We haven’t reached the promised land. We’ve got a long way to go.
The above marching orders, alluding to the words of Martin Luther King Jr.‘s last speech, are the last words of the widely praised HBO documentary, Black Art: In the Absence of Light. They were spoken by the late art historian and artist David Driskell, whose landmark 1976 exhibition, Two Centuries of Black American Art, inspired the new film, which was released to coincide with Black History Month. The film is dedicated to Driskell, 88, who died last April, and to another prominently featured historian of Black Art, Maurice Berger, 63, who died last March.
But although it gives us fascinating inside-the-studio glimpses of several important artists at work, “In the Absence of Light,” directed by Sam Pollard, insufficiently illuminates the depth and breadth of “the work of some of the foremost African American visual artists working today” (as promised in its press release). I came away thinking that MLK’s (and Driskell’s) words (quoted at the top of this post) could serve as my capsule review of this admirable but insufficient exploration of work by artists who have recently gained prominence, but “just, perhaps, have not been part of the mainstream,” according to HBO’s tweet, featuring a younger Driskell:
Notwithstanding that Twitter promo, many black artists are, in fact, now “part of the mainstream,” thanks to the increased emphasis on diversity at museums and galleries, and in the press.
Driskell, the most prominently featured scholar in the film, is shown not only pontificating, but also painting:
Although it includes soundbites from younger scholars who are more attuned to our current moment (notably Sarah Lewis, associate professor, Harvard, and Rujeko Hockley, assistant curator, Whitney Museum), the film, perhaps reflecting Driskell’s preferences, does not sufficiently cite, let alone explore, leading figures of today’s multicultural, multi-ethnic art scene: The list of artists whose works appear (as listed in the closing credits, eccentrically alphabetized by first name) skews heavily to the 50-and-over crowd, omitting a long roster of African American artists who are now catching fire in these times of “Black Lives (and Black Artists) Matter.”
Stumbling through the “OK Boomer” phase of of my own life (having lost two close friends to illness this month, and coping last week with the feverishness caused by my second dose of the Covid vaccine), I’d be the last to advocate trendiness for its own sake. I’m all in favor of honoring the veterans such as the few to whom the film does give exposure, including Faith Ringgold, Carrie Mae Weems, Betye Saar, Richard Mayhew, Kerry James Marshall.
But how can a film that espouses inclusiveness miss mentioning such obvious candidates as the Black artists chosen to represent the United States in successive Venice Biennales? Simone Leigh (born in 1967), who has recently risen in prominence, will be in next year’s the 59th Venice Biennale. Martin Puryear, 79, who received the National Medal of Arts from President Obama in 2012 and was the subject of a Museum of Modern Art retrospective in 2007, represented the U.S. in the 58th Venice Biennale.
I had originally planned to hit you with a long (but still partial) list of other important artists whose names do not appear in the closing credits that list those represented by personal cameos and/or by images of their artworks. But more and more names kept occurring to me, and if you see the film, now on HBO Max, I’m sure you’ll come up with others whom I would have missed.
For now, I’ll just mention one more glaring omission: Wangechi Mutu, whose four bronze figures comprising “The NewOnes, will free Us” were chosen for the Metropolitan Museum’s inaugural commission to occupy the empty niches in the museum’s grand façade. (The follow-up niche commission, Carol Bove‘s “The séances aren’t helping,” officially debuts on Mar. 1.)
Here’s one of the Mutus in situ:
In contrast to those who were slighted, Amy Sherald, the personable, articulate portraitist, occupies an inordinate amount of screen time, with numerous soundbites and an astonishing 25 works listed in the credits—more exposure, by far, than accorded to any other artist (with the exception of Driskell, who is there as much for his scholarly acumen as his artistic achievement).
Sherald’s Obama Seal-of-Approval is the gift that keeps on giving:
Sherald is accorded a prolonged victory lap at the end of the film, during the closing credits: She occupies the left side of the screen, smooching and schmoozing with the art crowd attending the opening of the heart of the matter…—her inaugural exhibition at Hauser & Wirth (which is probably where many of the screen-credited works make their appearance).
To oversee a more deeply informed, widely representative take on “the work of some of the foremost African American visual artists working today,” I would have turned to Thelma Golden, director or the Studio Museum in Harlem. She does serve as “consulting producer” for the new film, in which she briefly appears.
For someone possessing the deep historical knowledge needed to elucidate the earlier works, I would have tapped Richard Powell, Professor of Art & Art History at Duke University:
Powell served as one of the documentary’s 11 “commentators,” as did someone else I deeply admire—Mary Schmidt Campbell, former director of the Studio Museum in Harlem, former dean of New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, and now president of Spelman College, Atlanta.
Privileging Driskell over other experts was director Sam Pollard‘s call, but one that I think yielded an uneven end-product. That said, he deserves credit for giving due deference to Driskell’s pioneering work. As stated in Driskell’s NY Times‘ obit (which quoted from the forward of a 2006 biography of the artist/scholar by Julie L. McGee): “Very few scholars in the annals of human history can be said to have established an entire field of study,” but Driskell’s show, which toured four museums during our nation’s Bicentennial year, “did just that.”
A NOTE TO MY READERS: If you appreciate my coverage, please consider supporting CultureGrrl via PayPal by clicking the “Donate” button in the righthand column of the desktop version or the “DONATE” link in the menu at the top of the desktop and mobile versions. Contributors of $15 or more are added to my email blast for immediate notification of new posts.