New HBO Documentary Connects Black Art’s Rich History and Vibrant Present

Gabrielle Bruney
Feb 5, 2021 9:01PM

Kerry James Marshall, Untitled (Studio), 2014. Courtesy of the artist and HBO.

In the catalogue for his 1976 show “Two Centuries of Black American Art,” professor David Driskell wrote: “It is the aim of this exhibition to make available a more accurate compendium of a body of work that should never have been kept a separate entity.” First mounted at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the show offered a comprehensive examination of the history of Black art in the United States since 1750. It was the first major exhibition ever to do so, and would become a landmark moment in Black art history.

Driskell, an artist and professor at the University of Maryland, died last year at the age of 88 due to COVID-19. But before his death, Driskell was interviewed for the new film Black Art: In the Absence of Light, which debuts on HBO on February 9th. The documentary, directed by acclaimed filmmaker Sam Pollard, examines Black art by placing “Two Centuries” at the very center of its narrative, and showcasing the depth and diversity of America’s Black art traditions.

Fred Wilson
Iago's Desdemona, 2013
Pace Gallery

Pollard is no stranger to studying Black cultural production. The filmmaker, who directed the Oscar-buzz-generating new documentary MLK/FBI (2020), has also created documentaries about luminaries including Zora Neale Hurston, August Wilson, and Marvin Gaye. Black Art counts among its producers famed historian Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Studio Museum in Harlem director and chief curator Thelma Golden, who gave Pollard the idea to anchor the film around “Two Centuries.” The film features interviews with leading contemporary artists including Kerry James Marshall, Faith Ringgold, Kara Walker, Fred Wilson, and Jordan Casteel.

Pollard recalled that his first meeting with Driskell was formative. “He was talking about the exhibit, how it came about, how he curated, representing all these African American artists—Selma Burke, Elizabeth Catlett, Romare Bearden, Jacob Lawrence,” Pollard said. “And after I had that meeting with him, I felt that Thelma was right. This was the best way to tell that story.”

Driskell’s groundbreaking exhibition—which traveled to the Brooklyn Museum, the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts, and Atlanta’s High Museum—featured works by 63 artists ranging across mediums, styles, and centuries. It attracted record-setting crowds. Yet “Two Centuries” received a tepid reception from some institutions and critics. Museums in Detroit and Chicago turned it down. “If there is something that can legitimately be described as ‘a black esthetic’ in the visual arts in this country,” grumbled one New York Times reviewer, “Professor Driskell has yet to tell us or show us what it is.” But the aesthetic diversity that this critic failed to appreciate was in fact at the heart of the show’s strength—it employed “Black art” as a significant social category without insisting upon a monolithic Black artistic style. Despite the fact that the exhibition featured works created over a span of more than 200 years, the “Two Centuries” in its title gave the 1976 show a tie to the nation’s bicentennial, positioning Black artists among the foundational Americans in a subtly patriotic claim.

Black Art also examines two other landmark exhibitions: the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 1969 show “Harlem on My Mind,” and the Thelma Golden–curated 1994 Whitney exhibition “Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary American Art.”

Gordon Parks
The Invisible Man, Harlem, New York, 1952
Jenkins Johnson Gallery

“Harlem on My Mind” looked at the history of the celebrated Black New York neighborhood not through the creations of its many painters and sculptors, but through street photography and video—mediums that, at the time, were not widely seen as fine art practices in keeping with the Met’s usual standards. Few Black photographers were included, however, most notably Gordon Parks and James Van Der Zee. Pollard, a Harlem native who grew up immersed in the works of Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes, remembers seeing Van Der Zee’s works at the exhibition. His portraits “reminded me of pictures I had seen as a young man,” Pollard said, “of my uncle and my father, in that same kind of setting.”

But Van Der Zee’s inclusion was the exception. “Harlem on My Mind” was organized by white curators at a white institution, and the Black art community’s efforts to have more of their work included in the show were ignored. The exhibition struck a tone that seemed to many Black artists more anthropological than artistic: One installation featured a closed-circuit television that broadcasted the activity at a Harlem intersection, taking the tradition of white cultural tourism in the neighborhood to novel new heights. Artists including Ringgold and Romare Bearden protested the exhibition. The resulting controversy—which is documented in Bridget R. Cooks’s book Exhibiting Blackness: African Americans and the American Art Museum (2011)—sparked organizing within the Black art community that produced new showcases for artists and paved the way for “Two Centuries.”

Amy Sherald, Pythagore, 2016. Courtesy of the artist and HBO.

Kerry James Marshall, Untitled (Club Couple), 2014. Courtesy of the artist and HBO.

Black Art also profiles artists and collectives. The film examines the work of the pioneering 1960s Black art and activist collective Spiral, and features interviews with landscape painter, Spiral member, and “Two Centuries” participant Richard Mayhew. Pollard couldn’t secure interviews with all of the artists he sought out (“I won’t name names, but some turned me down”), but the film features memorable interviews with figures like Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald, who discuss their iconic portraits of the Obamas. Kerry James Marshall describes the influence of Betye Saar’s assemblage works on his painting—and Saar, in turn, describes Marshall’s time as one of her students. Ringgold, interviewed alongside her daughter, feminist critic Michele Wallace, describes the sexism that she faced from Bearden during a thwarted attempt to join Spiral, which had admitted only one woman, painter Emma Amos, to the group. “Talk about gender inequality,” said Pollard. “Whew.” The film is not only a historical overview, but an astounding compendium of Black artists talking about their work and one another.

The film also doesn’t neglect the significance of Black institutions and collectors, and highlights the importance of historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) in nurturing and promoting talent. Driskell, for example, was a Howard alum mentored by the famed artist and historian James Porter, a father of African American art history studies, and was a professor at Fisk when he curated “Two Centuries.”

“We have to be able to straddle both worlds,” said Pollard. “We can’t, all of a sudden, say, ‘We’ve been accepted into the mainstream institution. Let’s forget about the HBCUs.’ And at the same point, we don’t want to say, ‘We’re just going to stay with the HBCUs, and let’s forget about the mainstream institutions.’ Someone like Radcliffe Bailey in Atlanta, he knows how to do it. Amy Sherald, she came out of the Atlanta colleges. She knows how to do it.”

Black Art ends with a discussion that’s very true to this particular moment: What does it mean to be a Black artist during a boom in interest in Black art? How should creators manage the opportunities this era brings, with the knowledge that increased white attention can be both fickle and troubling? “If blackness has something to do with the absence of light, does Black art mean that sometimes I’m making when no one’s looking? For the most part, that has been the truth of our lives,” artist and urbanist Theaster Gates says in the film. “I don’t want to work only when the light comes on…that makes us codependent upon a thing that we don’t control.”

Braving cultural shifts is something that Pollard has had personal experience with during his own career in the arts. “There’s always these hot moments, where Black is in,” he said. “I’ve seen it happen in the film industry, and I’ve been around too long to feel like it’s going to stick. It’s going to ebb and flow, like it always does.” To weather the tide, “we just don’t stop,” Pollard said. “We’re not worried about trends. We’re just trying to make good work.”

Gabrielle Bruney