“I was so sure it would happen. That the past was an abused record with no choice but to repeat itself at the crack and no power on earth could lift the arm that held the needle. I was so sure, and they danced all over me.”
- Toni Morrison, Jazz (1992)
When composer and Columbia University professor of music George E. Lewis convened his conversation with artist Jennie C. Jones as part of the program series Endless Shout, in tandem withon the occasion of ICA Philadelphia’s landmark show The Freedom Principle: Experiments in Art and Music, 1965 to Now, he asked a simple but powerful question, “Where is everybody?” Where, he wondered, are the Black musicians, composers, artists, and performers in the history of the Euro-American avant-garde? Where are the experimental musicians of color among the abstract expressionists and the Fluxus artists – two foundational movements of mid-century modernism that relied on the advancements made by Black musicians? Why isn’t the endlessly innovative John Coltrane considered an abstract artist on the level of Jackson Pollock? While we are at it (and this is my thought, not Lewis’s), how did Amy Winehouse become the most frequently cited jazz musician of recent times while we often forget (or purposely neglect) her jazz and R&B influences? How can we productively consider lines of influence in an environment where, as Jones suggested, “Black music is the most commodified genre in the world,” especially given the paradox of its simultaneous dismissal from normative aesthetic histories? Where is the line between institutional change and tokenism? What even is the “avant-garde” other than a set of exclusionary criteria?
The Freedom Principle, a jam-packed but never over-hung exhibition curated by Naomi Beckwith and Dieter Roelstraete for MCA Chicago and Anthony Elms for ICA Philadelphia, suggests a few ways to answer these questions. The exhibition is–and I do not think I have ever said this–required viewing, especially as we consider the erasure of non-white individuals that will surely take place under a Trump presidency. Its range and depth are stunning in its presentation of documentary objects and remnants of seminal performances alongside a vast array of Black artistic activity that, I think, will play a part in rewriting art history entirely. It is not hyperbolic to make such a claim, this exhibition falls prey to neither fetishism nor a tokenistic impulse, giving us fertile ground with which to eliminate the racist tenets of canonical accounts of the avant-garde. In The Freedom Principle, vintage posters, scores, and activist materials are finally given the same intellectual weight as any other aesthetic enterprise–a fascinating combination of the intangible with the archival. For example, we are treated to the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) co-founder Muhal Richard Abrams’s Integral Performs Centering Poster (1970) alongside his later paintings, documentation of musical collaborations between Stan Douglas and Lewis, composer and painter Roscoe Mitchell’s expressionist vision The Third Decade (1970), and Glenn Ligon’s prescient homage to Muhammad Ali in Give Us a Poem (2007). The Freedom Principle, in this way, aspires to be more than a museum exhibition; it hopes to be historically significant, and it certainly succeeds. The archival material provides a physical, corporeal grounding to the conceptual works in the show. This is not to say that conceptualism requires this kind of support, but what we often need is a reminder of the activist bodies that have worked individually or within communities in order to enact aesthetic and political change.
This curatorial strategy echoes one of the most stunning pieces in the exhibition–Terry Adkins’s Native Son (Circus) (2006-2015). A layered, interconnected sculpture comprised of intricately placed cymbals, Native Son (Circus), when activated by magnets, emits the hum of discrete objects acting in unison (its counterpart in the exhibition might be Ghetto Bird Tunic by Sanford Biggers–a gorgeous suit made of layered peacock feathers). Native Son (Circus) is a metaphor for the history of performance itself, as well as the responsibilities of a curator – if one voice has been left out, the note falls flat. It is moreover a celebration of Black artistry. Adkins makes concrete the shared histories and interconnected joys that changed performance forever– in the avant-garde and the mainstream alike. It should not have taken Adkins’s untimely death to make us realize his importance (however, as artist Simone Leigh noted in her recent exhibition The Waiting Room at the New Museum, this is often the case)–but this exhibition pays a truly worthwhile homage, complete with a commissioned performance within Endless Shout by Lewis and Ensemble Pamplemousse entitled “A Recital for Terry Adkins.” Adkins’s sculpture is indicative of the historical necessity of revisiting the canon not only to expand its confines, but also to acknowledge the Black creativity that has flourished for the sake of community, not normative historical validation. There is an acknowledgment of group struggle without a reification of difference; despite limits placed on Black artists, there is nevertheless a gorgeous chorus that emerges in the face of a society that would either eliminate or coopt Black subjectivity.
