Invisible Man: this summer at PAFA?

Editor’s Note

by Daniel Gerwin

Ralph Ellison published Invisible Man in 1952, the self-narrated story of an unnamed black man living hidden in the basement of an all-white apartment building in New York.  The same year, Willem de Kooning completed Woman I, an icon of Abstract Expressionist painting.

This summer, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA) has presented a juxtaposition of exhibits that may be more provocative than intended.  Upstairs in the Annenberg Gallery is the well-crafted Abstract Expressionism and its Discontents, which challenges the movement’s dominant narrative celebrating White male artists such as de Kooning, Pollock, and Rothko.  The exhibition text explains:

While critics celebrated Abstract Expressionism’s stylistic diversity, its written history remained that of a “boys’ club” in which the parallel contributions of women, African-Americans, and homosexual artists were downplayed or ignored.  Only in the past two decades have the crucial roles of artists such as Norman Lewis, Joan Mitchell, and others been returned to their rightful place at the heart of the story.

Another exhibit, Urbanism, is found in PAFA’s first floor Fisher Brooks gallery. This is an excellent show of five Philadelphia artists whose work reflects the city in various ways. Men and women are evenly represented, and all the artists are White. In this month’s inaugural issue of Title, Ted Carey’s review of Urbanism points to the absence of the human figure in all the works in this show. What can we learn about this missing urban dweller?

Part of the answer is suggested by the art displayed in PAFA’s atrium outside the Fisher Brooks gallery.  The atrium, which you pass through to reach either of the two exhibition galleries, is hung entirely with the work of black artists, though this is not explicitly acknowledged.  To the right of Urbanism’s entrance is a Mickalene Thomas rhinestone-and-enamel female figure painting, and to the left are two oil portraits by Barkley Hendricks.  Continuing left, we arrive at a large painting of three glowingly youthful men by Kehinde Wiley.  Also featured in the atrium are Laylah Ali and Willie Cole, among others.  The careers of Hendricks and Wiley in particular have taken black urbanites as their principal subject, and their placement on the exterior wall of the Urbanism show, along with the other artists filling the atrium, is cause for reflection.

Urbanism’s curator Julien Robson explained during the press preview that the urban theme was not chosen in advance, but became self-evident as he began to select the artists.  It’s easy to believe that he simply chose work he liked and that made sense together, and this process happened to produce an all-white show with a male-female balance.  But the lack of racial diversity is striking given the show’s theme, since our urban culture owes an enormous amount to its densely populated ethnic mixture, and to black and Latino Americans especially.

Mr. Robson can no more be held accountable for the show’s racial imbalances than President Obama can be blamed for America’s economic weakness – these conditions have a long history and are not easily addressed.  Check out the colleges and graduate schools in Philadelphia (and nationwide): you’ll find students of color underrepresented in the fine arts, notwithstanding the recent star-turn of our city’s own Jayson Musson as the hip-hop art theorist Hennessy Youngman.

So what do we find at PAFA this summer?  Upstairs, an exhibit that attempts to redress injustices of the mid-20th century by calling attention to artists who were overlooked at the time, in no small part because they were black, gay, or women.  On the first floor, two exhibits that just happen to be segregated into black and white artists, the former show nameless and the latter celebrated.  Sixty years from now, what kind of show will a curator develop to right the wrongs of the early 21st century?

The art world has come a long way since the 1950’s: Hendricks’ artistic descendant Wiley has enjoyed fame and fortune from the start.  And while there are still problems with art-world patriarchy, contemporary American women artists do not face the severe barriers that Joan Mitchell overcame with her legendary force.  PAFA in particular has shown leadership: the school’s 2009 exhibition Birth of the Cool was a much-needed retrospective of Hendricks’ career.  In the coming months PAFA will show the aforementioned Jayson Musson, followed in early 2012 by an exhibit examining the life and work of Henrey Ossawa Tanner, a PAFA alumnus and black artist from the turn of the 20th century.  Perhaps it’s unnecessary to notice the homogenous race or gender of artists shown in either an atrium or a formal exhibition, but this summer’s odd curatorial coincidence at PAFA begs the question.

Daniel Gerwin is an artist living in Philadelphia.  He holds an MFA from the University of Pennsylvania and is a lecturer at the University of the Arts.  His writing has also appeared in Machete.