black Refractions: Highlights from the Studio Museum in Harlem' is on view at San Francisco's Museum of the African Diaspora through April 14, 2019. Details here.

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