The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2020

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NOV 2020 Issue
Editor's Message

The Prompt

Portrait of Ralph Lemon, pencil on paper by Phong H. Bui.
Portrait of Ralph Lemon, pencil on paper by Phong H. Bui.

“All values must remain vulnerable and those that do not are dead.”
—Gaston Bachelard

Vulnerable values also die.

Many years ago I recall reading Jean Michel Basquiat's 1988 New YorkTimes obituary (by Constance Hayes). Midway through she writes, “Critics praised his work for its composition, color and balance between spontaneity and control.”

A balance.

“Mr. Basquiat also achieved renown in the contemporary art world for his temper…”

An out-of-balance, as well.

Throughout, the worldview of a (Black) artist’s New York Times obituary and its expectations of talent, form, worthiness, a show, a gallery, a museum or not—all particular containers—are evident. Present and posthumous success requires a comprehensive identity, a position in terms of the system’s frame.

I've been thinking of an ongoing conversation I've been having with Fred Moten, begun pre-COVID and perhaps more relevant now than ever, during this seismic BLM renaissance and pandemic caesura. Another crisis. The predicament of the agential Black (art) body, the historic outside other, in the white art frame. A mature crisis really and still morphing. But now that art by Black artists is flourishing, and has become almost recklessly, at best duplicitously seductive to institutions—a conveniently desired new (old) fetish, and in some cases an excessively valuable one, like some white art—the stakes and the problems become both greater and more obfuscated. The radical imagining that one can change the long-standing and unchanged rules, as generative and fundamental as that imagining might be, becomes trickier. This is not just a crisis of success. The alien Black art clarion call (temper) is muted in this newly exposed Black art frame, a contemporary agency conveniently organized by the more dominant frame. A fraught and requisite self-contained passage is diffused and or missing, and with it the vital and capacious creative space in between, where the monsters reside.

Which brings up a fantasy question: what are Black folk to make art about, beyond modern and contemporary art, from the beginnings of culturally endemic Modern Art as we know it (and as Black artists continue to confide in it)? What else can Black American artists make/refract art about, beyond the oceanic white male art canon, the Duchampian-Dada refusals, the hidden noise? Is it possible to make something look and feel like something beyond the Blackish aesthetization of the canonic conversation, the honorific arguments, the invigorating critique? To find something truly other, which embodies a very different and fractured history, archive and future? (I’ll leave out of these questions the many artists who have little if no contact with the mainstream art world, those accurate and invisible outsiders, with their other hidden noise and theoretical silence.) Maybe I'm talking specifically about the Black American visual art, experimental theater, dance that institutions avow to be modern or contemporary… but maybe not. Either way, it is hard to turn an object, a painting, a photograph, a mediated video, or a proscenium stage into a hard breeze, a wail, a haunted cultural message…

Buddy Miles. Still from Monterey Pop (1968). D.A Pennebaker
Buddy Miles. Still from Monterey Pop (1968). D.A Pennebaker

When I was working on my (Blackified) Bruce Nauman lecture at MoMA in 2019, I mentioned to Fred that if I could have written a part 2 to the MoMA Nauman: Disappearing Acts retrospective essay (read aloud) I would have written about Charley Patton, Mamie Smith, Memphis Minnie, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Albert Ayler, Sun Ra, James Brown… and of course, hip hop (in all its corporate multi-billion dollar industry)… Black music. I would have written about American art that has practically nothing to do with white folk and their frames of history and audience, their conditions (no succinct arrangement, other than the impolite theft of their technology). An American art with its own brutal fierce privilege. No surrender in the passage, transition. Of course this other brutal fierce privilege, this whole art-making crisis discussion, includes most folk of color, a feminism, a queerness… A full-fledged society. Blackness as everybody else. Fugitive opportunity. How to make a whole art in between the conditioned and limited authoritarian histories of museum governments and the something else? A koan sprung from this ongoing fraught arrangement and its intimacies. Nothing to do with equity. A thorough contemporary Blackness gap, before it becomes encased symbolically in the frames and reliquaries of the emphatic white art world and is devoured. Consensual compromises made.

