“This is Black art. And it matters. And it’s been going on for two hundred years. Deal with it.”
So declares the art historian Maurice Berger toward the beginning of “Black Art: In the Absence of Light,” a rich and absorbing documentary directed by Sam Pollard (“MLK/FBI”) and debuting on HBO Tuesday night.The feature-length film, assembled from interviews with contemporary artists, curators and scholars, was inspired by a single 1976 exhibition, “Two Centuries of Black American Art,” the first large-scale survey of African-American artists. Organized by the artist David C. Driskell, who was then-head of the art department at Fisk University, it included some 200 works dating from the mid-18th to the mid-20th century, and advanced a history that few Americans, including art professionals, even knew existed.
The press gave that survey a mixed reception. Some writers griped that it was more about sociology than art (Driskell himself didn’t entirely disagree). But the show was a popular hit. At the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where it originated, and then at major museums in Dallas, Atlanta and Brooklyn, people lined up to see it.
What they were seeing was that Black artists had always done distinctive work in parallel to, and some within, a white-dominated mainstream that ignored them. And they were seeing that Black artists had consistently made, and are continuing to make, some of the most conceptually exciting and urgent-minded American art, period — a reality only quite recently acknowledged by the art world at large, as reflected in exhibitions, sales and critical attention.
The HBO documentary introduces us to this history of long neglect and recent correction through the eloquent voices of three people who lived both sides of it: Driskell, a revered painter and teacher; Mary Schmidt Campbell, the president of Spelman College in Atlanta, Ga., and former director of the Studio Museum in Harlem; and Berger, an esteemed art historian and curator. (The film is dedicated to the two men, both of whom died from complications related to Covid-19 in 2020, Driskell at 88, Berger at 63.)
They’re surrounded by artists, most of them painters, of various generations. Some had careers that were well underway by 1976 (Betye Saar, for example, and Richard Mayhew, who was in the survey). Others were, at that point, just starting out in the field. (Kerry James Marshall remembers being blown away by a visit to the show when he was 21). Still others — Kehinde Wiley (born 1977) and Jordan Casteel (born 1989) — weren’t born when the survey opened but still count themselves among its beneficiaries.
The question arises early in the film — in a 1970s “Today Show” interview with Driskell by Tom Brokaw — as to whether the very use of the label “Black American art” isn’t itself a form of imposed isolation. Yes, Driskell says, but in this case a strategic one. “Isolation isn’t, and never was, the Black artist’s goal. He has tried to be part and parcel of the mainstream, only to be shut out. Had this exhibition not been organized many of the artists in it would never have been seen.”
The film refers, in shorthand form, to past examples of shutting-out. There’s a reference to the Metropolitan Museum’s 1969 “Harlem on My Mind: Cultural Capital of Black America, 1900-1968,” an exhibition that was advertised as introducing Black creativity to the Met but that contained little in the way of art. And mention is made of artists’ protests of the Whitney Museum’s 1971 survey “Contemporary Black Artists in America,” which was left entirely in the hands of a white curator.
A book of essays titled “Black Art Notes,” printed that year in response to the Whitney show, accused white museums of “artwashing” through the token inclusion of African-American work, a charge that has continuing pertinence. (The collection was recently reissued, in a facsimile edition, by Primary Information, a nonprofit press in Brooklyn.) Even before the Met and Whitney shows, Black artists saw the clear necessity of taking control of how and where their art was seen into their own hands. Ethnically specific museums began to spring up — outstandingly, in 1968, the Studio Museum in Harlem.
Photo Credit: Faith Ringgold and Richard Mayhew, HBO