Issue 2/2021 - Artscribe

Grief and Grievance: Art and Mourning in America

Feb. 17, 2021 to June 6, 2021
New Museum / New York

Text: Brianna Harlan

New York. The first thing that surprised me about the New Museum’s current multidisciplinary exhibition Grief and Grievance: Art and Mourning in America was how thorough it was. Four floors were dedicated to artwork by predominantly Black artists covering historic and contemporary topics about race, discrimination, and violence. In her essay in the exhibition catalogue, Saidiya Hartman says the art “characterizes ‘the afterlife of slavery.’”

After a year of racial uprisings following the murder of George Floyd by the police, many in the art world have been wondering how arts and cultural institutions might respond to the current moment. Grief and Grievance opened with commentary on what has been, what is, and how to influence what might be, as its opening was set for a pre-presidential election date. The exhibition has been in planning since 2018 and the time taken is evident. This isn’t a quick-turnaround show, and the curators display a keen understanding of the artists and artwork.

This review begins on the fourth floor. This gallery is full of abstraction and symbolism. Nothing is cut-and-dried. The viewer is left to fill in the meaning. One great thing about abstraction is its insistence that the viewer work with the art to come to some sort of resolution. It is active and requires internal, as well as external, reflection. One work, Antoine’s Organ (2016) by Rashid Johnson (b. 1977), takes up nearly all of the floor space with its black steel scaffolding, requiring guests to walk around the large rectangle to see what else is in the room. It served as a frame for each wall-based work, causing viewers’ eyes to shift back and forth to explore Johnson’s installation between the 2D abstractions, finding large blocks of shea butter, small retro TVs playing video works, bright lights, books, music, and innumerable plants. An organ sits in the middle. Occasionally organ music sounds out. A very industrial scaffold, living plants, and a collection of objects associated with Blackness bring together several juxtapositions to comment on Black life.

The third floor is powerful. It becomes difficult to walk through the room as narratives in varying sizes and forms draw your attention. Standing in front of Howardena Pindell’s (b. 1943) Autobiography: Water (Ancestors/ Middle Passage/ Family Ghosts) (1988) with Hank Willis Thomas’s (b. 1976) 14,719 (2019) was one of the strongest moments in this show. Pindell’s work in acrylic and mixed media on canvas tells stories of the transatlantic slave trade. A slave ship, eyes, and text are prominent components surrounding a pale Black figure in the water (made of thick uniform paint strokes in blue). Other partially submerged figures show behind her head. The text tells of how an enslaved man could be legally killed for trying to shield his wife from the advances of the slave owner. A look to the left and Thomas’s navy blue banners span a narrow stairway to the next floor. Each white star on the flags represents a Black life lost to gun violence. These two works in visual proximity are startling and effective. The weight of Black death presses down.

Other artists in this gallery make powerful installation choices. Melvin Edwards (b. 1937) has arranged several welded steel sculptures that refer to tools of Black enslavement on the wall at eye level. The tools are open, signifying freedom but still with the weight of bondage. Diamond Stingily’s (b. 1990) Entryways (2016) and (2019) have three different doors that seemingly are freestanding. They all have locks and baseball bats leaning against them as symbols of Black female resistance, independence, and tenacity in defending home and family.

The next room is full of black figures. Kerry James Marshall (b. 1955) has painted in large scale on three canvas banners three Black women with the exaggerated dark skin tones that are part of her signature style, portraying them as mourning the loss of key figures in Black culture and community. Each woman guards herself protectively, almost in animosity, from the viewer’s gaze, from their living rooms and dining rooms. They look straight out in confrontation, as does the only other Black figure painted in detail, the portrait of Martin Luther King, Jr. In a fourth painting, the single Black male subject is a police officer who refuses to engage, casually leaning on a cop car. The two subject moods shown together muddy ideas of Black grief being simple or streamlined in its expression or action.

Ellen Gallagher (b. 1965) and Kara Walker (b. 1969) seem to make work for the Black eye. Their works, sharing a gallery, illustrate potential developments in Blackness. Gallagher’s is more curious. Hybrid creatures are the unborn babies of pregnant mothers who were thrown overboard during the transatlantic slave trade. Her work finds intrigue in the sorrow. Walker unsurprisingly lays the truth out for us to take: Black people’s complicity, or at least conditioned participation, in violence done against them. In a collection of images she holds the different people to account, both white and Black.

Photography and video were a consistent pillar of the exhibition. Latoya Ruby Frazier’s (b. 1982) photos of Braddock, Pennsylvania, are personal and intentional. They remain humble and there is no sense of sensationalism in their display. Their intimacy brings a feeling of connection along with commentary. The various video sounds echoed in the galleries surrounding them, adding an auditory element to the energy in the room. The videos encompassed a wide range of Black reality. One of the first, starting on the ground floor, is Garrett Bradley’s (1986) Alone (2017). It follows a woman, Aloné, engaged to an incarcerated man. The dynamics of their family reveal the impact on their lives of a broken system. The familiar format of a glimpse at someone’s life makes the video accessible in an age of reality television shows. The close observation and rawness of the subject and the family bring a deeper engagement.

Artistically, Grief and Grievance is a stunning exhibition. The artworks are thoughtful and provide plenty of food for thought on all four floors. The only question I had when leaving was: Who was it made for? As at many shows with similar intentions, as a Black guest, it feels as if I become a part of the exhibition, a performance art piece for guests to compare and contrast to what is expressed by the art in the room. I wonder what it would be like to see it through different eyes: as someone who isn’t versed in art or who isn’t African American. The success of this show ultimately lies in what people walked away with. Artists often wonder if their work made a difference. Here, the question is the same. In this case, as in many others, Black grief is an offering for illumination and political change.