Now is the time to rethink the relationship between race and representation. This is not about simply increasing the number of minority artists, critics, and art consumers, but a question of re-imagining what representation could look like when we think expansively through the affective parameters of race. Though diversity and inclusion is the prevailing paradigm for increasing the representation of people of color in predominately white spaces, it can veer toward the fetishization of minorities largely because possession of visible difference reflects well on the institution in that it signals a particular commitment to “social good.” This fixes people of color as spectacles of difference. By contrast, practices of abstraction ask us to probe the relationship between representation and knowledge production without this type of reification.
To argue that abstraction has functioned as an aesthetic strategy for people of color is at some level merely to acknowledge a long history of complex practices that have until relatively recently been under-recognized. There have been recent exhibitions—Blackness in Abstraction at Pace Gallery in New York and Magnetic Fields, a show featuring abstract art by women of color artists at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art in Kansas City—that have highlighted the breadth of what constitutes abstraction and illuminated its multiple histories. In his examination of the recent embrace of black abstraction, Steph Rodney focuses the diverse strategies artists employ to work with abstraction while still asserting their identification with blackness.1
By centering the question of feeling and the relationship between race and affect, however, the meaning of abstraction shifts. Abstraction becomes a minoritarian strategy to illuminate what different forms of racialization feel like. In particular, it allows us to feel distinctions between blackness and brownness, that racial demarcation for people of color who are not black. Here, I trace some of these sensory nuances by thinking of several artists and their use of the color blue. Blue activates a wide swath of sensory memories affiliated with blackness—the blues, blue-black skin, melancholy—yet when we position blue in relation to brownness, other dynamics—in this case those related to invisibilized labor and migration—appear. Thinking with blue-black and blue-brown, then, reveals architectures of racialized representation.
Glenn Ligon’s sculpture A Small Band (2015) is the largest piece in Blue Black, the exhibition Ligon curated at the Pulitzer Art Foundation in St. Louis (reviewed by Jason Rosenfeld in the September Brooklyn Rail.2 It occupies most of the main gallery, positioned so that it is in dialogue with Ellsworth Kelly’s Blue Black. This is an artistic exchange about abstraction, sound, and racial identity. In his curatorial statement, Ligon writes:
Standing in front of Ellsworth Kelly’s Blue Black (2000), a twenty-eight foot painted wall sculpture commissioned for the main exhibition space of the Pulitzer Arts Foundation, I heard Louis Armstrong’s gravel-strewn voice singing, “What did I do to be so black and blue?” Given the title of the sculpture, that the Armstrong song would pop into my head was not so unexpected. Yet I had to ask what the lyrics of a melancholy show tune about racial equality had to do with Kelly’s rigorous and elegant paintings, sculptures, drawings, and collages—part of an artistic practice that, in his words, sought to “erase all ‘meaning’ of the thing seen” so that “the real meaning of it [could] be understood and felt.” 3
What, then, do black and blue mean? How do they feel? A Small Band’s neon words, “blues,” “bruise,” “blood” are taken from Daniel Hamm’s testimony. Hamm, a member of the Harlem Six, a group of black teenagers who were falsely convicted of murder in 1965, was severely beaten by the police and testified that in order to receive medical attention for his wounds, “I had to, like, open the bruise up and let some of the bruise blood come out to show them.” Ligon’s piece exploits the aural slippage between bruise and blue that we hear in recordings of Hamm. While Hamm’s words testify to the necessity of making his pain spectacular so that the police would allow him to get medical treatment, Ligon evokes the spectacle of the black body in pain in a more abstract form. By withholding the optics of black pain, A Small Band magnifies the ways that the discourse of black suffering is attached to the words themselves—blues, bruise, blood.
These are words that speak to flesh, viscera, and pain. Yet, without the figural representation of woundedness, Ligon alludes to other possible meanings for these words. Is Hamm called into being as a black person in pain and fixed in that position by these words, or are these words expressions of how he felt in that particular moment? Are these words the condition of Hamm’s objectification or are they the basis for Hamm’s reclamation of subjectivity? In bringing attention to the possibility of multiplicity, A Small Band offers a path toward rethinking blackness through blue.
