Blues for Smoke, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York

The Whitney Museum of American Art’s Blues for Smoke is a shaggy, roguish mess that makes no sense but flashes just enough charm that maybe it doesn’t have to. For years, curator Bennett Simpson of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, the Whitney’s Chrissie Iles, and the artist Glenn Ligon have been mulling the blues as an aesthetic that bleeds into painting, television, sculpture and comedy. That intriguing premise doesn’t support the curators’ rickety superstructure of abstract ideas, but it does produce a provocatively infuriating exhibition, fun to chew over, easy to argue with, and impossible to dismiss.

Step out of the lift, and you’re standing in front of David Hammons’ giant installation “Chasing the Blue Train” from 1989. A cobalt miniature locomotive tunnels beneath mounds of coal and winds past a half-dozen piano lids set upright in a curving skyline. While the coal train chugs by, its namesake, John Coltrane’s “Chasin’ the Trane”, jangles on a boombox, crashing into other railroad-themed compositions that play at the same time.

From that multi-punning introduction, the show seems to proceed by free association: Coltrane in darkness, Coltrane in the tropical sun, tropical fruit, “Strange Fruit”, lynching, Aids. The great sax player appears in an indelible portrait by Roy DeCarava, his instrument gleaming while the man himself fades into the surrounding night. This is one of several studies DeCarava made of Coltrane, a heroin addict whose death at 40 haunts these inky images. Bob Thompson, who overdosed in his 20s, knew Coltrane, too, and placed him front and centre in “Garden of Music”, his 1960 riff on Gauguin’s late Tahitian masterpiece, “What Are We, Where Do We Come From, Where Are We Going?”. Thompson tints his jazz idyll psychedelic shades of red, blue, yellow, purple and lime, a joyful palette that belies life’s grimmer realities.

One of the figures in this doomed Eden hugs a tree topped with a bright yellow disc – an orb of foliage, perhaps, or some exotic fruit. A little further along is “Strange Fruit” (1992-97), an ensemble of shrivelled banana and orange skins lovingly stitched back together by Zoe Leonard. The title comes from the famous song, with its unforgettable lines:

Southern trees bear strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black bodies swinging in the Southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.

The song, which dates from 1930s, is about the plague of lynching, but Leonard, a white, gay artist based in New York during the 1990s, is drawing an analogy to other, more recent horrors: the ravages of Aids both on the body and the body politic.

You could hopscotch through the exhibition along any number of associative paths (for instance: trains, suitcases, migration, freedom, shackles). But whichever route you choose, you’ll still be circling the conceptual void at the centre: what, exactly, is the blues? An ancient melancholy best expressed in a ravaged wail, like an American flamenco? A style, a technique, a code, a simple harmonic scaffolding for a pliant tune? Is it “a lowdown old aching chill”, as the Son House lyric goes, or the chaos of life distilled to a jangling, repetitive complaint? Langston Hughes suggested a vivid and pithy definition: “When the shoe strings break/On both your shoes/And you’re in a hurry/That’s the blues.”

Simpson is more intent on telling us what the blues is not. It’s “not about the past”, he writes in the catalogue’s introductory essay; “not revival”, not “specific forms of music”, and certainly not “intrinsicality and African American cultural unification”. When it comes to figuring out what the subject of his six years of research and cogitation actually is, though, he seems at a loss. It’s an attitude, a sensibility, a “stance shaping culture”, yielding an exhibition that gathers together Romare Bearden’s explicitly jazz-inflected collages with more recent works in which the connections to the blues are tenuous to the point of nonexistence. What do Martin Kippenberger’s punk polemics have to do with Alma Thomas’s all-over abstractions? And what does either of them have in common with Kara Walker’s blistering shadow puppets?

One of the things that the curators adamantly declare the show not to be about is race. Blue doesn’t mean black. That idea, which resonates in the age of Obama, is hardly new. Thelma Golden, director of the Studio Museum in Harlem, introduced the term “post-black” into the contemporary art lexicon back in her 2001 exhibition Freestyle. She used the phrase to describe art that abandoned staunch separatism in favour of a more nuanced view of race. Yet the notion of post-racial art is one of the many loose threads left dangling in the Whitney’s ragged exhibition, as if the curators kept forgetting about it. They detect the influence of the blues on the raucous comedy of Richard Pryor, for example, but not his white counterpart Lenny Bruce. And the wall label for “Strange Fruit” identifies the song as “Billie Holiday’s” but doesn’t mention that it was actually written by Abel Meeropol, a Marxist Jew who, after the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, adopted the couple’s sons.

(It’s also not clear how gender interacts with blueness; the musical pantheon enshrined in the eclectic collection of videos and listening stations offers plenty by the avant-gardist Henry Flynt, but nary a note of Aretha Franklin, Ma Rainey or Bessie Smith.)

The smoke in the Whitney’s Blues clears when the art does what the music does: bares life’s scars in a spare, raw voice. It’s not chance that the most poignant piece in the show about a lyric tradition is a verbal work, Matt Mullican’s “Untitled (Birth to Death List)” from 1973, in which the milestones and minutiae of a woman’s life click by on a handwritten scroll. “Catching her breath/Watching TV/Taking a nap in the hot sun/Her husband dies.”

Now that’s the blues.

Until April 28,

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