Six baby grand pianos lie on their sides as toy train tunnels through and around them, also entering a uniform pile of coal during its ceaseless circling. We hear a collage of music, including James Brown’s Night Train, Coltrane, and Monk.
It’s a striking scene, and the first step into a rare moment in contemporary art: Here is a large-scale exhibit focusing on African-American cultural history and art practice.
And it was all put together by Bennett Simpson, a curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, who is not African-American. Blues for Smoke just left the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City. The show will next be installed at the Wexner Art Center in Ohio from September 21–December 29, 2013.
I sat down with Simpson to talk about what it means to curate about race and beyond one’s own. How did learning about the blues in this context change him –- in his life and work?
Let’s start with the art of curating. Does it alarm or excite you that you’re in this powerful position –- one that helps define conceptual art in America?
It’s neither alarming nor exciting. When you curate big shows in big museums, especially on a stage as big as New York or Los Angeles, a lot of people walk in and think it’s art with a capitol A. The museum with a capitol M. I know how intimidating that is for people.
One of my first jobs when I got out of college was as a security guard at the Whitney. I sat there all day and watched people come in with their apprehensions and fears and chips on their shoulders about contemporary art. I know this as a curator –- going to a museum is a difficult thing to do for a lot of people.
You have to be accountable to the complexity of the situation, but you also can’t let that stifle you. You have to be able to feel a certain freedom to experiment or else you’re not doing anybody any favors.
Do you remember the moment Blues for Smoke came to you as a curatorial pursuit? What led you to placing these works in dialogue with each other?
I’ve been working with the exhibition for six years, but I’ve been living with the questions for a lot longer. There aren’t a lot of shows that really tackle African-American cultural history in an interesting way. There are still a lot of limitations to the kind of work people are able to do or choose to do around race.
There’s something very unsettling about how distinctly different this exhibition felt because of that.
You don’t get big thematic shows that deal with race in this country. People aren’t really comfortable talking about race.
Does the show have an underlying or cohesive message about race in America today? As an aggregation, what are these works saying about race?
I think they’re saying our racial, sexual and political identities are always more complicated than we make them out to be. Art is a place where you see people imagining alternatives to conventions. We should always look to art for imaginations of the future.
Now that’s all pie in the sky and very abstract. But in a more concrete way, I was interested in turning to one of the sacred cultural touchstones in American culture –- the blues tradition. I didn’t want to do a kind of PBS cultural history documentary. I wanted to experiment. I wanted it to be a contemporary rather than historical show. I wanted people to walk in and feel like they were part of the issues.
Although the set of issues and problems remains fairly vague and ambiguous.
Yes and no. There’s nothing vague or ambiguous about a lot of the art in the show. If there’s something ambiguous it’s why certain artists are placed into relationship with one another. It’s the presentation, not the art.
For someone who hasn’t been to the show, what might they want to know?
That it is not an exhibition about documenting music. It’s an experimental art show. People are going to walk in and go, “Huh? How is this about the blues?” Don’t let that stop you.
One of the things about the blues that is so great is no person’s blues is like any other person’s blues. The blues has become codified and categorized and made to sound the same in a way. But it didn’t start off that way. This exhibition wants to go back to that sense of possibility.
The usual suspects are there, Smith and Holiday, also Coltrane and Monk and Mingus. We also witness contemporary musicians like Erykah Badu, and figures like Richard Pryor. So what makes this distinctly about the blues and not African-American cultural history?
It’s not just African-American –- there are white musicians and white artists in the show. What makes it the blues?
There’s blues music –- you might think of Robert Johnson or Bessie Smith or Muddy Waters. Or maybe you think of Eric Clapton, God help you. When I’m talking about the blues, I’m talking about a blues tradition and legacy rather than a particular kind of music.
A lot of people might hear Mingus and Coltrane and say, “That’s not the blues! That’s jazz!” I’m not interested in dealing with those kinds of quibbles and qualms. I want to say there is a blues aesthetic and blues ethos in music from a lot of different moments.
Improvisation seems like an important aspect of a blues ethos.
Improvisation is a huge theme in the show. It’s a huge defining characteristic of the blues.
One of the ways some people have defined the blues is as a way of responding to the circumstances of life. Your girlfriend left you. You lost your job. You experienced a moment of terrifying racism. And you sing the blues in response to that. Life imposes some bullshit on you and you play the blues or you sing the blues to deal with it. That is a kind of improvisation.
As a musical practice, improvisation began in the same moment as the birth of the blues. In the same moment as the birth of jazz. These things are very intertwined.
Maybe this is too existential and broad a question, but I imagine delving into something as rich and substantial as the theme of the blues and improvisation and how all of this is intertwined, and I wonder, how has putting this show together influenced your personal life? And your life as a curator?
Look. I think that curating should be really hard and really fun. You should get a lot out of it. You should learn a lot. This show certainly met those criteria. I learned a lot. I studied and researched things I hadn’t been taught in my art history classes –- things that a lot of people in the art world today aren’t really talking about.
The history of African-American art in the 20th century is so under-known today. It’s shocking. The way that African American traditions, modernism and experimental art are intertwined is totally underdeveloped.
Working on this show has made me second-guess –- or just not be so comfortable with -- my knowledge or expectations about what art history is and what the official histories should be. It’s opened my eyes. I can put it simply like that.
What’s your background? How does that affect your own subjectivity and approach to curating?
I’m a middle-class white kid from the suburbs of Washington DC. I grew up in the 1970s and 80s. My family is all from the south, North Carolina primarily. There’s nothing necessarily in my background that would lead one to expect me to do this show. But that’s just true in a superficial way. Anybody can do any kind of show. White curators can curate shows of African-American artists. Black curators can curate shows of white artists. And we really need to second-guess those expectations about who should do what, who has the expertise and who has the experience. The point is to do interesting, sensitive work.