Blues for Smoke, at Geffen Contemporary at MOCA through January 7, is a gumbo. With a cryptic title borrowed from Jaki Byard's 1960 song, it presents ways in which African American culture has meshed with the larger culture and had a lasting impact in art, music, literature, television and film. Exciting, historic or just plain curious works of art have been gathered together by curator Bennett Simpson under the overarching and free floating idea of a blues aesthetic. Like the music itself, the art is not confined to black artists but those who are in the show, and they are the majority, provide backbone, rhythm and glimmers of pure pleasure.
This starts at the entrance with vibrant and insightful portraits of Jean Genet, James Baldwin and Charlie Parker by Beauford Delaney, an African American artist of remarkable talent and perseverance who worked alongside modern colleagues like Georgia O'Keeffe, who painted his portrait, though he felt he found greater respect in Paris.
Jean-Michel Basquiat, "Undiscovered Genius of the Mississippi Delta," 1983
The Brant Foundation Inc., Greenwich, Connecticut
© 2012 The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat / ADAGP, Paris / Artists Rights Society, New York
An adjacent gallery features an installation commissioned for this show, the interior of a humble chapel constructed of blood red vinyl by Rodney McMillan that refers to Dockery Farms, home to some of the first blues musicians like Muddy Waters. Such a show would not be complete without a canvas by Jean Michel Basquiat and this has a particularly powerful 1983 example with the suggestive title: Underdiscovered Genius of the Missippi Delta.
In a corner of one gallery, a cityscape by Kira Lynn Harris is composed of square and rectangular wood panels leaned against the wall and illuminated by the reflections of a river contrived from sheets of reflective mylar. A chalk moon rises on a black sky on the opposite wall. The entire installation evokes the moody emotions of a blues filled night and of itself almost provides sufficient reason for the show's existence.
Of course, there is music percolating throughout the museum, including sounds of free jazz from Hors Champs, a 1992 video installation by Stan Douglas. Another gallery features the entire 60 hours of the TV show, The Wire, a gesture more symbolic than practical.
The show's agenda often seems as random as blues itself but it does bring together a selection of artists familiar and not, of all races and genders, with some purported connection, however tangential, to the blues. Liz Larner? Matt Mullican? Great artists and maybe there is a connection that I missed but with all the extraordinary black artists in this show, I had to wonder why MOCA chose a Rachel Harrison drawing of the blues-loving late Amy Winehouse for the cover of their calendar and press materials. What about Kara Walker or Mark Bradford or David Hammons or John Outterbridge? The show was organized with the aid of Glenn Ligon, whose luscious Richard Prior texts on gold backgrounds can cause a shudder of discomfort. However, pleasure and pain dance together throughout the exhibition. I suggest taking a few minutes to watch part of the 1974 Space is the Place film with music by Sun Ra for a wicked and funny view of the end of the world as we know it. The show travels to the Whitney Museum of American Art on February 7, 2013. For more information, go to www.moca.org.
Banner image: Stan Douglas, Hors-champs, 1992. Courtesy of the artist and David Zwirner Gallery, New York. Image courtesy of the artist and David Zwirner Gallery, New York. © Stan Douglas