20/20 at the CMOA

Questions on how we consume and present art on the oppression of people of color have moved to the forefront of conversation in the art world as a result of the election and the turbulence of our current global climate.

Recently, white artists such as Dana Schutz have come under scrutiny for their use of the history of violence against black bodies in their art. Turning non black audiences into spectators of people of color and excluding artists of color from these spaces can perpetuate the tendency of American society to profit off of racial violence and exploitation. How do we curate and share the work of artists of color without falling into that trap?

While the function of gallery spaces is a place for the dynamic current conversations of art, museums like the Carnegie Museum of Art (CMOA) are a place to learn the visual language to understand art as a broader field. Art museums create a cultural history, and the items preserved in museums are what generations to come will reflect on when understanding our current views of our past. And it is the place where future generations will see how we ask questions about the relationships between race, oppression, and art.

This summer, an exhibition entitled 20/20 opened at the Carnegie Museum of Art. The exhibition is a collaboration between the Carnegie Museum of Art and The Studio Museum in Harlem to bring together the work of forty artists — twenty from each venue — created over the past 100 years. The gorgeous, white wall spaces of CMOA are filled with an expansive array of artists from various periods in art history and at different levels of the art industry. Documentary photographers, leading contemporary artists of color, and outsider artists of color are brought together in this exhibition on the narrative of racial politics and black identity in America.

With the huge range of work and seriousness of subject matter, the curation is ambitious. Each piece is paired with a longer museum label explanation, and each section of the exhibition comes with a title and explanation of the curatorial choices. The viewer’s movement through the gallery is key to the narrative of this exhibition. Although it is not strictly chronological, it feels conscious of an unfolding historical narrative. The subtle growth of strength and subjectivity of black voices in the work as the exhibition progresses serves as the framework for this curation.

The first room open with the centerpiece of Pennsylvanian artist Horace Pippin’s “Abe Lincoln’s First Book,” a piece which paints Lincoln with the visual language of sainthood. The surrounding work in the first two sections entitled “A More Perfect Union” are intended to discuss historical context, with artists of color working to come to terms with the history of slavery and oppression. The inclusion of one of Jasper Johns’s American flag pieces was odd, given that Jasper Johns was a white artist, as was the central focus on the glorification of Lincoln, because of their turned focus on White America. The museum states it intended to question national identity and democracy; the voice of the paired statements is anthropological, an outsider looking in. It relies on the idea that the viewer sees American identity and Blackness as exclusive ideas and asks the viewer to explore that conflict.

The jump from this perspective into the sections of “Working Thought” and “American Landscape” was then at once jarring and natural. The work in these spaces was dedicated to the discussion of class, violence, and exploitation. Artists such as Kara Walker, David Hammons, and Titus Kaphar vary in degrees of abstraction and modes of expression, but all in all it is an exploration of trauma perpetrated by the American economy.

Walker’s folksy silhouettes portray graphic violence against black women while "Black Wall Street" by Noah Davis is a remembrance of the incredible violence of the 1921 race riots against an affluent black community. This section tries to cover so much, and the matter of factness of violence on black bodies feels uncomfortably contained in these vignettes of history.

This part of 20/20 builds into the central exhibition of the Teenie Harris and James VanDerZee documentary photography segment entitled “Documenting Black Life.” Both these exhibitions begin to demonstrate the struggle of building identity through violence and class struggle, but this section focuses on the nostalgia of intimate moments that would have otherwise been forgotten by history. The Pittsburgh and Harlem communities presented in sepia film and older generations of clothing played with this narrative of history lost, hidden, or ignored.

It was unexpectedly startling to enter the final sections, “Shrine for Spirit” and “Forms of Resistance.” The enormous portrait of Michelle Obama by Collier Schorr that was published in T: The New York Times Style Magazine was the piece that articulated the feeling of these sections. These rooms were dedicated to the unabashed, intensely personal focus on the self. These works focused on activism, honoring the identity and culture of people of color. They shared the interactions of artists of color and media from their first person perspective. But the Michelle Obama and Kerry James Marshall portraits as end pieces had the biggest impact. Contrasted in the same room with Ellen Gallagher’s mixed media pieces with magazines and Lorraine O’Grady’s performance stills where she flays herself with a cat-o-nine-tails in a beauty pageant character, these pieces stood out in emotional resonance.

It was because Michelle Obama’s portrait had the only black woman given a name and understood as a person and cultural icon who was not in this exhibition because of her connection to exploitation and violence. A regal, accomplished, and beautiful black woman who is so beloved placed so prominently in the exhibition with admittedly complicated symbols of wealth was powerful. In contrast, the vibrant, joyful portrait “Untitled (Gallery)” by Kerry James Marshall of a black woman relaxed in her own space was important because it allowed for the more intimate, ordinary person parallel to the Michelle Obama photograph.

The effect of these portraits in the final room would not have been the same without the documentation of struggle and trauma we saw previously. It was important as well that the ending of this exhibition wasn’t through rose colored lenses, and that it didn’t stick to a chronological order — it recognizes that the fight for equality is ongoing. The collections allow the viewer to see how the artists of color choose to play with Western artistic traditions versus to create their own. It parallels the tension of existing within a white dominated society, and the questions of how to move forward.

The Carnegie Museum of Art and all white cube gallery spaces were created with a literal manifesto of whiteness connecting to sophistication. But exhibitions such as 20/20, and society as a whole, are working to transform these kinds of elitist institutions into something more inclusive. The people who come to this exhibition are likely to be middle and upper class individuals open to racial discourse, and some of the messages of industry and oppression feel overly subtle as if trying not to offend. The desire for a nationalistic sentiment is present throughout the gallery spaces, but the question about American identity is presented as confused as we feel it today.

This exhibition, though imperfect, was ultimately successful. The discomfort with these questions of consuming violence and oppression, being a spectator in the room where you learn about the complexities of identity and racial politics in this country, is important. The exhibition is not only about grief and trauma, but also about hope and agency. It allows for the black artist and subject to be the primary voice and announces a commitment to understanding these stories. 20/20 is open until the end of the year. In this time in our history, with the national dialogue about neo-colonialism and NFL protests and class conflict ever-present, it is important to hear the voices of artists of color and sit with your questions.