Saturday, January 24, 2015

Black History Omitted: Peter Schjeldahl White Washes the Red Decade

by Drew Martin
After reading Peter Schjeldahl’s Jan 26 New Yorker article, Left Turns, on Jan 20, I decided to have a look at the show he reviewed: The Left Front, Radical Art in the “Red Decade,” 1929-1940, which is up until April 4 at the Grey Art Gallery of New York University. The gallery is only a ten-minute walk from my workplace so I stopped by during a lunch break.

My first question was whether or not Schjeldahl had actually seen the show because his article is more a summary of the gallery’s press kit, including what he calls their "handsome brochure," than what I believe one should take away from being there in person. The most glaring omission is that Schjeldahl makes no reference to the African American presence/subject matter, which includes some of the strongest pieces. This oversight surprised me because the show opened a week prior to Martin Luther King Jr., Day and leads into February, which is Black History Month. Even the press kit includes a large reproduction of one of the most poignant pieces, Christ in Alabama by Prentiss Taylor. Taylor, a white artist is pretty radical to have made such a work in 1932. It depicts a weeping black woman (a Mary figure) next to a standing black man, whose arms are raised up in the air. There is a white cross behind him so his gesture of submission to god doubles as a crucifixion. I had always seen this gesture as just a submission to god or a welcoming of a congregation; is it actually a gesture of crucifixion? I had never considered that before but this piece makes me think so. As does the lightly written line under the image: Christ in Alabama  - “Proof.” Does proof mean that it is just an early run of this lithograph, or is it actually part of the title? Is he saying that this black man’s suffering is proof of Christ’s presence in Alabama through his ability to endure an extension of slavery, referenced by the blooming cotton seeds opposite the crying woman? 
Or is Taylor playing on both meanings?

There are a couple other images by Taylor, such as Scottsboro Limited, where a telephone pole assumes the role of the cross, above a mass of young, black men. They represent the “Scottsboro Boys,” nine black teenagers accused of raping two, young white women in Alabama in 1931. Their all-white jury trial and attempted lynching was an inexcusable corruption of justice. All but a twelve-year-old among them were convicted of rape and sentenced to death but with help from the American Communist Party, the case was appealed. Even after one of the young women confessed to fabricating the story, the jury of a retrial came up with a guilty verdict. The case went to court three times and charges were eventually dropped for four of the nine defendants. Sentences for the others ranged from 75 years in prison to death.

A work that makes an even greater visual impression than Taylor’s lithographs (but hard [for Schjeldahl] to see in the tiny thumbnail in the press kit) is Mitchell Siporin’s Let America Be America Again, from 1936. It is tempera on panel and even if you were blind in one eye and had bad vision in the other, you would still take note of this work for its strength, and not to mention its "handsome" white gold leaf frame. How this work could go unmentioned is beyond me. 

“…Let American Be America Again, was also a rare collaboration between artist and poet. Langston Hughes, known as the poet laureate of the Harlem Renaissance, was the most widely recognized black writer in America. A strong communist sympathizer, he agitated on behalf of the Scottsboro boys, traveled to the Soviet Union, and was the figurehead for the Communist front organization, the League of Struggle for Negro Rights. Siporin and Hughes had much in common: politically radical, proudly Midwestern, and passionate admirers of Whitman and Sandburg, they were ideally suited to work together.

Siporin’s painting...portrays a diverse cast of disenfranchised countrymen: white, black, and native-American; male and female; adult and child. The visual anchor of the composition, a kneeling figure...provides the political focus of the work."  source

Another thing that surprised me about what Schjeldahl dwelled upon was the color lithograph by Bernarda Bryson Shah, The Lovestonite. He calls it the “one outright funny work in the show.” A side-step away, on the same wall, however, is an even more comical work by Elizabeth Olds titled, Picasso Study Club. Olds was the first woman to receive a Guggenheim fellowship (1926). The painting satirizes the limelight on Picasso at the time and contrasts the elitism of galleries and museums with more popular art forms.

Included in the show is Alex Tophcevhsky’s print press from the 1930s. Perhaps most viewers pass by it as a curious timepiece thrown into the collection but as a new owner of a 3D printer with a good understanding of the potential this new technology has, this metal, hand–cranked press made me realize not only how modern and empowering that reproduction device was to many of the artists in the collection, but how these works of various media were all very hands-on.