BY Simon Wu in Exhibition Reviews | 29 APR 21
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Issue 220

‘Grief and Grievance’ Shows Us Profound Visions of Black Suffering

At the New Museum, the exhibition, conceived by the late curator Okwui Enwezor, is a sobering look at the realities of Black grief, but fails to address its root cause

BY Simon Wu in Exhibition Reviews | 29 APR 21

‘Grief and Grievance: Art and Mourning in America’ is a big, Black, 37-artist exhibition conceived by esteemed curator Okwui Enwezor and completed after his death by a curatorial committee including Naomi Beckwith, Massimiliano Gioni, Glenn Ligon and Mark Nash. As it stands, however, the exhibition feels rather like a finely wrought time capsule: an A-list crew of artists presenting genuinely moving, profound visions of Black grief, but without the sense of immediacy that the pandemic has instilled in racial politics. And although racial capitalism is obviously of concern to the exhibition’s theme – the nexus of Black grief and white grievance – the ongoing labour struggles within and without the very space in which the exhibition is staged (see the New Museum’s 2019 labour dispute) are not directly referenced by the curators or the artists.

In general, the exhibition favours poetics over direct action, even for those artists who are interested in the material and economic conditions of art. In 7.5’ (2015), Cameron Rowland installs a measuring guide at the museum entrance, referencing the strips often used at petrol stations and convenience stores to capture the height of potential felons. The piece is paired with Presumption of Guilt (2020), a doorbell installed at the main entrance of the museum that chimes whenever someone enters or exits the building. Together, the works act as a subtle – almost imperceptible – architectural gesture designed to make the visitor feel like a suspected thief.

“Grief and Grievance: Art and Mourning in America,” 2021. Exhibition view: New Museum, New York. Photo: Dario Lasagni
'Grief and Grievance: Art and Mourning in America', 2021, exhibition view, New Museum, New York. Courtesy: New Museum, New York; photography: Dario Lasagni 

On the third floor, LaToya Ruby Frazier’s photo series ‘The Notion of Family’ (2001–14) depicts the legacy of racial and economic disinvestment in America’s small cities, as embodied by her hometown of Braddock, Pennsylvania. Photographs like Home on Braddock Avenue (2007) show, in the tradition of social documentary, dilapidated buildings that spill and sag, like urban wounds borne of the disease of racial capitalism. Frazier is an artist who considers the material implications of her practice deeply, often selling her photographs in direct support of her subjects – an aspect that is not foregrounded here.

These poetics often dip into the sublime. You will probably cry at some point in the exhibition; many of the works, including the gospel of Arthur Jafa’s Love Is the Message, The Message Is Death (2016), and the quiet yearning of Garrett Bradley’s short film Alone (2017), about a young’s woman decision to marry her incarcerated boyfriend, are unspeakably beautiful and tragic. But, at times, I felt I was being asked to lose myself in the sublime of Black suffering: made to feel that pain rather than to question what caused it. I yearned for a transcendence that was less compromised. Theaster Gates’s arresting video, Gone Are the Days of Shelter and Martyr (2014), strikes an interesting balance in this regard. Using the detritus of a ruined church as noisemakers or instruments – heavy doors, for instance, are raised aloft then dropped – a group of performers makes the abandoned building clamour. These are the material remains from the now-demolished St. Laurence Catholic Church on Chicago’s South Side, which exemplifies the ongoing disinvestment in urban holy spaces, particularly in poor and Black neighbourhoods.

Theaster Gates, Gone are the Days of Shelter and Martyr, 2014 Video, sound, color; 6:31 min Courtesy the artist and Regen Projects, Los Angeles
Theaster Gates, Gone are the Days of Shelter and Martyr (video still), 2014, video, sound, color; 6:31 min. Courtesy: the artist and Regen Projects, Los Angeles

The flipside to this outstanding grief is white grievance, or the ‘distorted form of racial political math that sees Black gains as white losses’, as political scientist Juliet Hooker writes in the exhibition’s catalogue. Yet, whiteness is not directly imaged in the show, only its consequences. This creates an odd effect – as though the cause of all Black grief, and the art that resulted from it, was atmospheric and total. For example, rather than include Jafa’s Love Is the Message, why not show his follow-up on the subject of whiteness, The White Album (2019)? Dawoud Bey’s photographic series ‘The Birmingham Project’ (2012) references this toll obliquely. Made up of black and white diptych portraits, the work considers the Ku Klux Klan’s 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church that killed four Black girls. Each diptych shows, on one side, a Black child the same age as one of the murdered victims in 1963; on the other side is a portrait of an adult at the age the child would have been if alive today. But what would it mean to image whiteness directly? What would a version of this show look like that decided to include white-identifying artists?

The absence of both whiteness and any direct address of the museum’s labour made me wonder: is institutional critique not a part of the project of mourning? Maybe the curators would say that the critique is located implicitly in the shows curatorial innovations. Sound is an integral aspect of the exhibition and is proposed as a counter to visuality. Manifestos 3 (2018) by Charles Gaines, for instance, transmutes texts by Martin Luther King, Jr. and James Baldwin into music that floats over a nearby painting by Henry Taylor. In composer Tyshawn Sorey’s listening room (Pillars, 2018), visuality is decentred completely in his ethereal compositions. Sound is an apt vehicle to convey the emotion of grief, as well as a striking curatorial gesture, but that sense of critical reassessment stops short of the museum’s management offices.

Fred Stewart II and Tyler Collins, from the series The Birmingham Project, 2012 Archival pigment prints mounted on Dibond 40 x 64 in (101.6 x 162.6 cm)
Dawoud Bey, Fred Stewart II and Tyler Collins, 2012, from the series 'The Birmingham Project', archival pigment prints mounted on Dibond, 102 × 163 cm. Courtesy: the artist and the New Museum, New York

Also, despite drawing inspiration from the Black Lives Matter protests, which were largely galvanized by social media, the show contains no digital works. Perhaps because the curators (and most of the artists) predate the Gen Z luminaries of internet culture, the exhibition ultimately comes off as a little dated, in both form and content. It just doesn’t feel like the future – one responsive to the paradigm shifts of the pandemic, within an institution attempting to adopt into its own labour practices the politics of an exhibition that contends directly with whiteness and engages with the digital vanguard. It’s like the disparity between Haacke’s show and the union protests: what good is an elaborate, finely wrought time capsule if we’re going to throw it through a window anyway?

'Grief and Grievance: Art and Mourning in America' at the New Museum, New York, is on view through 6 June 2021.

Main image: 'Grief and Grievance: Art and Mourning in America', 2021, exhibition view, New Museum, New York. Courtesy: New Museum, New York; photography: Dario Lasagni 

Simon Wu is an artist based in New York. He is the Program Coordinator for The Racial Imaginary Institute and a graduate of the Whitney Museum Independent Study Program.