On ViewBertha and Karl Leubsdorf Gallery at Hunter College
October 5 – November 25, 2018
New York, NY
The tremendous, hellish vision is impossible to ignore. It begins with a fat white man wearing a puckered expression across his leathery face, sitting indignantly with his arms bent atop his knees. He’s tormented about something—although we don’t know what—and his boiling frustration, channeled through his beady black eyes, will surely drive him to rise with rage. Next to him is another large man, standing in a wrinkled, white, collared dress shirt, fitted with a red tie that bleeds down from his swollen neck. His head is thrown back, and a lumpy nose rises above his closed mouth, which seems certain to open to emit their collective primal scream.
When Robert Doty, a curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art, saw this painting, titled Little Men, in the studio of the artist Vivian Browne in 1970, he didn’t care much for the picture. Ostensibly, he was willing to include Browne’s work in a show he was organizing at the time titled Contemporary Black Artists in America. But his trip to her studio was made with little enthusiasm. He was already in the final stages of planning his show, and as the artist later remember, he saw the painting and “left without saying a word.”
Browne and her colleagues in the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition (BECC) had little reason to trust Doty. They had already been let down by institutions before. The group was organized in January 1969 to protest the Metropolitan Museum’s disgraced Harlem on My Mind exhibition, which purported to survey the New York neighborhood as the center of Black cultural life from 1960 to 1968. Yet it had not a single painting nor sculpture by a Black artist; instead, it was an ethnographic show, full of documentary photographs and artifacts, the kind of display that “should be in the Museum of the City of New York, The New York Historical Society, or some similar place,” as Romare Bearden wrote.
Yet the BECC had met some success. After the Whitney failed to include any Black artists in its exhibition The 1930s: Painting and Sculpture in America, the group put together a set of demands for the museum including a major show of works by Black artists in 1970–71; five one-man shows a year in the museum’s small lobby gallery; and a black curatorial staff “to coordinate all such endeavours.” The Whitney, it seemed, was listening—at least in part. After a series of meetings between the two sides, the major survey show was put on the calendar.
Yet when it came time to appoint a curator, the Whitney equivocated. The BECC demanded a black consulting curator from outside the institution be involved, the museum said it would do so “wherever feasible.” And with that convenient escape door, the museum appointed Doty, a white curator, as the sole organizer of the show, skirting any additional external consultation. By the time Contemporary Black Artists in America opened in 1971, fifteen artists had dropped out and the BECC organized a series of protests and a counter-exhibition of forty seven artists, Rebuttal to the Whitney Museum Exhibition: Black Artists in Rebuttal, which opened at the Acts of Art Gallery in Greenwich Village.
Ten of these artists—including Browne, Ademola Olugebefola, Richard Mayhew, and Cliff Joseph—are now part of a show at Hunter College examining this episode in the history of American art. (Joseph’s brilliant and searing painting Superman [those who claim power over others are bereft of true power], which depicts a skeletal figure holding a Klansman’s robe while standing before American and Confederate flags, is alone worth the visit.) The show is organized by Howard Singerman and Sarah Watson, and is accompanied by an illuminating and essential catalogue.
Shows such as these are a necessary corrective. In the first place, rebuttal exhibitions have a long and rich history. Courbet organized one of his own work to dissent from the Exposition Universelle in 1855. More recently, Sculpture by Women in the Eighties at the University of Pittsburgh in 1985 was a rejection of that year’s Carnegie International.
Even more deeply, shows like these emphasize that we do not see only with our eyes. The New York Times critic John Canaday’s skewed reception of the Whitney and rebuttal shows in 1971 (“the trouble with artists who are interested in social causes is that they are likely to run to exaggerated oratory at the expense of acceptable syntax”) arose at least in part through what he was already willing to accept before he stepped foot into either gallery. It is the same with Doty’s rejection of Browne’s painting. Perhaps, as Singerman suggests in the catalogue, the curator disliked her works “because he saw himself portrayed in them”—as (in the words of Michele Wallace) “white, old, decadent, empty and dead.” This is largely speculation. But there is no such thing as pristine vision, as Acts of Art and Rebuttal in 1971 makes so clear.