4 brief stories. An archive. (Maybe this is the beginning of that part 2, but with different artists, and not all about Black music.)

In 1969 I was 15 and so curious (and wonderwhelmed) when Jimi Hendrix, at the height of his blues-rock fame, abandoned his white boy band (The Experience) to play with Buddy Miles and Billy Cox. Something had been missing in all the success of his particular 20th century (beyond) Black music, as we knew it. Besides some transcendent guitar improvisations the result wasn't great music, unlike a lot of the music he made with his white band, but that didn't matter. It was about the “jam,” in front of a bunch of young white Fillmore East hippies. A year later Hendrix suffocated in his own vomit. His musical (and cultural) argument with himself was also aborted. Where it was headed is anybody's guess. (In my young, innocent, brownblack little crowd we were certain he was moving towards jazz, as none of us really knew what jazz was. At the time Miles Davis’s In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew seemed prophetic. As did Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica.)

Untitled. 2018. ©Ralph Lemon
Untitled. 2018. ©Ralph Lemon

Basquiat was also a rock star. In the mid-eighties (84–85?) I was a waiter in cool/hip restaurant in the East Village. Evelyn’s it was called. A French place. One night Basquiat came in with Julian Schnabel, David Salle, and some other famous young white male ’80s art folk. (The only other famous Black body art folk there was Robert Mapplethorpe, sitting at another table by himself, dressed in a long leather coat, hair greased back, looking like Satan. I don’t recall David Hammons ever setting foot in this place, too far downtown, or something. A true outsider, then, there.)

I didn’t wait on him; everything I viewed was in passing or from a few feet away. From a few feet away we made eye contact. A cryptic another-Black-body-in-an-all-white-room connection. From that distance Basquiat seemed fragile, I remember thinking. His shoulders stooped; eyes and body deeply suspicious of everything and everyone around him. Like he didn't belong. An (exotic) art star of this scene, with his certain (if disturbed?) Blackness. Whatever Blackness was or was not, then and there. Certainly he was nappy dread Black(boy) saint-like to me. He belonged, even as he didn't belong.

He was still at his table with his white gang at the end of my shift. The restaurant closed. I left before he did. Have no idea what he ate, drank, didn’t eat… a mystery.

I had seen Basquiat's first American solo gallery show, at Annina Nosei, in 1982. (He was 21. A child.) A white, queer co-worker at another restaurant told me I absolutely had to go. 

I walked into the empty gallery on a spring weekday afternoon and almost fainted. The energy of the work—and then of course the images, text, and color, but mostly the vibrating energy—completely floored me. (It also made me want to jump up and down with laughter.) Amphetaminic. The paintings, though classically mounted and stretched, didn't belong there. They were too alive, transcending the whiteness of the space and the ’80s Soho cultural surround that was trying to hold them in place as art. The space failed to hold them, I remember thinking, even as the paintings needed that white square space in order to float, like Ukiyo-e by way of Sam Delaney. 

I have never had that experience since, looking at that kind of art in a white-walled container. At the time I didn’t (couldn't) look at the work as Black art, or as modern art. I didn’t know what it really was, beyond the benevolent many-headed monster of its presence, an evanescent Caribbean Hydra. I was thrilled to be there.

I suppose that experience was about a certain time (out of time), and infiltration. An undeniable argument that Basquiat's work was having with the system. It was also, I'd like to believe, the accident of his feral or inherited art spirit acting out. Plus his more vulnerable downtown ’80s free Black punk self, adoring that white art world frame and fame. A perfect storm. Dangerous indeed. It killed him. 

40 years later is anyone really calling Basquiat's work Black art?

Black modern dance. In 1987 I was choreographing a work on the Alvin Ailey Repertory Company (at the Ailey School near City Center). There I met Alvin for the first time, in his office after a rehearsal. It was a strange moment. He looked disheveled, bone weary yet still handsome. He didn't say hello, stood looking down at his desk and abruptly began speaking about his “unhappiness” as he sat atop a wildly successful (Black) modern dance empire. Much of what he spoke was hard to follow, understand. “I feel empty.” He did clearly express how his abstract work wasn't taken seriously and how important that context was to him. Revelations (1958), a dance he made when he was 29, a masterwork to spirituals, gospels and blues music that fully and nonabstractly embodied (and perhaps had coined) contemporary Black dance at the time, a dance he had left behind (his “blood memories”), was his company's oxygen. But another cultural empire had abducted those spirituals, keeping the work alive, thriving. Not once did he look up to see whom he was talking to, who was listening. Something was missing. (Or maybe he was just having a bad day. Unhappiness is such a complex maze of consciousness, I thought at the time.) Alvin was also sick with AIDS. 

