Friday, September 2, 2011

I went to the Studio Museum in Harlem

Never Done: I went to the Studio Museum in Harlem

I am planning something at work that has to do with civil rights, and I've been looking around for interesting art/performance projects that relate. I noticed that there was an exhibit at the Studio Museum in Harlem of the Spiral Collective -- a New York–based collective of African-American artists that came together in the 1960s to discuss their relationship to the civil rights movement and the shifting landscape of American art, culture and politics. The show is up until October, and I knew I wanted to get up to see it.

I've been to Harlem many times, but I had never been to this museum. It's right on 125th Street, a couple blocks from the train -- super accessible. I must have walked past it before and just not noticed it -- which is hard to imagine, because it has a lovely street presence. But that has very little to do with my experience inside. I went with my coworker, who curates visual arts. It's a beautiful small museum. The man who worked the front desk was warm and welcoming. The galleries are behind a closed door that I got to open -- which felt a little Greek, like somehow I was Orpheus or something, and about to enter a cave. Only it wasn't a cave -- it was a sanctuary. A gallery. A broad room with art on the walls (duh) and a staircase up to an open loft second floor. There are two additional separate spaces -- one is a room to the left of the main gallery space, and the other is a smaller open gallery down a flight.

But why am I talking about the space? Let me jump right to the point. I GOT TO SEE TWO ORIGINAL ROMARE BEARDON COLLAGES. I do not think it would be an exaggeration to say that Romare Beardon is my favorite visual artist of all time. I love his work so much. It is complex, with huge vision and simultaneous attention to detail. It has startling depth -- and by that I don't mean intellectual or creative depth (it also has that but I don't find that startling) but actual visual canvas depth. Like you can look at a work and see deeper and deeper and deeper into it. Plunge in, even. Once I was at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston for the annual Spring show called Art in Bloom, in which garden clubs from across the state get to design works of art in floral arrangements, and display the floral arrangement near the work of art. The arrangements were, for the most part, beautiful and creative. But there was one of a Romare Beardon collage, and it was literally transcendent. One of my favorite books is called I Live In Music (you can click to look inside the book) which is a poem by Ntozake Shange, who might be my favorite poet of all times, illustrated by Beardon collages. (I have spent hours plunging into that book.)

So I got to see my favorite artist's work, and I got to see a bunch of other work by other artists I didn't know as well -- some of it was arresting, and all of it was important. You know what I mean by that? This collective was vitally important. I would like there to be a collective of visual artists as engaged in discussion about the artist's role in response to the contemporary civil rights movement. The art work is communicative. It was meant to generate discussion. It was completely linked to its time and place. Maybe I didn't love the actual work of art, but I loved the conversation it was meant to start.

When we had taken it all in we almost left, but then we thought -- wait, we are here -- why don't we step upstairs to see the work of the artists in residence? And as soon as we neared the top of the stairs, I saw that one of the artists is my friend Simone Leigh. Really? Just like that? The truth is, I'd seen her posts about her recent shows, but it hadn't sunk in to me when we headed up that this was where her show was. What's the lesson here? I should have paid closer attention to her invitations? Made a specific effort to get up there? Maybe yes, and maybe no. I do think that would have been valuable. But also, I think it's of some value that I got to happen onto her work (which is stunning by the way -- she creates sculptures out of ceramic -- not busts and bowls, but giant cowrie shells and hanging missiles that are really breasts but are really bullets) and take it in in relation to the work of the Spiral Collective, hung just below.

I think another lesson has to do with going off one's beaten path, and taking small adventures, going on small quests. Not long ago I got some Tibetan dumplings in Jackson Heights. It's not like it's hard to go to Jackson Heights. It's not like I don't ever go to Jackson Heights. It's just that I don't normally go to Jackson Heights -- but we live in a city where pretty much the point of living here is that there's so much here. So I am saying that ten years in this city, and never once going to the Studio Museum of Harlem (or the Guggenheim for that matter, which I also visited this year for the first time) is too long. And I am saying that with all that's behind doors around this city, it's good to push them open every now and then, and take little epic journeys.

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