ST. LOUIS — In the entrance gallery of the Pulitzer Arts Foundation are a series of figurative painting, sculpture, and a photographic print all staring at each other. This scene of interiority opens the group exhibition Blue Black curated by the artist Glenn Ligon. Kerry James Marshall’s central character in “Untitled (policeman)” (2015), wearing his standard issue, navy blue Chicago Police Department uniform, hand on his hip, looks out in a moment of reflection, at the boy on the other wall in Carrie Mae Weems’ “Blue Black Boy” (1997), whose eyes gape. The peering of the boy represents an image born out of black cultural looking and the white historical gaze. The first is perceived if you focus on the officer’s eyes which make present the knowing glance of a black father at his son. The other image this looking relationship produces, in my mind, is what happens when the effects of the white gaze is recognized to be more than a theoretical construct but something representative of systemic power structures that have real life consequence. Under the white gaze, the black child becomes another black boy, like Michael Brown and the officer, representative of the history of law enforcement as an institution that polices black bodies unjustly, his race evaporates, he is simply an agent of the state, like the white patrolman, Darren Wilson. The looks that passed between Wilson and Brown brought about the final moments of Brown’s life because Wilson, per his testimony, saw the unarmed 18 year-old black boy as a “demon” in that suburban St. Louis street.
If you walk into the frame of Weems’s photograph, which is to say the blue black boy’s line of vision, your presence is mirrored back — you are looking and looked at. If you don’t walk into his line of sight, he peers out at Jack Whitten’s abstracted version of himself in “Self Portrait I” (2014). The hang of all the mounted works is inspired by Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s exhibiting technique that places her black fictive figures within eyesight of each other. In this gallery, Ligon places Yiadom-Boakye’s “Messages from Elsewhere,” a 2013 oil of a black female figure wearing a lapis lazuli dress, gazing over her shoulder, lost in contemplation. She’s daydreaming in the direction of Whitten’s face. Sitting in the center of the room is Simone Leigh’s sightless femme terracotta statuette, “Dunham” (2017), sporting an afro. There’s something spiritual about the way she sees nothing, yet is seen by every figure in the room.
If the figures are looking, they must be thinking, searching, and seeing too. But what are they searching and seeing? Inside, the gallery, I didn’t wonder, I knew: the blue black experience.
It’s not the general black, African-American journey. It’s a more limited and yet liberating voyage taken by and through skin so black, so dark, it coruscates blue. The men, women and child, exchanging what Ligon calls, “black looks,” are a reminder that there are various hues of the various black identities that coalesce into the African-American experience. “Blue-black is the kind of black where you go, ‘Black!,’” writes Ligon in his curatorial essay. He continues:
Perhaps that’s because blue-black traces its roots back to a mythic point of origin in Africa, whereas “black,” along with “Negro” and “African-American,” might be considered just one more stopping point on the way to an as-yet-unknown destination.
In a culture where the color of your skin is paramount, each color category — from the highest of yellows which can slip into an off-white of privilege, to the blues of black, which can make one feel like an Ellisonian disappearing act — comes with its own unique experiences of racism, colorism, freedom and death. Visually, racially, formally, metaphysically, each of the artists’ blue black representations appear together as you walk through the gallery, acclimating you to Ligon’s curatorial thinking about color and race.
Born in the South Bronx in 1960, Ligon’s earliest grammar school memory is of words changing the trajectory of his life. “Words were the ticket,” he tells me, laughing. In kindergarten, Ligon’s teacher asked the class to write four letters of the alphabet and a word that starts with each letter. Five-year-old Ligon asked his teacher to write out the rest of the alphabet for him and he wrote words to match. The school’s administration called his mother, a nurse’s aide, into a meeting and said that he needed to go to a different kind of school. Ligon says while his mother was explaining that she didn’t have the money to send her young boys to private school, a teacher interjected, “Your kids might be smart here, but in a real school they will only be average.” “Ok, I’m going to find a real school for my kids to be average in,” said Ligon’s mother, “because in this school they’ve already been written off in kindergarten.” Ligon ended up at the tony Walden School and says, “that alphabet, those words, changed my life.” In the exhibition, Ligon’s pays sly homage to that 1965 moment by including his 2001 work, “Malcolm X, Sun, Frederick Douglass, Boy with Bubbles (version 2) #2,” a large-scale silkscreen of a page out of a 1960s Black Power-themed coloring book, representing a new kind of knowledge that awaited him.