Speaking of worn out (Black) bodies, I sat at the feet of Katherine Dunham in the late ’90s in East St. Louis. I can’t recall why I was in St. Louis but I do recall meeting her in her cultural center, a Black neighborhood community space, now her museum. She was in a wheelchair, in her mid-eighties, surrounded by a group of young Black women seemingly dressed from head to toe in colorful West African fabric. She was so beautiful. I sat at her feet because there were no free chairs in the space where she held court, goddess-like. Glowing.

She spoke about how near the end of her singing and dancing career she made sure her male partners were handsome and strong, could look good and hold her up while she performed, keep her from falling on her ass. And how no one in her Black and white audience could tell that she needed someone to prop her up.

I will pause here, with these few Black art giants that I've grown up with and their epic marks left behind, their indelible societal marks and how truly fragile was their corporeal placement, their power, their physically marked Black bodies. The work: its stealth-like message a weapon. The body: tangible and especially breakable. Maybe that's just human. But maybe not, maybe that’s just some of humanity.

Undivided existence.

I was in North Mississippi hill country, summer of 2002. I called it the Dancing and Dying Tour. Part counter-memorials at lynching sites (a few of the ones I could find). Part living room dances in the homes of surviving relatives of musicians who played post-antebellum Black music and or early acoustic blues… the mostly brilliant stuff that was fully-fledged, complete, needing nothing more of its existence before it was discovered, recorded and promoted by white ethnomusicologists early on.

Otha Turner (2002) ©Ralph Lemon
Otha Turner (2002) ©Ralph Lemon

In Como, dancing in the living room of Mrs. Mitchell, a cousin of the great Mississippi Fred McDowell, whose house sat on the concrete footprint of McDowell’s old house, I met Ruby Brown, niece of Otha Turner. This is some of what I wrote at the time:

“One of his (Mc Dowells’s) best friends, Uncle Otha, is still alive,” Ruby said, as we got back in the car. “Not far,” she said.

Ruby’s mother was raised by Otha Turner. The ninety-three-year-old master “fistes”(cane fife) musician—and a living link to rural blues and nineteenth century military fife-and-drum pre-blues music. Ruby guided us to his barely put together house and farm in Gravel Springs. When we arrived Otha was standing in his backyard, meditatively still, in faded overalls, thinking about something or not thinking at all. He looked at Ruby and barely recognized her but then did. And then he began to welcome us, a coded introduction part playful, part bored, part inspired, he told a few jokes, danced for few seconds, played his fife and sang a little…

Is this blues? I wondered, this improvised greeting. “There’s too many expectations with playin’ the guitar, audience wants to hear too much. With a fistes you only got two sounds. That’s it.” He put the tiny fife in his back pocket and spoke briefly of his dear friend “Mac,” Fred Mcdowell, how he slipped him a bottle of moonshine near the end when he shouldn’t have. But mostly he talked about how expensive goats are today, now that “White folks get how good they are to barbeque.” He said if he lived through next summer he’d have another big ol’ weekend barbeque, Family Goat Barbeque Picnic, on Labor Day weekend, another one just like the one coming up. “With dancing and foot stompin’ music you ain’t gone see or hear no where else.”