Reading A Small Band in relation to Steve Reich’s “Come Out,” for example, brings out the register of black spatiality. Reich’s piece, which Ligon references as a source of inspiration for the sculpture, begins with Hamm’s iconic testimony and dissolves into a loop of “come out to show them” that changes rhythm and speed so that the words become indecipherable sounds. In producing this piece, Reich also renders Hamm’s narrative of suffering abstract, while Ligon’s citation of Reich attaches sound to the occupation of space. Instead of affixing suffering to a black body, Ligon emphasizes the atmospheric qualities of anti-black violence, what Christina Sharpe describes as “the weather.” 4 In our current climate, blue in particular might summon the ambiance of the police state. Nijah Cunningham and Tiana Reid describe the current tension between black and blue, writing:
Blue life is what you get when you confuse a job for a social existence, an occupational hazard for an ontological crisis. Even more, it creates an equivalence between two disparate “sides” that are in fact not sides at all. It is impossible to inhabit the “I” of blue life. No one can be on the side of blue life. It is merely a conceit that simulates a threat in order to justify the expansion of state power.5
In Cunningham and Reid’s discussion of blue we see the ubiquity of anti-black violence, how it is woven into the fabric of everyday citizenship/residence in the United States, and carved into the foundations of the constitution itself. For African Americans, blackness is a kind of architecture, an embodied set of feelings and spaces of perpetual violation so that the words “blues,” “bruise,” and “blood” creep across the gallery floor in a way that demands interaction. Viewers must engage with the words; they must walk around them, moving their own bodies through that space, through the silent echo of Hamm’s disembodied testimony, so that they, too, can feel the ways in which their situatedness, where they stand as individuals—as black or not—is always in relation to this pervasive production and narrativization of black pain. For Ligon, blue serves as a point of reference for blackness in a way that reveals the affective imbrication of blackness and violence within the fraught project of the United States.
But blue is a capacious color that allows for many metaphors. In another exhibit—The Metropolitan Museum of Art Staff Art Show 2017—we find restructurings of representation that are shot through with blue in relation to brownness: Maureen Catbagan’s Peripheral Vision: 1. Blanton Museum Stairwell, 2. Blue Shadows, 3. Reena Spaulings (for your reading pleasure) and Jevijoe Vitug’s An Ocean of Data.6 Catbagan focuses our gaze on the architecture behind representation. She photographs staircases, hallways, passageways, the spaces between art and the ceiling, or the shadows from high windows. These are spaces that are integral to the museum because they frame the art, but seldom do our gazes linger there. Peripheral Vision pairs a photograph of a staircase with a blue Plexiglas square of the same size. Below, on a slightly elevated piece of gold Plexiglas lies a copy of the novel Reena Spaulings, the Bernadette Corporation’s novel featuring a Met guard as a protagonist, with a post-it note that reads, “Eugene, this is you!” Catbagan’s piece brings attention to the way that workers within the museum are often rendered invisible—subject most often to peripheral glances—even though they are part of what makes the museum experience possible.
Catbagan complicates the question of representation by using minimalism to assert the presence of the worker’s body, thereby drawing our attention to the conditions that render this labor and these people invisible. The resonance between the indigo walls of the staircase and the blue Plexiglas—the “blue shadow,” which acts as a reference to the guard uniform—illuminates the aesthetic labor that the guards perform within the museum; they act to guide the visitors’ gaze, framing the experience of art by demarcating the boundaries of objects on display. This reminds us that labor and spectacularity are seldom positioned in the same frame. By prioritizing the peripheral, Catbagan asks us to stay with the invisibility that accompanies labor. This work not only asks us to redirect our gaze, but allows us to think about the experience of being on the periphery.
This focus on the periphery, in turn, brings us toward the way that brownness hovers around Catbagan’s installation. Catbagan explores the parameters of brownness most explicitly in her use of Plexiglas, an acrylic resin that was used extensively by the United States military in World War II as a durable alternative to glass in military airplane windshields (it is resistant to wind, water, and UV rays). In this militarized context, peripheral vision also refers to the (former) U.S. colonies—such as the Philippines, where Catbagan was born—which often linger on the periphery of U.S. consciousness even as their geographies, economies, and politics often continue to be determined by the aftermaths of U.S. military intervention—including and especially migrations. It is not incidental that many of those who work as guards at the Met, example, arrived in the U.S. as a result of these migrations. Brownness, itself, then, is a product of the peripherization of certain spaces.
