When is a time capsule a treasure chest? When does a scrapbook read like a utopian textbook? When is an art archive its own art form? Answer: when the exhibition is exhilarating “Just Above Midtown: Changing Space” opens at the Museum of Modern Art this Sunday.
A Manhattan gallery called Just Above Midtown launched in 1974, an inopportune time for a startup. The New York economy is bottoming out; In terms of infrastructure, the town is a mess. The gallery itself received meager financial backing, but was still setting up a shop on 57th Street, in what remained, at the time, the Gold Coast arts district, a few blocks from MoMA. North.
There’s another, potentially unlikely obstacle to success: The new African-American-owned and operated gallery. And as such, it is the first of its kind to plant a flag inside the gated community and (despite other surface markings) remains a white New York art world.
The founder of Just Above Midtown (hereinafter referred to as JAM) is a 25-year-old black artist, art historian and activist named Linda Goode Bryant. And she opened the gallery in the place where she did exactly with the gate collapsed in mind. If that means keeping the space floating by using the maximum credit card, then so be it. Play the debt game successfully. Despite three evictions, JAM persisted for 12 years. And for example, its risk-taking has provided DNA for many other experimental projects that followed.
What Bryant and JAM brought to them from the very beginning was a core community built of artists as talented as they were ambitious, who aspired to exactly the kind of art in-but-not of -mainstream- locate the world that JAM offers.
In the photos in the MoMA show, we see these artists doing their own job, but also doing JAM work: answering phones, analyzing finances, and renovating the next three rooms of the room. display. Together they publish magazines and books (including original research on Black Conceptualism), collaborate on a proto-podcast video conference called “The Business of Being an Artist.” . They lured audiences from the streets with their homemade “JAM lunches,” and at one point ran an on-site artist day care center. At every level, JAM is a do-it-yourself situation.
Most artists are black, but not all are. Sociologically, the goal of JAM is not integration, but separation. Bryant did not want to simply insert an island of the Blacks into a white sea, leaving the island threatened with sinking. She wanted to create a discriminatory model in which artists of many different ethnicities and cultural identities could coexist, with all parties retaining the same right to self-determination and self-determination. .
And of course, those are the artists you go to MoMA to see and for good reason. JAM has nurtured (and nurtured by) some of the best. Some of you will, others you probably won’t, and even if you’re familiar with the New York contemporary art world landscape of the 1970s and 80s, you’ll be pleasantly surprised.
Program curators – Thomas (T.) Jean Lax and Lilia Rocio Taboada of MoMA’s performance and media division, collaborating with Bryant and Marielle Ingram, and supported by Amber Edmond, Brandon Eng and Argyro Nicolau – organized the program in three main sections corresponding to the growing spaces that JAM occupied before the end of operations in 1986.
The 57th Street Gallery is only about 700 square feet, and the work that represents it here is modest in size and largely in traditional form. Small prints by Valerie Maynard and paintings by Jamaican artist Mallica (Kapo) Reynolds are both clearly representative. (One of Reynolds’ two paintings is a portrait of singer Roberta Flack, an early JAM supporter.
Bryant’s interests at this time are still evolving and expanding. She was wary of Black artists’ arguments about the relative merits of figurative versus abstract art: the former might be “Black,” some say, but the latter. not. So she gave both modes equal presence and champion artists like Vivian Browne, Suzanne Jackson and Noah Jemison, who blended them in their paintings, as Senga Nengudi did in her swaying nylon mesh sculptures.
The very idea of a Black identity, as a locked category, in itself caused many problems for Bryant and she wanted to shake it off. From the outset, she showed the paintings of the African-American artist Palmer Hayden (1890-1973), whose use of racial caricatures complicated the image of the “Black Man” possibly. (rather it should be).
And in 1975, Bryant gave Concept House David Hammons, like Nengudi grafted in Los Angeles, his first solo in New York. His use of racist materials – fried chicken, hair from the floors of the barbershop – caused an uproar among JAM artists and decided to establish JAM as a neighborhood version. of the downtown phenomenon, an alternative space.