Adkins’s unparalleled love for expressive minimalism intersects with Jones’s vibrant work in the exhibition. Her Quiet Gray with Red Reverberation #2 (2014) invites every avant-garde association one might suggest–Wassily Kandinsky’s Improvisations, Barnett Newman’s zip paintings, and Mark Rothko’s color fields–but Jones makes her interest in music (which runs through all these other artists’ work) productively explicit in a way that none of these modernists would have attempted with such directness. Her paintings resemble the minimal forms of sheet music and they reflect the acoustics of space, thus becoming records of sound even as they remain tangible, visible objects. We might, then, be reminded of Agnes Martin’s only film Gabriel (1976), which feature’s Bach’s Goldberg Variations in tandem with a structuralist filming style. During their conversation, Jones told Lewis that she is interested in “the politics of what it is to be absorbed and consumed”–to return to the questions of history formation and appropriation that began my essay. Jones went on to say, “Minimalism is not the most profitable engagement for a Black woman.” Indeed, part of being “consumed” in the current state of postmodern identity politics is to be expected to create work whose subject matter is easily digestible, to be assimilated into a predominantly white set of “progressive” values established by privileged and out-of-touch academics. Put simply, critics and historians expect Black women to create work that is unilaterally and unarguably about Blackness, and when things get too abstract or complex, everyone throws their hands up. This charge has recently been levied against abstract painters like Julie Mehretu, but what it amounts to is another kind of violence– judging Black artists by a racist rubric under the guise of postmodern identity politics. After all, as Zora Neale Hurston wrote in her 1928 essay “How It Feels to be Colored Me,” “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background.”
By the same token, the division maintained between art and activism has caused critics and historians to shy away from anything too representational of racial politics. There’s a reason why Andy Warhol’s Race Riot (1964) has made its way into the history books. It is a white man commenting on a Black tragedy, not a Black artist commenting on their own tragedy, which would be too guilt inducing for a white majority. What Jones requires is an understanding of the basic human right of the artist to live and express one’s politics as they see fit, not according to what might be expected of a Black female artist. Perhaps what is most important is that, while there is a critique implicit in all of Jones’s work, it is filled with self-assured beauty, and that might be the most revolutionary act of all. Jones’s paintings are unrepentant acts of transfixing lyricism.
The Freedom Principle might be a first step in lifting Morrison’s proverbial turntable needle, if only by connecting sound art and music more forcefully to the history of avant-garde performance. Reviews of shows like this usually end in equivocations: “It provides no answers, only more questions” (the critic is not thinking hard enough) or “A white critic cannot fully understand the complexities” (well, this is true, but then why are you spilling useless ink other than to show that you are indeed “enlightened?”) and “It would be better if [insert name] were included in the show” (that’s fine, so quit complaining and curate a more inclusive show). The Freedom Principle offers tangible ways forward, and I will provisionally suggest but a few so as to do justice to a show that, in my mind, requires some answers. For example, we cannot separate Black conceptualism from Black activism, as the right to representation is central to both discourses. Clamor for more Black artists in museum shows, but insist that the scope of these exhibitions celebrate Blackness and not relegate Blackness to a separate art historical sphere. Think critically about your subject position and what you might, by virtue of that position, expect from other subjects and what they might expect from you. Refrain from drowning out the voice of others with your own self-aggrandizing speech. Curate for the community and not for the patrons, and respond respectfully to community critique. Engage with difference and do not remake others in your likeness. Honor innovators before they have passed away. Attend exhibitions with a sense of humility. Write about complex issues of race, gender, and sexuality, but do not consider yourself an authority. Think critically but with empathy. Change the way you learn and consider art to be an educational mandate.
I began this essay with Toni Morrison’s poetic equation of history with a skipping record. I will conclude once again with Morrison from her poem The Town Is Lit, “But I know that somewhere, out there/the town is lit./The players begin/to make music in all the cafés.”
William J. Simmons is a lecturer in art history at the City College of New York and a Ph.D. student in art history and women's studies at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.