Harlem Renaissance Renegade: Metropolitan Museum’s Over-Hyped, Underachieving “Blockbuster”

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In this DEIA-oriented era, I may incur censure by mildly disparaging The Harlem Renaissance and Transatlantic Modernism—an exhibition that, before its Feb. 25 public opening, had been prematurely hailed as “the Met’s new blockbuster,” in the words of artnet‘s Feb. 22 “Art Angle” podcast by the webzine’s art critic, Ben Davis, and art scholar Bridget Cooks, a member of the advisory committee for the Met’s show. (A friend of mine who attended a few days after the opening said it was well attended but not crowded.)

CultureGrrl‘s devoted readers know me to be a counterintuitive contrarian in assessing certain exhibitions where what I’m hearing doesn’t quite jibe with what I’m seeing. And so was it here: To me, the “Renaissance” revival—the first Met exhibition organized by the museum’s curator at large, Denise Murrell—was uneven in quality but had two standouts: Archibald Motley Jr. dominated the proceedings by the sheer number of examples (14 works, by my unofficial count), as well as by the collective impact of his lively, emotionally resonant depictions of vibrant city life in the Jazz Age.

Here’s one from the current show:

Archibald Motley Jr., “Black Belt,” 1934, Hampton University Museum Collection
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

CultureGrrl readers may remember “Black Belt” from my admiring review of the Whitney Museum’s 2015 Archibald Motley retrospective. That show was astutely assembled by Duke University professor Richard Powell (seen on the right in the photo below) and the Whitney’s then curator Carter Foster (below left). Powell also contributed to the Met’s podcast series for its current exhibition.

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum at the Whitney’s 2015 Archibald Motley press preview

Perusing the Met’s current show, I was stopped in my tracks by the transfixing star power of this portrait’s regal subject.

Laura Wheeler Waring, “Marian Anderson,” 1944, National Portrait Gallery, Washington
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

This painting has gained new luster and timeliness in light of last week’s announcement by the Philadelphia Orchestra that its concert hall will be renamed for Marian Anderson, the trailblazing contralto and civil rights icon, who famously performed at the Lincoln Memorial in 1939 after “the Daughters of the American Revolution withdrew their permission for her to sing at Constitution Hall” (in the words of the above-linked announcement).

But back to the controversy over the Met’s “blockbuster”: The museum director perhaps best known for blockbuster bluster—the late Thomas Hoving–devoted a 16-page chapter in his 1993 tell-all memoir, Making the Mummies Dance, to the 1969 “Harlem on My Mind” show (presented during his Met directorship), that had attracted high attendance but incurred a fierce critical drubbing. The controversy over that debacle (to which the current show is seen by some as a belated corrective) is now ascribed to its having been devoid of artworks. It came across as “a photomural-with-texts affair of a kind found in ethnology museums,” in the words of Holland Cotter‘s recent NY Times review of the current show.

But in Hoving’s retelling, there was another major misstep in that ill-fated exhibition, which has been completely overlooked in current accounts that I’ve seen of that long-ago controversy. In his “Mummies” book, Hoving noted that the principal essay in the “Harlem” show’s catalogue, “written by a young black woman, Candace Van Ellison, when she was a high school senior,…ended with the chilling statement: ‘One other important factor worth noting is that, psychologically, blacks may find that anti-Jewish sentiments place them, for once, within a majority. Thus our contempt for the Jew makes us feel more completely American in sharing a national prejudice.’” [!?!]

My copy of Tom Hoving’s 1993 recounting of his tumultuous years at the Met
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

More than eight years before the current show, Holland Cotter, art critic for the NY Times (then and now), did write about the antisemitic vibes of “Harlem on My Mind.” In What I Learned From a Disgraced Art Show on Harlem, his 2015 reconsideration of that late-’60s exhibition, Cotter wrote this about the show’s catalogue:

The main essay, chosen by Mr. [Allon] Schoener [the show’s curator], was a term paper written by a 17-year-old Harlem high school student and was laced with anti-Semitic slurs in the guise of sociology. These passages would have offended under any circumstances, but coming soon after the city’s black and Jewish communities had battled over control of public schools, they were incendiary.