Blue Black itself is an extension of Ligon’s fascination with language. The artist organizes the show less like a curator and more like a poet, arranging the work around three lyrical combinations of the words blue and black. One section meant to respond directly to an Ellsworth Kelly sculpture is titled, “blue black,” after the wall work that inspired the exhibition. The second, “blueblack,” features works that blur the lines between the two colors. The last, “blue-black” is partially inspired by Toni Morrison’s 1992 Guardian interview in which she articulates the heart of American identity: “In this country, American means white. Everybody else have to hyphenate.” The slippage of language inspired Ligon to utilize a poet’s ability to sublimely marshal simple words with debilitating force. The exhibition includes Ligon’s text painting, “Untitled (I Am Not Tragically Colored)” (1990). It’s a work in which the artist appropriates the line, “I am not tragically colored,” from Zora Neale Hurston’s celebrated 1928 essay, “How It Feels to Be Colored Me,” and stencils it in bluish-black oil repeatedly on a wooden door. With each impression, the phrase gets messier, less visible, and broken into pieces: “I am not,” and single words, “colored,” alluding to the intertextuality and mutability of language. The work “Untitled (I Am Not Tragically Colored)” is an overture to Ligon’s three-decades-long practice of using text, painting, installation and video to investigate the rhetorical power of the black voice.
The idea for the group exhibition came to Ligon as he gazed up at Ellsworth Kelly’s monumental work “Blue Black” (2000), a 28-foot-tall painted wall sculpture commissioned for the Tadao Ando designed main exhibition hall of Pulitzer Arts. As he looked at the rectangular blocks of blue and black, he tells me he “heard Louis Armstrong’s gravel-strewn voice singing, ‘What did I do to be so black and blue?’” Given the title, other associations could have come to mind: the sound of Miles Davis’s trumpet on his 1959 modal jazz masterpiece, Kind of Blue; President Obama when he tried to convey to Ta-Nehisi Coates that his Kenyan father was certifiably black by exclaiming, “he was like a blue-black brother;” The popstar Rihanna, when she wails on her ballad, “Love on the Brain,” that love “beats me black and blue;” the queer black film, Moonlight adapted from Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play, In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue. For me, when I was growing up blue black wasn’t something you wanted to be. Light skinned black boys on the playground would tease darker children by saying, “You so black, you blue!” Nowhere in Ligon’s exhibition is the shadier descriptor — a black person’s fear of being too black! — explored. Nor is what happened after the teasing on the playground revealed: darker skinned students would lead inquisitions to determine if those of us who could easily win membership to any blue vein society were black enough. “To my friend who acts white, but you still my dog Antwizzy,” one friend wrote in my eighth grade yearbook. “Hope you never change. Love ya the way you are. Stay black/white ha ha ha.”
In contrast to my own experience, when it turns to matters of personhood, the art in the exhibition tends to show blue blackness as a source of pride, or pain inflicted not by colorism, but by white racism. The self taught artist, Bill Traylor’s cardboard painting, “Man and Woman” (c.1939–1924), for instance, depicts a white man in a blue skirt and a pitch-black woman in a blue shirt, exchanging glances. The painting is presented in the context of his life: He was born into slavery in rural Alabama in 1853. Similarly, Kara Walker’s large tempera and watercolor collage, “Four Idioms on Negro Art #1 Folk” (2015), is a scene of stereotype and systemic white racism. In the work on paper, black figures slide down stripper poles and hold their hands up, as military men aim rifles at their bodies. It’s as if they are saying “don’t shoot,” but the limbs scattered throughout the grounds suggest they are murdered anyway, socially and physically. Viviane Sassen’s “Kinee,” (2011), an abstracted image of the beautiful Senegalese model, Kinee Diouf, in a field of sky blue, feels aspirational, showing how blue-blackness has ascertained a certain desirability in fashion and life. (The inclusion of this Sassen image also brings to my mind, the fact that, blue-blackness as identity is a purely African-American invention. Africa’s history of colonialism has, country by country, created different measures of blackness.)
The work entitled, “A Small Band” (2015), is a zigzagging, large-scale white neon sign comprised of three words: Blues, bruise, and blood. For the piece the artist appropriates a slice of the audio from composer Steve Reich’s Come Out (1966), that quotes Daniel Hamm, a young Harlem resident accused of murder and beaten by the police, describing to a court how he managed to convince the cops to release him: “I had to open the bruise up and let some of the blues … bruise blood come out to show them.” On the stand, Hamm’s tongue gets tied and, like an unwitting poet, he turns three simple words into new meaning, revealing a truth about black pain and how black musicians sang the blues so convincingly. Standing before the Ligon text sculpture, flashing blue in the main gallery, it was impossible for me not to think of other short lyrical phrases packing the power of racialized color. “Black Is Beautiful,” “Black Lives Matter,” “I Can’t Breathe,” all made under duress in times of black struggle.
Given Ligon’s extreme care in organizing a diverse and conceptually challenging exhibition featuring some nearly sixty works by artists including Wade Guyton, Byron Kim, Lyle Ashton Harris, and ones already mentioned, I wondered during my visit whether the museum’s policy of not including wall text with the works will help or hinder his effort to have color considered beyond race. There’s a real possibility, save for the lone iconic Warhol of Liz Taylor, that the audience without information in captions, will assume that Blue Black is of work by black artists toiling solely in matters of race, instead of a show of the colors and metaphorical meanings of blue and black as ways to challenge simple categorizations of race and art.
Blue Black continues at the Pulitzer Art Foundation (3716 Washington Boulevard, St. Louis, Missouri) through October 7.
Editor’s note: The author’s travel expenses and hotel accommodations were paid for by the Pulitzer Art Foundation.