We stood around kicking up dirt, Otha sang a little more, for “Mac,” this time, “You got to move, You got to move, You got to move, child, You got to move, But when the Lord gets ready…,” we talked, laughed, and hopped about in his front yard till it got dark. Said our goodbyes. Otha enjoyed the interruption I think. And for a moment it had stopped being about research.1

Otha's music had much to do with white folk: this martial-blues music from the nineteenth-century military tradition, that brutal American war, devastation, freedom…

It also had nothing to do with white folk: a counter-balance in the way he played his 3-4 minute riffs, appearing and disappearing in his expanded beautiful old Black body, his expanded beautiful old Black life, his "aesthetic sociality of Blackness.”2A celebration. Nothing missing, absolutely nothing. He never threatened the way he lived his life by confiding in the larger frame, marching into its transformative trap. On the contrary, he expanded and enlightened the capacious space within. His was an ancestral frame and flame, organic, holding all the complex rest of the southern US, as well as everything else.

Otha never got to have that another big ol’ weekend barbeque. That summer barbeque was his last. He passed away six months later, February 2003. His ancient, reborn, and vanishing music effortlessly and meticulously passed on to his then-13-year-old granddaughter, Shardé Thomas.

I attended that final Mississippi hill country party, where there was no real distinction between performer and stage and audience, between when the music is there and when it’s not, stunningly present as it also becomes undone. Otha occasionally led his Rising Star Fife and Drum Band, his family, through the thick exotic international crowd, through the other brazenly raw hill country music and the goats, while also signing autographs. It was an event I won’t ever see anywhere else at any time. And one I won’t ever forget: the perfectly generous and tattered, falling apart Blackness of his inclusive large family picnic. Falling apart because it has to. The rudimentary principle that makes this Blackness so vital.

The crisis

For years I have tried being in the modernist frame, art space frame, theater/dance frame, while trying to mess with it, to mess it up with various degrees of success and mostly failure. And never has there been a moment where I thought the spaces failed to hold my little monsters. I of course helped these spaces keep it all together. All of it comfortably fitting within modern and or contemporary art, if experimental enough to have some folk walk out here and there. Ultimately, I've been polite in my troublemaking, I suspect. Careful. The equipoise of the spontaneity vs. control agreement. Too much love perhaps, or not enough. And the stakes for my messiness have never been explicitly life or death (but that may be changing in this pandemic.) Plus the obvious consequences of losing one's balance, misbehaving, escaping, being a runaway… completely changing the rules (which would be catastrophic and utterly necessary, an inversion of capitalism, given the Black body’s historical relationship to capital (space) and America. And other than the original Black Panther Party and MOVE of Philadelphia, confident anarchy seems uncommon to the American Black experience).

I have no real regrets. Life is good. But something is missing. I will keep trying, imagining, having faith in my inherited acting-out spirit. Or maybe I will just stop caring. Exhaustion is real.

Dear Fred, Adrienne, Thomas, Diane, Will, Kevin and Pope L,

I think we all know where to run with the proposed expansive locus(?). Wherever you want to of course. And/or finding your vehicle to get back to some imagined “outskirt,” to quote Fred. Or to the center of our inherited Black selves, whatever that is now? How do we translate Black power these days? Or Black imagination? Its relevance. Plus the very certain deadpan pandemic, where nature doesn't give a shit about anything we're thinking about, making nearly everything I'm thinking about, imagining, uncertain. Still, inheritance is something (from our different and alike privileged arrival/departure stations). It’s also rather dreamy and not so real, this center. As is the white modernist frame that has instigated the holding of the dream, as it possibly comes undone in this pandemic time, as it continues to dominate our Black creative selves. All of it an illusion (if a complex, pushy and seemingly deadly illusion). Getting through, abandoning this imagined frame, with its hyper-visible  platform and “inevitable limitations”3 to some other side (Blake's perception doorway), place, should be doable, with some awesome discipline, courage, sacrifice, language, and certain refusals. And once there (if lucky) then what? Another crisis.

Blackness cannot be indefinable at the moment, which is a great modern art problem for Black folk (and of course also a gift).

The prompt: Can we write about what we're each going to write about (a jam) as if there were no white folk in the room? The empathy of that.


  1. Ralph Lemon, Come Home Charlie Patton. Wesleyan University Press, 2013.
  2. Laura Harris, Experiments in Exile. Fordham University Press, 2018.
  3. Calvin Tompkins, Duchamp: A Biography. Henry Holt & Co,1996.


Ralph Lemon

Ralph Lemon is an artist, writer, and choreographer.


The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2020

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