At the same time, Bryant took care to symbolically anchor the gallery where it sits on its founding stage, with a 1976 group performance that combined emerging Black artists with the stars. white skin has become famous. At MoMA, we see examples of such pairings, including a freshly made Hammons print hanging next to a 1963 Jasper Johns, with both looking equally great and awesome.
Hammons and Nengudi, along with their gallery mate Houston Conwill (1947-2016), were also involved in the gig work, becoming more and more part of the JAM show as it moved, after deported, to the larger quarters, the first with stores on Franklin Street in TriBeCa (1890-1984), an industrial loft next on Broadway in SoHo (1984-1986).
The title of TriBeCa’s first show, “Outlaw Aesthetics,” advertised “downtown” loud and clear, as did artist Lorraine O’s intermittent appearance on opening night. ‘Grady in her debut was like Mlle Bourgeois Noire. Tiara-crowned, wearing a gown made of white dinner gloves, and wielding a whip, she agitated the gathered company: “Enough! No more bootlicking. Black art has to take more risks”.
And JAM, advocate for an Open Negro, did just that. (“There’s a notion that black exists when there’s no white,” Bryant said in a catalog interview. “Black exists in the presence of black.”) In the 1980s, space This became an incubator for experimental performance, dance, and video acts, which, by the middle of the decade, began to lose the attention of an art world as it was attracted to a market Newly restored for collectibles.
The gallery has also helped keep the flame of multiculturalism alive by showcasing artists from other institutions in the clearly identified, ethnically diverse downtown. The work of G. Peter Jemison and Hock E Aye Vi Edgar Heap of Birds, both later associated with the American Indian Community Home in SoHo, were the highlights of the MoMA exhibit.
Again, individual artists, seen through their art, are what you go to any show to see, and MoMA has great people: Randy Williams with the intense 1982 set of titles. title “AIDS Not So Holy”; Willie Birch with an elaborate prayer card of Gandhi; Howardena Pindell with perforated jewel-like mosaics; and Janet Olivia Henry with a 1983 tabletop scene called “A Visit to the Studio,” in which the artist (in the person of a Lieutenant Uhura doll) stares at a curator wearing a Barbie wig.
Like several other artists exhibiting at JAM, Henry is also involved in running the space, which lost its home TriBeCa in 1984 and, despite its near-insolvency record, but found another space, in SoHo. (A gallery wall at MoMA is plastered with hundreds of cunning letters and eviction threats that JAM has received over the years and Bryant has preserved, like trophies.)
The new space is huge, 25,000 square feet. JAM tried to turn its scale into a financial advantage by renting out rooms to studios, but ran into legal troubles, and in 1986 moved out. It continued for a short time as a series of itinerant performances. And its tough spirit lives on in Bryant’s current nonprofit, PROFIT of the projectAn urban farming initiative that, since 2008, has been planting communal vegetable gardens in substandard neighborhoods in New York City.
“Still Alive,” as an example of strength, is what makes the reverence of JAM and MoMA so incredible and unthinkable. Bryant arrived on the mission to establish the space with some useful wisdom. She understands the breadth and depth of racism in American culture. She understood that the white art world, even in the reformed regime, had a computer for the heart. She understood that the market value assigned to art was equal to money. (Perhaps that understanding is what gave her the confidence to carry JAM in a state of heavy debt.)
She also understands that the urge to create is real; that the indispensable condition for nurturing is generosity; and that generosity is a practice of interdependence – an exchange of energy from which all parties benefit. MoMA’s scribbled, artistic document about a show is a welcome tribute to that idea, a document that honors the past and encourages a do-it-yourself future.
Just Above Midtown: Changing the Space
From October 9 to February 18, 2023, Museum of Modern Art, 11 West 53rd Street, Manhattan, 212-708-9400; moma.org.