an blog | AJBlog Central | Contact me

Birth of the “Blues”: From 2006 at Boston ICA to Today at the Whitney (with video)

LA MOCA curator Bennett Simpson at Whitney Museum press preview for "Blues for Smoke"

LA MOCA curator Bennett Simpson at Whitney Museum press preview for “Blues for Smoke”
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

When Adam Weinberg, director af the Whitney Museum, mentioned at yesterday’s press preview for the revelatory Blues for Smoke (to Apr. 28) that he had first discussed the show six years ago with its curator, Bennett Simpson, then at the Boston ICA (and now at LA MOCA, which organized the show), I had a sudden flashback to my own conversation in December 2006 with the ICA’s director, Jill Medvedow. I was interviewing her in the auditorium of the ICA’s striking new waterfront building designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro, which I was reviewing for the Wall Street Journal.

Impressed by the cutting-edge ICA’s resourcefulness in organizing what she calls “idea-based shows” (as distinguished from the standard retrospectives and surveys of periods or movements), I asked Jill what her next such exhibition would be.

It turned out to be the same show that has just opened at the Whitney, which moved with Simpson to MOCA when it was under Jeremy Strick‘s directorship, and reached fruition under its current director, Jeffrey Deitch.

What’s interesting is that Medvedow’s description of the planned show, six years ago, was far more intriguing than Simpson’s description yesterday at the Whitney’s press preview, as shown on my CultureGrrl Video, below.

That’s in no way meant to disparage the final result, which is far richer and more complex than was conveyed in Simpson’s brief opening remarks. The proof is in the exhibition—one of the most engaging, rewarding exercises in curatorial imagination that I’ve seen in a while.

I’ll have more about that in a subsequent post. For now, here’s my taped 2006 exchange with Jill, followed by my video:

Medvedow: The next “idea show” that we’re going to explore is the blues—the idea of the blues.

Rosenbaum: “The blues” meaning the music? Or the emotion?

Medvedow: The wellspring that created the music or creates poetry. But also the idea that outsiders have great emotional impact. And how, in 2006, do we think about those ideas in contemporary art?

Rosenbaum: Those ideas being…?

Medvedow: Those ideas being the artistic and emotional output that comes from oppression, marginalization and interiority. It is being organized by our associate curator, Bennett Simpson, and it is in the absolute germ stage.

Rosenbaum: When will it open?

Medvedow: I think in 2008.

While I was videoing yesterday, I kept wondering what was going through the mind of the guard who observed the scene over Simpson’s left shoulder. Did this white curator’s disquisition on the far-reaching cultural significance of the blues (emphasizing the music’s supposedly seminal influence on American abstraction) bear any relation to the guard’s own experience and understanding?

As you’ll see at the beginning, artist Glenn Ligon  (who had a retrospective of his own at the Whitney in 2011) served as a consultant for the show, contributing an African-American’s perspective. (Also consulted was Thelma Golden, director of the Studio Museum in Harlem.)

an ArtsJournal blog