ANNANDALE-ON-HUDSON, NY – A racist attack on black Americans, with the spectacle of real-time pain it brings, tends to make headlines. But the depression generated by racism itself – the terror, anger and despair that creates an area of low pressure in the soul – is practically not reported. It is that chronic condition that forms the basic theme of “Black Melancholia,” an exciting group show that opens Saturday at Bard College’s Hessel Museum of Art here.
At least one other recent exhibition has approached this theme, “Grief and Grievance: Art and Mourning in America”, conceived by curator Okwui Enwezor (1963-2019) and created by the New Museum in Manhattan last year. That show was an impactful affair with large, premium objects from starry collections spread across multiple floors. The collection of works by 28 Hessel artists is much more modest in size and largely homegrown. (With a few exceptional exceptions, most of the art comes from the museum’s heritage.)
Hessel’s exhibition is also more theme-centric and historically grounded, no doubt in part because it emerged and was developed through an academic research seminar led by its curator, Nana Adusei-Poku, associate professor at Bard’s Center for Curatorial Studies . In an exhibition brochure, she offers a capsule account of “melancholy” as a concept and condition.
In ancient times, its presence was used as a quasi-scientific explanation for a melancholy temperament, a personality type that would have been pathologized by Freud. But for centuries, in Europe, melancholy has had a positive, even glamorous value. It was considered the hallmark of creative “genius”, with the same definition of “genius” applicable only to white males.
The exhibition aims to trace a modern revival of melancholy by black artists. And in the Adusei-Poku brochure he mentions the work that inspired his initial interest in the idea: a sculpture titled “Realization” and created around 1938 by the African-American artist Augusta Savage.
The sculpture depicts two figures. A black woman sits bare-breasted, her hands on her knees, her head bent thoughtfully downwards; a black man, half naked, crouches at her feet and leans against her as if to warm up or protect himself from her. His gaze is also lowered. There is no sign of violence or coercion, but they both look stunned, as if they have just learned something disturbing and saddening. What? That slavery is over, but it’s never over? Who have freedom but are not welcome anywhere?
Or, since we are inventing narratives, are they lost in concern about what their historical and artistic destiny might be? The “realization” is a “lost” work, untraceable; in the show we only see it in old photographs. Whether it still exists, or where, we don’t know. This is true of much of Savage’s production. After some professional successes – his sculpture “Lift Every Voice and Sing” (aka “The Harp”) was a hit at the 1939 New York World’s Fair – his career stalled; money and support evaporated. Disillusioned with the white-controlled art world, she retreated to the farming town of Saugerties, New York, (about 15 miles from Bard) and there she fell into darkness, on a trajectory that arouses melancholy thoughts.
Adusei-Poku considers that emotion central to the experience of black Americans and identifies it in the work of some of Savage’s younger black contemporaries: in the curved marble figure entitled “Sadness” by Selma Burke (1900-1995); in a vivid painting of a prone figure by Charles McGee (1924-2021) based in Detroit; and in a beautiful semi-abstract painting, “Grievin ‘Hearted”, by Rose Piper (1917-2005) who, after a brilliant start in the 1940s, had to give up art to take care of her disabled spouse and child. (He supported the family by working for a greeting card company.)
(It is worth noting, incidentally, that all three of these works are on loan from museums associated with historically black colleges and universities – Spelman College, Howard University, and Clark Atlanta University – museums that, until fairly recently, were the only ones academic institutions a regularly collects black art.)
Biographical information about all these artists appears, along with the art historical commentary, in the labels of the unusually interesting objects in the exhibition, as a reminder that art can be as much a personal expression – of melancholy, among other things – as a formal declaration. As if to clarify the point, the text accompanying Roy DeCarava’s stunning 1953 photograph “Hallway” incorporates words from the artist himself.
The importance of historically black colleges
HBCUs, or historically black colleges and universities, have long cultivated excellence and a sense of pride and belonging among students.
From a compositional point of view, this take of a cramped, penumbral domestic space is astounding. And for him it was also an emotionally complicated flashback to a lived past. They were “all the corridors I grew up in… corridors that had something to do with the economics of housing for the poor. He just brought back all those things I had experienced as a kid in all those hallways.
DeCarava’s images introduce sections of the exhibition in which the definition of “Black Melancholia” expands in several directions, all embracing different modalities of subjectivity, interiority.
One is the thrill of nostalgia, or a version of it. It’s tender in Ain Bailey’s 2022 video meditation, commissioned for the show, on her parents’ wedding photos, with minute details – the lace of a dress, the smile of a bridesmaid – linger and come back, as if they were physically touched.
Reverence radiates from Alberta Whittle’s hanging fabrics, which float above, made from dresses – European, African – owned by her cosmopolitan Barbadian grandfather. And in a 2001 video documentary the New York conceptualist Pope. L, who once touted himself, ironically, as “America’s friendliest black artist,” embarks, in Superman drag, on a 22-mile ride on Broadway from Wall Street to his birthplace in the Bronx.
That grueling, abject Pilgrim’s Progress of a performance, which took five years to complete, has a lot, symbolically, to say about the motivating power of melancholy and the creative genius of black resistance in walking the Great White Way.
Kenyatta AC Hinkle’s “THY: The Meeting” (2021), with its image of three black women – Three Graces – posing in a lushly painted paradise garden seems to offer a contrasting utopian vision of Nature. But something is wrong: the figures were cut and pasted from a colonial-era postcard designed to sell a version of what Europe wanted and needed Africa to be.
The show has a fair amount of figurative painting – Valerie Maynard, Arcmanoro Niles, and Danielle McKinney add other strong examples – although it stays pleasantly away from the portraiture that is currently the auction house’s clickbait. And some of the more engaging contributions are abstract.
An installation by Charisse Pearlina Weston is noteworthy. Entitled, all in lowercase, “del. (immaterial. black salt. translucency) “and created for the exhibition, is an elaborate set, low to the floor, of photographs, printed texts and glass elements (cast pieces and cut sheets, structured and smooth, whole and broken, some recycled from previous installations), stacked and layered over and across simple wooden benches made by the artist’s father.
The individual components are rich: the photographic images suggest extraterrestrial forms; the texts are samples of Weston’s intensely mournful poetry, the benches and glass evoke modernist architecture. But nothing is simple. The arrangements alternate impressions of transparency and obstruction, cleanliness and disorder. Weston, who will be doing a residency in Bard this fall, has spoken of references to architecture in similar previous installations such as entrapment; to transparency as a surveillance tool, to fragmented glass as a police symbol of “broken windows”.
In short, the references to both melancholy and darkness are there, but they are kept oblique. In this way his work aligns with recent and influential forms of critical writing on black art by figures such as cultural theorist Fred Moten and curator Legacy Russell, who use simple, non-academic language in complex ways that slow down the easy access, hinder quick reads, and resist mundane conclusions about what, if anything in particular, Blackness might be. The show takes a similar approach to its theme, offering the possibility that an underexamined low-pressure area could be a source of cloud-clearing storms that expose a quieter, more ongoing sense of loss.
June 25-October 16, CCS Bard Galleries at the Hessel Museum of Art, Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, NY, 845-758-7598, ccs.bard.edu.