Black Lives Matter. We stand in solidarity with those affected by generations of structural violence. You can help »

The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2020

All Issues
NOV 2020 Issue
Critics Page

Negroes in their prime

An Ali from ’63–’74. Vietnam and the will to survive outside of an imperialistic society, and even moreso, one that thinks too highly of itself. Not Ali because he knocked niggas out for it. But this machine that Black folks slaved over. Proud of itself, as if it cannot fail or as if its failure is not desired? That there aren’t examples of artists pushing towards the edge of going too far. A Rammellzee or Lee “Scratch” Perry, pushing towards the fringes of our devices. Instead, the mechanism holds a belief that you are successful because someone else said it. That in our prime we feel invincible and validated beyond our means and our means are no longer a means to survive but to make a living. Live well. To make bread, without other complex ingredients that would define and give purpose to our being. Relying on all-purpose flour. Some regular ass shit and everyone thinks it's the jam. The freedom to push boundaries of your own process is found within the studio and before you decide to share the work with the public.

A prime is what Sister Rosetta Tharpe looked like in her totality—when you “discovered” her. Etta James “At Last,” or Minnie Riperton floating in her ascendant whistle register. A head voice ahead of Mariah Carey. To dance up there and index a new way to register vocal timbre. Rising into occasions as if we did not just live a lifetime of jury-rigging and making do. But I’m here for it and if there is a point to be made it is about excellence when it is not the goal. When it is in crisis and quite possibly in danger. The kind of vulnerable work that requires timely reflection and a consideration of the stakes. Not because it will collapse, but because Black modes of expression are plagued with bad actors from the outside who seek to exploit its radicality and it will just suffer, or be ignored. And often they are Black folks signing off on it. Ali knew the stakes of his public image and that his success as a boxer informed every challenger—political, social, or economic—the difference is that he was willing to throw the hands to settle all three. Violence was not his way but that he could meet that challenge beyond all expectations if need be. You might catch those hands.

Ralph, I think of Basquiat as a lost prize fighter within his own methodology. I am far removed from his aura. Deeply gifted with levels of skepticism and creative energy but he could not process who he was battling during his lifetime. We know something extra now in how these white framed spaces operate—how could he know that? He knew it was unknowable and because of that he could not help but feel troubled. To manifest those challenges into a vigorous outpouring without the communion of his equally ambitious Black peers who considered his well-being as essential, he would still be making paintings. And it is the story of our lives. How do we account for our own deficits, let alone the ones made by other’s transgressions that we are left to resolve?

Benjamin Patterson (b. 1934) © Copyright. Variations for Double Bass. 1961. Performed by the artist at the Kleinen Sommerfest/Après John Cage, Galerie Parnass, Wuppertal, June 9, 1962. Gelatin silver print, possibly by Rolf Jährling, 9 1/4 x 7
Benjamin Patterson (b. 1934) © Copyright. Variations for Double Bass. 1961. Performed by the artist at the Kleinen Sommerfest/Après John Cage, Galerie Parnass, Wuppertal, June 9, 1962. Gelatin silver print, possibly by Rolf Jährling, 9 1/4 x 7" (23.5 x 17.8 cm). The Gilbert and Lila Silverman Fluxus Collection Gift. Digital Image © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA / Art Resource, NY.

Maybe it is useful to consider the life and work of Ben Patterson and his omission by art historians in contextualizing Fluxus as a movement in order to think about how Black artists push towards radicality and codified forms of expression in white-centered spaces is problematic, complex yet still worth it. Its true that artists and their communities fuel one another, Pollock listening to Jazz; Black creations forging every splash and drip of paint, Picasso and Braque’s Cubism driven by African aesthetic, form, shape, and inventiveness, and even more so, that Fluxus had one solitary Black co-founder and yet Mary Bauermeister doesn’t mention Patterson’s presence in her studio in Cologne1 (Patterson was influenced by Cage, Stockhausen, and the sort.) Or even the analysis of Concretism and Intermediality in Natasha Lushetich’s “Ludus Populi: The Practice of Nonsense” is without Black references2—as if the notion of Nonsense does not serve Black bodies nor modes of thought within the avant-garde. It is indeed a privilege to reside in a nonsensical practice, but I would even go as far as to say it is nonexistent for Black folks. Ben Patterson engaged in what one could consider the closest thing to nonsense (I would refer to it as Black conceptual art), yet the nonsensing of his work, the lack of recognition of his impact doesn’t read as transgressive, avant-garde, radical, nor free—instead—it is fraught with racist omission and structurally fortifies the white walls (and white orchestras) his practice resisted. In which the practices of many Fluxus artists sought to redefine—and maybe they did, except it is called Fluxus.

Endnotes

  1. An Alternative History of Art, Ben Patterson; BBC Radio 4 https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/b09v6vt8
  2. “Ludus Populi”: The Practice of Nonsense Author(s): Natasha Lushetich Source: Theatre Journal , March 2011, Vol. 63, No. 1 (March 2011), pp. 23-41 Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press Stable URL: https://www.jstor.org/stable/41307503

Contributor

Kevin Beasley

Kevin Beasley is an artist based in New York City.

close

The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2020

All Issues