Many things come to mind when one thinks of 2020, the year when the United States of America will have its next presidential election. In this deeply divided moment, curators Amanda Hunt and Eric Crosby decided to stage an exhibition: 20/20 takes twenty artists from each of the permanent collections of The Studio Museum in Harlem and the Carnegie Museum of Art, respectively, and organizes an exhibition that amounts to a prospective vision, examining the history of America, what’s at stake now, and what’s in store in the future. Organized around six themes—”A More Perfect Union,” “Working Thought,” “American Landscape,” “Documenting Black Life,” “Shrine for the Spirit” and “Forms of Resistance,”—the show that spans several of the Carnegie’s galleries and includes works by David Hammons, Horace Pippin, Kara Walker, LaToya Ruby Frazier, Jenny Holzer, Kerry James Marshall, and Quentin Morris, among many others.
“It was a conversation between us as curators first, before it was about the two institutions, about using the materials at hand to shape a dialogue about our country,” explains the Carnegie Museum curator, Eric Crosby, to Creators. The duo found that the most powerful materials they had at their disposal were their respective collections. “Our initial conversation about this exhibition begin a year-and-a-half ago at the end of Obama’s presidency as we anticipated a shift and not knowing what to expect in the future,” explains Amanda Hunt, who recently left The Studio Museum to become a curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. The show represents a radical break for both institutions, say both Crosby and Hunt. CMOA’s art is presented canonically, highlighting the march of time, while the Studio Museum’s collection is generally presented in the context of contemporary American life. “People are demanding more of museums,” says Crosby, “as curators we need to take objects out of the march of time and present them differently to see how art created long ago and recently resonate with today.”
Horace Pippin’s 1944 oil painting, Abe Lincoln’s First Book, a part of CMOA’s collection, represents the genesis for the show. It depicts a young President Lincoln, shrouded in darkness, reaching for a book, a gesture that Hunt calls, “the perfect metaphor for how we are feeling about the current state of affairs.” In an era of fake news, where citizens don’t know what or who to believe, Pippin’s painting, made in Harlem, can be seen as a young man living in a republic at a crossroads, seeking knowledge and understanding. Abe Lincoln’s First Book is part of the first section of the show, “A More Perfect Union,” which is mounted near Jasper Johns’ Flag 1—a screen print of two American flags—and Lyle Ashton Harris’ Miss America photo—a nude woman in white face paint. “She wears the flag rather than waves,” notes Crosby to Hunt in a conversation in the exhibition’s slim gallery guide. “Queering the flag,” Hunt responds.
“It’s an expression of ownership, really,” says Crosby, “Everyone owns their American identity differently.”
National identity is further explored in the “Working Thought” gallery, which looks at local identity with David Hammons’ Untitled cardboard box sculpture from the year 2000. The boxes bear the words, “Made in the People’s Republic of Harlem,” printed on them in red. The section takes its title from a Melvin Edwards’ series of sculptures seen in the gallery, part of a larger series of his Lynch Fragments, which, through their materiality, touch on American identity, how slavery evolved into mass incarceration, and ideas surrounding economies of labor. There are works by Noah Davis, Titus Kaphar and Kara Walker that further excavate the history of America, highlighting that the present moment didn’t come as a shock to some, and that the issues Americans are wrestling with today are representative of the country’s history. This is reinforced in “American Landscape,” wherein works by Latoya Ruby Frazier and Zoe Strauss document urban industrial decline, and Jenny Holzer’s early-1980s wall work, Survival: When there’s no safe place to sleep…, speak to the anxieties living in an America without safe spaces or a social safety net.
“Documenting Black Life,” represents an exhibition-within-an-exhibition: black-and-white pictures by Charles “Tennie” Harris and James VanDerZee, two great photographers of black urban life. Harris, working in CMOA’s hometown of Pittsburgh, and VanDerZee, in Harlem, captured pictures of social black life that revealed both the formal and vernacular aspects of two communities that were overlooked but lived in with complexity and style in the 20th century.
Nearly halfway through the show, the works mounted by the curators become increasingly abstract and conceptual. “America” becomes a bit harder to pin down, especially with the fraughtness of the time. Quentin Morris’s painting, Untitled (January-February 1994), a part of CMOA’s collection, is a large, reflective, black monochrome, recalling a void. In a quote in the wall text, the artist says, “I began exploring black monochrome painting […] to present black’s intrinsically enigmatic beauty and infinite depth to refute all negative cultural mythologies about the color and ultimately to create work that innately expresses the all encompassing spirituality of life.” In the section, “Forms of Resistance,” the show flashes to the present works by Lorna Simpson, Collier Schorr, and Kerry James Marshall. Marshall’s 2016 painting, Untitled (Gallery), a work of a matte black female figure, hangs on the white museum wall, challenging America, vis-á-vis the museum, to be more inclusive.
“The exhibition, as we conceived it, looks back, it looks at now, and it looks forward,” says Hunt. “In terms of a goal of this exhibition, the essence is conversation. We have talked a lot about presenting an exhibition that could defy some expectations for audience members but also encourage dialogue.”
Adds Crosby, “For us its really important to realize that art is an occasion to look both inward and outward. Within this polarized political climate let’s look to how artists are helping to frame, translate, understand, our presence circumstances.”
20/20 continues through December 31 at the Carnegie Museum of Art. Click here for more information.