Vitug’s An Ocean of Data also draws our attention to the labor that the peripheral performs in relation to brownness and what is made visible or invisible. Installed in a dark nook of the show, Vitug’s piece features a canvas dropcloth covered in fluorescent paint that hangs across the ceiling along with instructions for viewers to stand underneath it while wearing 3-D glasses and using a UV flashlight. Under the blue light, the images come to life—floating above the viewer in the guise of neurons, sea creatures, or data signals. The periphery for Vitug is the indigenous informational currents that circulate between Taiwan, the Philippines, Australia, Easter Island, Chile, and Peru. An Ocean of Data refers to the different ways that knowledge is encoded on the body and transmitted between disparate places through migrations—ancient and current. It asks us to think about the ocean as a source of knowledge and producer of knowledge transmission, and it actively de-centers the United States—positioning it as peripheral to the geography of the (brown) lower Pacific.
Like Ligon and Catbagan, Vitug uses blue to show us what is generally invisibilized. These corporeal currents only become visible if we use the flashlight and glasses, both of which show us dimensions of the work that are not legible to the naked eye. In turn, the flashlight and its ultra-violet range ask us to think about vision itself. This blue is about how we see and how vision itself might be transformed. To think about blue in relation to this form of peripheral vision is to activate those wavelengths at the edge of human perception. This is the space where we see what structures the world—we see the way migration functions as invisible infrastructure. This brings indigenous knowledge into the conversation without fixing the figure of indigeneity, but rather understanding this knowledge as mutable and always in process. We also see that blue is part of a spectrum— and understanding how the blues relate to other colors as well as how to reflect/refract this otherness is an important part of the picture. In its essence this employment of blue, this meditation on indigenous knowledge, offers insight on how we relate to others, to things, to brownness.
Blue’s capaciousness via abstraction allows us to understand the ways that corporeality infuses space and meaning is made. Remaking what constitutes representation challenges the tethering of black and brown bodies to the parameters of realism and opens space for rethinking how knowledge is produced, framed, and absorbed. This invocation of the peripheral—in relation to staircases, in relation to guards, in relation to the United States, in relation to economies of perception—however, forces us to re-evaluate what work brownness performs to maintain the center. The body politics that brown abstraction can illustrate are not necessarily those that grapple with the problem of spectacular woundedness. Instead, they enable us to think about the costs of racialized invisibilization, a particularly pressing issue at a moment when we are forced to deal with DACA’s repeal in addition to immigration bans and restrictions. Brown abstraction brings disavowed labor and knowledge production to the fore.
- Steph Rodney, “How to Embed a Shout: A New Wave of Black Artists Contends with Abstraction,” Hyperallergic, August 23, 2017, https://hyperallergic.com/389105/how-to-embed-a-shout-a-new-generation-of-black-artists-contends-with-abstraction
- Glenn Ligon “Curatorial Statement,” Exhibition Catalogue for “Blue Black” Pulitzer Arts Foundation, St. Louis, MO, 2017.
- Christina Sharpe writes, “In what I am calling the weather, anti-blackness is pervasive as climate. The weather necessitates changeability and improvisation; it is the atmospheric condition of time and place; it produces new ecologies.” Christina Sharpe, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016), 106.
- Nijah Cunningham and Tiana Reid, “Blue Life,” The New Inquiry, August 10, 2017, https://thenewinquiry.com/blue-life
- This show was held on site at the MET for a month throughout August and September, but was not open to the general public. In a longer essay, we might consider the ways this limited access serves to reinforce the very dynamics of invisibility that they explore. However, Maureen Catbagan and Jevijoe Vitug’s work is also on view with Abang-guard/Bliss on Bliss Art Project/La Guardia in Flux Factory’s Major Exhibition: Self Storage from Oct. 6–27.
ContributorAmber Jamilla Musser
AMBER JAMILLA MUSSER is an associate professor of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Washington University in St Louis and the author of Sensational Flesh: Race, Power, and Masochism (NYU Press, 2014) and Brown Jouissance, forthcoming from NYU Press.