BOSTON — When the art historian Susan Denker died in 2016, the artist Dell Marie Hamilton learned not only that her former mentor and close friend had kept her illness and impending death a secret, but also that she was to inherit most of the possessions from Denker’s jam-packed apartment in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Understandably, it took Hamilton a few years to begin to process the overwhelming news and deliberate over what to do with this inheritance.
As one of the three recipients of the 2021 James and Audrey Foster Prize, annually awarded to artists working in and around Boston, and culminating in an exhibition at the ICA Boston, Hamilton used a selection of the objects and images to create a multimedia library space in honor of Denker, grimly titled The End of Susan, The End of Everything (2021). Intuitively arranged on shelves along the gallery’s perimeter, the books, periodicals, photographs, records, CDs, DVDs, and an electric typewriter are accompanied by three rotating slide projectors that asynchronously cast photographs onto the wall. Most materials relate to African American culture — for example, a rare book by Charles W. Chesnutt, a VHS documentary about Elizabeth Catlett, an “Obama ’08” baseball cap.
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A love of Black art and history was the bedrock of the friendship between the two women, who had markedly different racial, economic, and generational subject positions. Though Denker, a white professor at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, did not publish much scholarship, her magnum opus was the African American Visual Artists Database (2006–15), an invaluable internet resource that preserved the historical and contemporary contributions of artists of African descent. (Thankfully, the massive database is still accessible in its archived form.) Hamilton, a Black artist who met Denker while pursuing an MFA at the Museum School, often uses photography and performance to investigate the relationship between race, power, and embodiment.
The ICA installation is far from a straightforward display of a scholar’s archive. Instead, Hamilton embellishes the collection by inserting her own belongings, such as photographic slides purchased on eBay and notable books published since 2016. For instance, she puts Denker’s original vinyl record of The Velvet Underground & Nico, with its iconic banana cover image by Andy Warhol, in dialogue with books and ephemera from her own research on the colonial history of the banana industry in Honduras, where her family has roots. But Hamilton’s most important archival activations are three new videos inspired by Denker’s notes for lectures on Pablo Picasso, Jackson Pollock, and Robert Colescott. Performing simultaneously as professor, artist, and muse, she extends the art historian’s critiques of modernism by vividly injecting them with a Black feminist perspective.
Hamilton conceives of the installation as a collaboration with Denker. “I certainly felt like she was guiding me through the process,” the artist told me in an interview. “I remember thinking that, even though she is not here, this must be the reason that she left me all of these things.” Besides elucidating the precious, mysterious, and enduring nature of friendship, Hamilton’s poignant installation suggests that art making can be a means of mourning in our age of compounding loss.
The 2021 James and Audrey Foster Prize continues at the ICA Boston (25 Harbor Shore Drive, Boston, Massachusetts) through January 30.