It might seem like a year lost to racism, bigotry, transphobia and religious intolerance, and in the political realm, it largely was. But if you saw this country through the prism of its art and architecture, you’d see something else — not a nation free of sin, but a vigorous web of countercultures creating new narratives of our past and present. As the reclamation of history from the old monoculture of white patriarchy advances into institutional settings, as mainstream museums become not only intellectually aware of exclusion, but actively committed to changing their old habits, something new is accumulating. It’s not just that there are once-neglected artists finally getting recognition, but there is the possibility of seeing the broader patterns of exclusion, and the connections between artists, ideas and historical events that constitute new histories and narratives.
The most significant new memorial to open in this country since Maya Lin’s 1982 Vietnam Veterans Memorial arrived in April, when the National Memorial for Peace and Justice opened in Montgomery, Ala. Conceived by Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative, the memorial and accompanying museum honor the victims of this country’s shameful history of racially motivated mob violence and extrajudicial murder. Set atop a hill in the city that helped birth the civil rights movement, it is a somber pergola of hanging, coffinlike forms, each one representing the victims of lynchings in single county. The counties add up, and thus the victims add up, and yet this national shame is represented in terms of its local guilt, impact and suffering.
The effect is overwhelming, the design is compelling, and the history it recoups is essential and deeply woven into contemporary cultural awareness. When a candidate for the Senate in Mississippi said to a supporter, “If he invited me to a public hanging, I’d be on the front row,” the remark was heard with anger, fear and alarm in precisely those communities that remain most deeply touched by the crimes this memorial condemns. This is a monument not just to the past, but to living history.
Earlier in the year, the Crystal Bridges Museum in Arkansas opened an exhibition, seen previously at the Tate in London, called “Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power.” It brought together galleries of powerful work by artists who all too often are considered merely to be political activists. It grappled with the idea of anger and identity and connected the mood and motivation of artists in the 1960s to the longer arc of American and African American history. One work captured the ambition and triumph of the show, Elizabeth Catlett’s 1968 “Black Unity,” which from one side presents the clenched fist of the black power salute, and from the other shows two faces, captured together in an intimate gesture.
The persistence of culture throughout the traumas inflicted by the worst of this country’s racism and nationalism was evident in two other significant exhibitions. At the National Museum of the American Indian, curators are rethinking the museum’s permanent and long-term exhibitions, and in January they opened an exhibition called simply “Americans.” In the central gallery, from floor to ceiling, the walls are filled with objects representing the strange way in which this country’s native population has been both present, and absent, at the same time, appearing as sports mascots, in advertisements, in the branding of consumer products and as a recurring source of names for our military hardware. The exhibition breaks new ground because it is unflinching in its taxonomy of uses and abuses of native identity, and of how repurposing images of Indians could be both racist and aspirational, dismissive and idealizing. It dealt with painful and complex history forthrightly.
A compelling exhibition of the work of African American artist Bill Traylor at the Smithsonian Museum of American Art touched on some of the same ideas in resolutely personal terms. Traylor is often classified as an “outsider” or “naive” artist, but by bringing together more than 150 of his drawings and paintings, it also presented him as a documentarian, an artist born in slavery who left behind a visual record and a personal testament to his life and times. Among the most haunting images: a scaffold.
The idea of anger as an organizing category, as a way of compartmentalizing and delimiting an artist’s work, was a powerful part of the major David Wojnarowicz exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. Wojnarowicz was a pioneering gay artist in the 1970s and 80s, and, like so many artists of his generation, fell victim to AIDS. Since his death, homophobes have seized upon Wojnarowicz’s trenchant criticism of anti-gay bigotry, the Catholic Church and Reagan-era social callousness, making him an avatar of impotent rage. This exhibition dismantled all of that, revealing a multifaceted and richly talented figure who was intellectually and visually restless and inventive. It left one with a sense of his character, which was more than capable of righteous anger, but never consumed by it.
At the National Gallery of Art, a retrospective of the work of Rachel Whiteread, a British artist who has consistently probed at the spaces between things, the absences and inverses of the familiar world, offered a kind of metaphorical counterpoint to more politically focused shows. Early in her career, Whiteread started exploring the space under chairs, beneath household items such as mattresses, and inside and around bathtubs. She created casts of entire rooms, which offered a curious invitation to the viewer: Imagine oneself on the outside, somehow hidden in the walls, looking into this inverted space. By extension, her work helps you grope toward the possibility of imagining the world without you in it. That mental dexterity might well be part of how we rethink the larger issues of absences and voids in our world. What would America look like if those who were so often absent were present, and those who have always been present spent more time looking in from the outside?