Theaster Gates in Black Art In the Absence of Light (2021) All images courtesy HBO

Toward the end of Black Art: In the Absence of Light, Theaster Gates provocatively says, “Until we own the light, I’m not happy. Until we are in our own houses of exhibition, discovery, and research, until we’ve figured out how to be masters of the world, then I’d rather work in darkness.” I want to believe him (though Gates seems slightly too practiced at drawing high-wattage illumination to his varied projects), but whether I do or not, the trouble is that this declaration goes against the grain of the documentary. Black Art is exactly an argument for and a testament to how Black people’s aesthetic production has moved toward the mainstream of US culture, and how key actors in the Black community have intentionally and consciously sought this. And it demonstrates precisely what the community gives up in striving toward this goal.

The film begins with a discussion of a pivotal exhibition, Two Centuries of Black American Art, curated by David Driskell and initially shown at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1976. (Thereafter it toured to Atlanta and Dallas and ended at the Brooklyn Museum.) The development, obstacles, and lasting resonance of this show gives the documentary its structure. While interviewing Driskell, Tom Brokaw offers a vapid preamble: “the Black artist in America has had to put up with … being taken seriously as an artist and as an individual.” Driskell looks like his face has been pressed into a forced march toward patient enlightenment of his audience. Valerie Cassel Oliver, a curator at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, explains the profound ignorance of what Black artists had already been contributing to the culture: “Up until that point, you really do not have an exhibition which is authored by a Black curator which talks about the history and contemporary manifestations of Black art production in the visual arts.”

David Driskell in Black Art In the Absence of Light (2021)

And then the film proceeds in a conventional lockstep, introducing one talking head after another to make the case — as Driskell’s exhibition did — that in order for African Americans to scale the walls ringing the center of culture, several things are needed: art stars, collectors, curators, exhibitions, institutions, and a verifiable history. (It doesn’t do much with criticism at all, and mentions no critics, though the recently deceased Maurice Berger sort of wears that hat.)

The film uses Richard Mayhew’s discussion of his work (included in Two Centuries), Kerry James Marshall’s meaningful recollection of visiting the show, and Sanford Biggers’s remembrance of its catalog to demonstrate the powerful and abiding traditions of perspective and ambition that span generations. As Spelman College President Mary Schmidt Campbell summarizes: “Driskell … demonstrated that absolutely there was a lineage … and that history was filled not only with painting and sculpture, but also the decorative arts and architecture, drawings.”

Kerry James Marshall in Black Art In the Absence of Light (2021)

Black Art also does an admirable job of showing that not only do pivotal exhibitions recognize and verify a lineage, but they also inspire subsequent generations. The conversation around Thelma Golden’s 1993 show Black Male, mounted at the Whitney Museum of American Art, is compelling. Having seen that show myself, I relished the analysis of it, and could have done with more.

In a similar fashion, the film shows how the venerable Studio Museum in Harlem supported and propelled Marshall and Biggers, along with others like Kehinde Wiley and Jordan Casteel, while also recounting with refreshing honesty how it rejected Faith Ringgold’s work. This is one of the very quiet undercurrents of the film, something I’ve found in my own experience among Black folks in the art scene: We construct our own hierarchies and exclusivity, while also generating a certain kind of calloused resiliency. As Ringgold says, “I stay out until I get in.”

Faith Ringgold in Black Art In the Absence of Light (2021)

For me, the problem is that the film’s production team (director Sam Pollard, executive producer Henry Louis Gates Jr., and consulting producer Thelma Golden) is so enamored with the notion of getting to the mainstream that they truncate a story that should be longer, oversimplifying a complex and contradictory history. What’s more, they completely leave out pivotal figures like Lowery Stokes Sims, the first Black curator hired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art (and who also once ran the Studio Museum). How do you ignore her? How do you celebrate Marshall and his triumphant obsidian figuration and leave aside Toyin Ojih Odutola, who makes that Black figure sparkle and waft off the page, or Chris Ofili, who makes the Black figure legendary?

For that matter, how do the producers justify truncating the notion of Black art by ignoring its diasporic valences which contain Caribbean, British, and Canadian artists who have settled in the US? Why feature Casteel, who does not deal with the dilemma of representation as a way to parse identity as much as Lorna Simpson or Njideka Akunyili Crosby do? Why leave aside Jack Whitten and only give us a glimpse of Mark Bradford, when the conversation could have taken up history painting? What about abstraction among unique talents such as Howardena Pindell and Senga Nengudi? Why leave aside Kimberly Drew and the significant contribution her digital archive has made to propagating Black art? How do you leave out the powerful saga of African American performance, disregarding powerhouses such as Lorraine O’Grady? My guess is that the filmmakers wanted to limit what might have been the bewildering complexity of Black aesthetic production engendered by Driskell’s show, or that they wanted to shine a light on a talented tenth of their choosing.

Amy Sherald in Black Art In the Absence of Light (2021)

The film also hardly discusses the very relevant socioeconomic fault lines that fissure the Black arts scene, though one moment surfaces the cognitive dissonance that might come with success. Hank Willis Thomas says, “When someone buys your work, it’s never really about the money for an artist; it’s about the vote of confidence.” I know that for many artists who are on the financial cliff’s edge, it’s very much about both.

In this mode of celebrating those who have made it into the mainstream of US popular culture, the film ends with a kind of coronation: the opening of the exhibition showcasing the work of Amy Sherald, which includes her acclaimed portrait of Michelle Obama. This film could have been more than a testament to their (and a few others’) triumphs. It could have been more generous. Sometimes when we become masters of a world, we find others to consign to the darkness where we ourselves used to be.

Black Art: In the Absence of Light is available to stream on HBO MAX.

Seph Rodney, PhD, is a former senior critic and Opinion Editor for Hyperallergic, and is now a regular contributor to it and the New York Times. In 2020, he won the Rabkin Arts Journalism prize and in...

2 replies on “A Premature Celebration of the Ascension of Black Artists”

  1. “Until we own the light, I’m not happy. Until we are in our own houses of exhibition, discovery, and research, until we’ve figured out how to be masters of the world, then I’d rather work in darkness.”

    Hi Seph:
    I haven’t checked this film out as yet and just before I read your remarkably insightful critique, I posted the following in response to Theaster Gates:

    Yes indeed! Romare Bearden said something like this in 1980, when I interviewed him for my final paper for my BFA at Pratt Institute. On reviewing Bearden’s interview one of my Painters professors expressed, given his personal success Bearden should have seen things differently… So many Black Artists get this twisted!
    Megan O’ Grady’s New York Times Feb. 12 article Once overlooked Black Abstract Painters Are Finally Given Their Due is also problematic.
    The politics of who is in fashion or out of fashion always seems to eclipse deeper analysis of structural inequities that Howardena Pindell so brilliantly expose in two major article in the 80s.
    To add to your list of exclusions: Nina Chanel Abne, Hew Locke, LaToya Ruby Frazier, Simone Leigh.

  2. Seph Rodney, I want to thank you for the needed critical review of Black Art… It too occurred to me that many, many artists that should have been noted in the documentary and weren’t. My scholarship is devoted to the recovery of African American artists of the late 19th and early 20th century hence my ongoing writing project, African American Agency and the Art Object 1868-1917. I might have to include the later 20th century at some point. Might I add, there also seems to be continuing resistance to abstraction; abstraction makes meaning too. I look forward to reading more of your critical assessments.

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