"Black Romantic," Apr. 24-June 23, 2002, at the Studio Museum in Harlem, 144 West 125th Street, New York, N.Y. 10027.
"Black Romantic," the Studio Museum's unblushingly unironic exhibition of what is repeatedly referred to in the catalogue as "black art," is filled with conventional work yet is still fascinatingly provocative. At MoMA, the Met or the Whitney, it would be labeled racist. If all the artists in it were white and depicting what they called "white subjects," it would be scary and unilluminating (which many would say is what the art world at its most unexamined already is). If it were at the Studio Museum 25 years ago, it would have been quaint or reactionary. But right here, right now, "Black Romantic" is, in spite of its failings, refreshingly contentious.
"Black Romantic" attempts to examine our ideas about conservative art. It addresses where that art comes from and who makes it, calls taste and criteria into question, and looks at work that speaks its own language. The show wonders whether the party going on in the art world down the street isn't as valid as the one the mainstream has been throwing for at least 100 years.
Everyone knows there are a lot of art worlds out there and that ours -- whichever "ours" we're in -- isn't the only one. "Black Romantic" couches its argument in terms of us and them, and presents an art world that is as popular with one audience as it is invisible to another.
So what is "black art"? It isn't the racist collectibles Henry Louis Gates Jr. calls "Sambo Art." Nor is it Romare Bearden, David Hammons or Kara Walker. According to Lowery Stokes Sims, the savvy director of the Studio Museum, it's "painted by, collected by and exhibited within African American communities." In the catalogue, writer Melvin Dixon asserts, "Black art seeks to step beyond the white Western framework of American art which has enclosed and smothered any previous expression of Blackness." Maybe, but the show's intrepid curator, Thelma Golden, candidly admits that much of the art in "Black Romantic" is "beautiful in a very unchallenging way" (the reverse is truer: It is ordinary in a challenging way), and evinces high degrees of "overwrought sentiment" and "strident essentialism."
The problem is, "Black Romantic" isn't strident or overwrought enough. Skill is in ample evidence, and several artists stand out, but much of what's on view resembles Hallmark, mall or commercial art. Some of these artists refer to themselves as "educators," "anthropologists," "archivists" or "activists." Many put a positivist spin on their subjects. Rather than Tupac, gangstas and Glocks, we see upstanding black men, beautiful black women and angelic black children; passionate lovers, noble athletes and black messiahs; struggle, rectitude and celebration. Black art is a realm where black pride is the ultimate virtue, accessibility and uplift are admired, subject matter trumps form and illustration isn't looked down on. More importantly, it is a sphere where modernism never happened.
All the artists in "Black Romantic" work figuratively, and most jump from 19th-century academicism (and pre-moderns like Henry O. Tanner and Pierre Puvis de Chavannes) to American regionalism, the Ash Can School, Guy Pène du Bois, Andrew Wyeth or Norman Rockwell. "We strive for images African Americans can relate to directly" is how critic Jeff Donaldson puts it. Kadir Nelson, whose effervescent painting Africa pictures a black man gazing at a soaring bird, agrees: "I want to give African-American people some sense of nobility and integrity. I don't want any negative images of African-American people."
To some, "Black Romantic" will seem sappy or propagandistic. To others, it's an art world apart -- an esthetic Twilight Zone where all the artists and many of the collectors are black. (However, practices don't differ from one world to another all that drastically: There are only five women in the show.) The artists tend to show at art fairs, community centers, arts festivals and galleries that aren't covered in Artforum or the Village Voice. Many of these artists are quite successful and well paid, but none are in the running for prizes like the Hugo Boss or the Turner. And while most of the 30 participants in "Black Romantic" attended prestigious art schools, none have ever been in any big biennial. As Cornel West said, "To be independent is to be lonely."
Leave it to the adventuresome Golden to bring this world into ours -- although after learning how vast, moneyed and popular black art is, it might be more accurate to say they have allowed us into theirs. Golden has done what no other curator has before: brought insiders from another art world into the confines of the museum. Much of this art comes off as middlebrow. But given the complacent state of the art world, and the fact that art is coming from everywhere, it seems ludicrous not to look where we will to find what we find.
What Golden and Sims are doing is thrilling, but it is not revolutionary. Toying with the canon is all the rage. The Guggenheim did it with "1900," its great, screwy, revisionist exhibition devoted to proto-modernism; and MoMA, the mother church of modernism, spent nearly two years rethinking its narrative. Although one of the most important shows of the last 15 years, Jim Shaw's 1991 "Thrift Store Paintings" at Metro Pictures, also tinkered with the status quo, all the artists in it were anonymous amateurs, oddballs and "outsiders." The artists in "Black Romantic" are anything but; most are well known, technically accomplished and sophisticated. These artists take clichés seriously, and their pictures are emphatically earnest. This is where they differ from their mainstream counterparts. Artists like John Currin and Lisa Yuskavage also work figuratively and are earnest about what they paint, but they're in an ongoing conversation with the ways and means of the avant-garde, and are more engaged in overturning and undermining clichés.
"Black Romantic" isn't going to integrate the two art worlds, and it's not going to start a new movement. Sadly, it's not weird enough to unleash the torrent of dormant genres "Thrift Store Paintings" did. "Black Romantic" gives us more to think about than to look at. If it fails, it does so with an edge that is instigative and inspirational.
JERRY SALTZ is art critic for the Village Voice, where this article first appeared.