Unsettling to me in the “Harlem Renaissance” show, in light of current sensibilities, were the repetitions in the Met’s wall text and labels of the now mostly abjured word, “Negro,” although that outmoded racial descriptor was appropriately, if jarringly, deployed in frequent historic references to “‘the New Negro’ movement.”

As described in the exhibition’s introductory wall text:

The “New Negro’ movement,” as the Harlem Renaissance was originally known (after influential writings by the philosopher Alain Locke and others), visualized the modern Black subject. It reveals the extensive connections between these artists and the period’s preeminent writers, performers, and civic leaders. At the same time, it reconstructs cross-cultural affinities and exchanges [emphasis added] among the New Negro artists and their modernist peers in Europe and across the Atlantic world, often established during international travel and expatriation.

Winold Reiss, “Alain Leroy Locke,” 1925, National Portrait Gallery, Washington, DC, as shown in the Met’s current show
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Some of those “cross-cultural affinities,” as illustrated in the Met’s exhibition, were, to me, uncompelling and unconvincing. There were forced pairings of unfamiliar Harlem Renaissance works with renowned European modernists—works that seemed to have few “affinities,” other than a similar venue (i.e., Paris, where many Harlem Renaissance artists soujourned) or similar poses, as in these two, which seem to have little to say to each other in style or impact:

L: Nola Hatterman, “Louis Richard Drenthe on the Terrace,” 1930, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam
R: Matisse,” Woman in White,” 1946, Des Moines Art Center
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

That said, I can see why the two below resonated with each other stylistically, even though Soutine, a French Jew born in Lithuania, was (to the best of my knowledge) not connected to the Harlem Renaissance:

L: William Henry Johnson, “Old House at Porte,” oil on burlap (?!?), ca. 1927, Smithsonian American Art Museum
R: Chaim Soutine, “View of Cagnes,” ca.1924-25, Metropolitan Museum
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

“Woke” to the point of insomnia, the NY Times ran not one but two major articles on successive days, extolling the Met’s show, prior to its opening. In his Times-first appraisal, scoop-beneficiary Holland Cotter noted that the Met’s “first exhibition devoted to African American culture” (“Harlem on My Mine”) was “slammed by pushback.” That said, he gave a very incomplete accounting what that “pushback” had entailed. As I noted above (regarding the eyebrow-raising catalogue essay), the objections weren’t just a protest against the paucity of artworks in “Harlem on My Mind” (as put down in Cotter’s Feb. 19 piece).

Also questionable was the inclusion of works created outside the time frame of the Harlem Renaissance (roughly from the 1920s to 1940s). The show’s 1971 “Coda,” below, while a lively depiction of Harlem life, clearly ignores “Renaissance’s” time period. Its label’s flimsy justification for its inclusion in the show is that the painting represents “Romare Bearden’s tribute to Harlem as he knew it in the decades immediately following the Harlem Renaissance. Each of the six panels presents an aspect of life that resonates with the portrayals of the neighborhood made decades earlier by Harlem Renaissance artists, from the evangelical church, barbershop, and corner grocery store to the processionals, children at play, and private moments glimpsed through windows.” [Emphases added.]

Clearly, that’s fudging. Nevertheless, I greatly enjoyed the opportunity to savor this multifaceted slice of uptown life:

Romare Bearden, “The Block,” 1971, Metropolitan Museum
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Another aspect of the Met’s show that I relished (but that no one whom I observed at the press preview seemed to be taking full advantage of) was the in-gallery streaming of music-and-dance numbers by legendary luminaries. You have to gaze upwards to see the videos, but you must also use your smartphone to scan the QR codes on the labels to get the full experience, which includes not just the visuals but also the music accompanying the movement. Otherwise, you’re left with a silent movie.

Don’t miss the stellar performances of Duke Ellington at the Cotton Club, Cab Calloway, and especially, Josephine Baker at the Folies Bergère!

Would that the Met had also included a video of Marian Anderson’s moving Lincoln Memorial performance.

For more information (but less entertainment value), come join me (via my CultureGrrl
, taken at the show’s press preview), to hear Met director Max Hollein, Ford Foundation president Darren Walker and Met curator-at-large Denise Murrell expound upon the glories of “Harlem Renaissance”:

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