The traveling exhibition, "Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power 1963-1983," that just opened over the weekend at The Broad has received well-deserved, glowing reviews. It celebrates the work of black artists made during two “revolutionary decades in American history… at the height of the Civil Rights movement” (Broad). One of the amazing things about this comprehensive exhibition, with works by more than 60 black artists, is that it was organized by London’s Tate Modern. It makes me think about a line in a Russian poem that roughly translates to, “When we are pressed nose to nose, neither of us can see where I end and you begin.” Distance in space and time is an advantage that allows a more objective understanding of cultural phenomena… and this exhibition proves it.
Among so many important artworks, a few particularly grabbed my attention. First of all, the dramatic and disturbing image by David Hammons, Injustice Case, of a black man tied to a chair and surrounded by a frame wrapped with the American flag. This beautifully edited, minimalistic image delivers an immediate visual punch that is impossible to forget. In comparison, Betye Saar’s assemblage The Liberation of Aunt Jemima comes across as a colorful, complex, multi-layered theatre performance. Talk about a show stopper…
The black and white photographic collage by Romare Bearden held my attention longer than any other work in the exhibition. It consists of roughly cut out photographic fragments of black faces, hands, eyes, and musical instruments. The work gives the impression that it’s ready to explode in your face. It’s definitely not beautiful, but, boy – it’s powerful, and will linger in your memory long after you leave the show. Looking at these three works made over half a century ago, I have a feeling they have become even more powerful with time.
Which makes me wonder – what makes some artworks, which are hundreds or thousands of years old, resonate with us today? We don’t need to speak ancient Egyptian or Dutch to fall in love with and hear the voices of the ancient bust of Nefertiti made in 1345 BC, or Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring, painted in 1665.
Let’s think of other iconic artworks, such as Van Gogh’s dark and moody Starry Night landscape from 1889, with its swirling brushstrokes, or de Kooning’s grotesque, frightening, semi-abstract image of Woman I made in 1950. Both artists expanded the possibilities of style and subject within a painting.
Every time I see LACMA’s collection of Giacometti bronze sculptures from the mid- 20 th century, with traces of the artist’s fingers modeling their surfaces, I think of them as living, breathing portraits. It’s not their beauty, but their inner vitality, that will continue to hold attention long after we’re gone.
Talking about Pontormo’s painting Visitation in my last program, I felt that 500 years between him and us simply disappear. Let’s hope that the most important and beloved artworks of our time will also have the same ability to inspire and engage future generations. I’m thinking about Picasso’s Guernica from 1937, with shocking images of death and war. It was painted over 8 decades ago, but still reminds us of all the cruelty and injustice that humanity continues to inflict on itself today. I do believe that the aesthetic and political message of this iconic painting will retain its power over centuries to come. Life is short, but art is forever…