The Museum of Modern Art’s new exhibition about the short-lived Just Above Midtown gallery is that rare and special thing: a show that promises to expand our understanding of art history and actually succeeds in doing so. The portion of art history that interests this show’s curator, Thomas (T.) Jean Lax, is a very small slice: New York during the ’70s and ’80s, which continues to hold a grip on the public imagination.
But do not come expecting to see works by art stars like Keith Haring, Jeff Koons, and Jean-Michel Basquiat, because you won’t find any of that here. Instead, you’ll find Senga Nengudi’s delicate, beguiling sculptures formed from sand-filled stockings, which droop down from ceilings and walls. You’ll find Janet Olivia Henry’s installations composed of toys and tiny trinkets; one is meant to recall an uncomfortable studio visit, with the artist’s stand-in being a doll version of the Star Trek character Uhura. You’ll find Randy Williams’s accumulations of objects as diverse as a condom, a ruler emblazoned with a Village Voice logo, a Ronald Reagan postcard, and more, which he then affixed to wooden board and then placed alongside the repeated word “AIDS.”
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Glossy, these works are not. Their scrappy sensibility, however, was very much of a piece with the ethos of Just Above Midtown, which was fondly termed JAM for short by its creator, Linda Goode Bryant. She formed JAM, which ran from 1974 to 1986, as a space for Black artists, who were given freer rein here to produce conceptual art than they may have received elsewhere.
There’s a tendency to refer to “the art world,” a nebulous bit of jargon that’s meant to refer to the wealthy conglomerate of artists, collectors, dealers, and curators who move in the same circles. Yet truth be told, there are many different art worlds populated by many different people. As this exhibition stands to show, JAM was its own self-sustaining art world.
JAM had its own art history, its own set of rules, and, most importantly, its own social network, which was peopled predominately with Black artists and artists of color. JAM needed permission from no one to survive. And flourish it did, even if many of the gallery’s monied neighbors at its original location in Midtown didn’t take notice.
Lax, who worked on the exhibition in collaboration with Goode Bryant, writes in the indispensable catalogue that this show is a “rickety reenactment.” It’s less a play-by-play recap of the gallery’s 150 exhibitions than it is a show about JAM’s essence, which is reconstructed mainly by way of a tightly hung arrangement of artworks by artists who showed there.
Many of those works were highly conceptual. Take David Hammons’s 1978 sculpture Untitled Reed Fetish (Flight Fantasy), featuring a series of wooden reeds with wads of hair glommed on to them. According to Goode Bryant, works like this one, with their everyday materials, appeared like refuse and even offended some visitors expecting buttoned-up painting and sculpture.
They could, of course, find that, too, at JAM. Paintings rife with splashes of dazzling color by Noah Jemison and Raymond Saunders were shown at the gallery. They appeared in one 1976 show alongside a Minimalism-inspired Jorge Luis Rodriguez sculpture featuring a giant circle situated in a corner. Provocatively, these works were also displayed alongside pieces by canonized white compatriots like Helen Frankenthaler, Jasper Johns, and Jim Dine. The show in which they appeared was called “Statements Known and Statements New,” its name a suggestion that that there was more art-historical knowledge still to be gotten by even the worldliest viewers. Here was JAM, a Black gallery showing white art, to prove it.
JAM had been formed as a commercial gallery in 1974—there weren’t many sales—and had become a nonprofit by the time it staged “Statements” in 1976. It had also racked up thousands of dollars in debt. Goode Bryant defrayed the costs using credit cards, but that did little to stop the avalanche of angry letters from unpaid vendors, reproductions of which fill a massive wall in this show. “We have seen the Gallery represented on television and realize that you are trying to set an image for the Gallery and for black artists in general,” wrote one printing company in 1975. “We are not favorably impressed!”
The landlords weren’t bowled over either—JAM moved to Tribeca in 1980 after being evicted. Artists, however, were enamored of what Goode Bryant had to offer.
Once JAM relocated, the space’s cast of characters began to include not just Black ones, but Asian American, Latinx, and Native American ones, too, as well as white women. Lorraine O’Grady staged her first performances as Mlle Bourgeoise Noire, a middle-class Black woman who laid bare class divisions in the art world. Hock E Aye Vi Edgar Heap of Birds displayed a painting that paired Cheyenne words with English terms that did not actually describe their meaning. Albert Chong displayed a photograph in which he is rendered as a spectral form before a crushed fabric background; he called himself a “culturally misplaced shaman.”
These works evinced no singular movement, no one style. There was, in other words, no JAM aesthetic, which was perhaps the most beautiful thing about this gallery. In that way, JAM aspired toward diversity in more senses than one.
The art on view is just one component of the JAM story, however. Another—arguably the core one—is the people who were involved. Those people ended up forming a community unto itself.
Starting in 1976, the gallery began hosting “Brunch with JAM” series, which sold out on a regular basis. The quiche on offer did more than offer the promise of nourishment—it also provided food for thought, since artists were on hand to lecture while attendees ate. Faythe Weaver, a volunteer at the gallery, cooked the food in her Le Creuset using a recipe by Julia Child. (Lax frequently refers to JAM workers by name, foregrounding all the labor that went into a managing the space.)
There were more outré programs, too. Inspired by the love-ins of the hippie movement, Hammons staged “Print-Ins” wherein, for a price, gallery visitors could oil up their bodies and press them against sheets of paper as he had done himself for one famed series. Much later, in 1984, Goode Bryant formed the Corporation for Art and Television, a for-profit audio and video production center, in JAM’s third and final location.
Some of JAM’s activities barely even had anything to do with art. The gallery became an informal playground at its start when, on Saturday mornings, mothers would bring their children there while they chatted. My favorite piece in this show, if it can truly be called a work, is related to this. It’s a 1974 photograph of Goode Bryant’s son, R. Kenneth Bryant, batting around a ball on the floor of JAM. He seems barely aware of the painting that hangs on the wall behind him.
The art that JAM showed and the people who viewed it were intimately related, sometimes in ways they didn’t even realize. Possibly for that reason, as I walked through the show, works on view came to seem like metaphors for everything that JAM stood for.
The one that struck me the most was Rosemary Mayer’s October Ghost (1980/2022), a sculpture that the late artist’s estate specifically installed in response to the show. The Mayer piece is a gorgeous array of glassine, cellophane, and plastic forms that appear to collapse onto each other. They coalesce in the mind’s eye to resemble a colloquy of people. Not unlike JAM’s artists, workers, and supporters, these forms refuse to disappear.