Even among the many seismic shifts in New York’s art world over the past seventy years, legendary gallerist Linda Goode Bryant stands out. Founder of Just Above Midtown or Jam, the historic gallery that played host to an incredible range of artists of color from 1974 to 1986, Good Bryant established what he calls a “laboratory”—a single space where an artist’s meaning and intent can be expressed with and without intellectual freedom. Commercial intervention, a down-home, performance art rather than narrative, make yourself for event and conceptual—read: ideological-art. And what art! David Hammons, Howardena Pindell, Lauren O’Grady, Senga Nengudi and Lorna Simpson among others had their first notable New York exhibition. Jamwhile volunteers such as critic Greg Tate and historian and curator Lori Stokes Sims manned the phones.
If you think the New York art world is now segregated—and so imagine what it was like when then-twenty-five-year-old Goode Bryant planned to challenge the white gallery world by exhibiting unconventional works by black artists. . In a very lively conversation Goode Bryant has with Thelma Golden, director of Harlem’s Studio Museum, in her catalog “Just Above Midtown: Changing Spaces” (through Feb. 18 at the Museum of Modern Art), she says that she “representational work, which I call ‘red-green -black’ or ‘black-woman-nursing-child’ art because they were common elements” were not interested in, which were being shown in other alternative spaces in New York in the seventies. Although he considered himself a black nationalist, he did not care for the aesthetic of works created during the Black Arts movement by poet Imamu Amiri Baraka (Leroy Jones) after the death of Malcolm X in 1965. And in troubled times, Baraka and others championed black art for black audiences. Good Bryant had different ideas about the Black community, or more specifically, how to represent it: instead of treating it as something can Represented as a whole, he exhibits each work as the product of a unique spirit. Blackness was part of who the artist was.
When Goode Bryant, a single mother who worked at the Studio Museum in Harlem, began Jam In its first space, on West Fiftieth Street—he borrowed four thousand dollars to get it up and running—he was very conscious of how different he wanted it to be from other art spaces. As he told Golden, “In terms of the black community, there was an intense debate between artists doing representational art and non-representational work over the definition of black art.” A JamHowever, this argument dissolves. Good Bryant said, “The cross-fertilization of the seven-hundred-square-foot space was amazing because every part of the black community came. “Whatever their motivations for coming, they’ve identified, professionally or creatively, that those differences are starting to break down.”
A Jam, there was no Jacob Lawrence or Romare Bearden, no artists who spoke of struggle and progress in the agrarian or urban black world; Instead, there was David Hammons’ gimmicky universe – a visual equivalent of Richard Pryor’s jokes-as-the-only-truth. Hammons was originally based in Los Angeles, and for his first solo show in New York, he told Good Bryant that, instead of hanging body prints already bought by West Coast collectors, he would show a new work. Called “Gracie Bag and Barbecue Bones” (1975), the piece features shopping bags stained with vegetable oil and pork grease, black hair, and metal sculptures. “Greasy Bag” caused a sensation, as its unorthodox mediums drew a clear line between what black art was and what it could be. Thomas Jean Lax, the brilliant curator of “Just Above Midtown: Changing Spaces,” writes in the catalog, “At the exhibition’s opening, several painters were outraged by Hammons’s iconoclastic materials—sourced from black barbershops and supermarkets. An art supply store—and a spirited debate about their artistic validity ensued.” How can you make or show art without being as Siddiqui as white Europeans? Addressing issues of commodification and the art market—how can you sell this work? Who’s the pig? Want to buy a bag stained with meat grease?—Hammons and Good Bryant make a powerful statement about the effects of capital and how it distorts what we see.
Part of “Just Above Midtown: Changing Spaces” is that it’s mounted at a time when the art market can’t commodify black art and artists fast enough. How devastating, then, to find past-specific notices plastered on a wall in one of the show’s corridors, which Good Bryant found while trying to keep his gallery afloat, or a letter from Senga Nengudi asking Good Bryant for a letter. Support so she can get an American Express card. Good Bryant was able to keep up in the years Jam Going, he was almost always broke: there was no market for ideas, especially if those ideas were expressed by black artists. People were hungry Jam, but Bryant could not and would not pay them. Lax’s exhibit will shake you out of your complacency—you’re here MoMAAnd now everything is fine; Jam Not to be forgotten, and the art market has made stars of Nengudi and other artists – reminding you again and again that if there is a black aesthetic, it must be done, and that you have to use whatever little you have to express who you are.
The making-do aesthetic was popularized by white artists, including Robert Rauschenberg, who was revived by the Italian Arte Povera movement, which advocated the use of man-made detritus to create art—thereby destabilizing market notions of “fine art” and thus commerce. makes From the fifties, Rauschenberg often used what he found on the street—cardboard, tires, and the like—to create sculptures and collages of the imaginary, the personal, the abstract, and the real. A measure of how racially divided the art world was were black artists such as Houston Conwill, whose 1978 Jam The piece, “Notes of a Griot,” is primarily made of dirt, sand, and stone, and is inspired by Randy Williams, whose beautiful 1977 Cubist sculpture, “L’Art Abstract” (also featured in Jam), was made of a lottery ticket, a book cover and wood, had to wait so long to find a wider audience.
“Just Above Midtown: Shifting Places” takes up a little over five thousand square feet, not big MoMA Value, but Lax makes the most of it; The show is densely and beautifully hung, ephemeral next to video, sculpture next to documentary performance photographs, each piece jumping out at you, full of youth and wonder. And part of the joy you feel walking through the exhibit is how artists like Daoud Bey and the late Camille Billops tried to record what has rarely been recorded: the lives of black artists. And how those lives mattered, not just to Good Bryant but to others as well. In the catalog, there are striking photographs of black powerhouses like Stevie Wonder and Roberta Flack (who financed a show Jam) stop by the gallery to interact with the work.
The stories told by Good Bryant and his artists are brilliantly alive here. Lax has broken down the alternately curved and open spaces chronologically, for you to follow along Jam As it moves from midtown to downtown. Finally, you get Janet Olivia Henry’s piece “The Studio Visit” (1982), which was shown when the gallery was at 178-80 Franklin Street. This is a mixed-media piece featuring two dolls. One, “Curator”, is white (and made from a puppet like Spanky from the comedy “Our Gang”). The other, the “artist,” is Kalo (a puppet representing Lt. Uhura from “Star Trek”). The black doll sits next to the white curator, who is holding a frame and surveying several paintings. You want to laugh, but at the same time you remember those artist friends who told you before the black art world flourished that a gallery would sign them if they agreed to, say, use more blue. They are more than painted red. Elsewhere, you’ll find a haunting and hilarious photographic display of images of Lauren O’Grady’s appearance at a party held here Jam In 1980, where he inhabits a character named Mle. Bourgeois noir Black-and-white photographs show O’Grady in a sort of cotillion costume made of gloves. In one, he stands next to the great Maren Hassinger’s wall piece, a delicate frieze of galvanized steel rods. Instead of holding a bouquet of flowers, O’Grady is a cat-o’-nine-tails, with flowers attached to it. In other photographs, we see him whipping himself with it. What is the price of standardized forms of beauty?, the work seems to ask. And what is your reward for accepting them? Self-flagellation?