Recent conference travel allowed me to spend a few days in New York City for a round of gallery and museum visits. There were several exhibitions, some of them at large mainstream museums such as the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and the Metropolitan, that were directly relevant to my interests as an art historian specialized in the Caribbean and that was the focus of my itinerary.
That there was so much to see relevant to the Caribbean at mainstream NYC institutions reflects the changes that are taking place in the museum and gallery world up north, which has been forced to embrace a more inclusive and diverse approach to what it shows, and how it does so, urged by the Black Lives Matter and decolonial movements. It is a work in progress, with efforts that sometimes appear to be overly remedial and conflicted, but it already has major consequences for how museums and other such cultural institutions are governed, staffed, and operated, and how they serve, and are viewed and held to account by their audiences and stakeholders.
We should not forget, however, that the present transformative moment builds on previous moments of cultural agitation and questioning. The latter is one of the subtexts of the Just Above Midtown: Changing Spaces exhibition at MoMA, which tells the story of the Just Above Midtown Gallery, more commonly known as JAM, a pioneering and highly influential NYC gallery which focuses on the work of Black experimental artists.
JAM opened in 1974 at 50 West 57th Street, a location which gave the gallery its name, but which was then the province of mainstream and, by implication, White galleries. A quote from JAM founder, Linda Goode Bryant, which is on the wall in the exhibition entrance states: “Let’s just do it ourselves”. JAM, indeed, amounted to making and claiming space for Black artists in what was, then, a highly exclusionary environment. Bryant explained, in an interview that was quoted in a 6 April 2021 ARTnews article by Alex Greenberger: “Primarily it was about allowing African American artists to function on the same platform equal to their white counterparts. To have been in Harlem or Bedford-Stuyvesant would not have afforded that. It was to get consideration in the context of the larger art world”.
JAM was one of several pioneering initiatives that claimed space for Black and Latinx artists in NYC at that time. Others were the Studio Museum in Harlem, which was established as a museum and artist residency facility focused on artists of African descent in 1968, and El Museo del Barrio, which opened in 1969, New York, to provide exposure to Puerto Rican (or Nuyorican) artists. What made JAM different is that it provocatively claimed space in the “belly of the beast”. There were also other ideological differences and, while the exhibitions and programmes at JAM were very diverse, it resisted a particular kind of prescribed, narrowly defined lackness, and, crucially, opened its doors to innovative conceptual and performative approaches.
Although there were efforts to cultivate a Black collectors base, JAM was far more than a space to show and sell art and the gallery became a non-profit in 1975. As the lead curator of Just Above Midtown: Changing Spaces, Thomas J. Lax said in an interview that is also quoted in the earlier-mentioned ARTnews article, “it was creating a space for Black folks to experiment, to not know, to be uncertain”. The experimentation was highly generative and helped to launch the careers of now well-recognized contemporary artists such as David Hammons, Howardena Pindell, Lorraine O’Grady, and Senga Nengudi. It was an energetic community of creatives, which brought together people who worked in various other cultural disciplines, such as music, theatre and dance, resulting in fertile collaborations.
JAM operated on a shoestring budget, with significant voluntary involvement (which included Lowry Stokes Sims, no stranger to Jamaica), and incurred significant debts over time. The gallery, which operated from three major locations during its years of existence, was evicted from each, ultimately resulting in its closure in 1986 (although some programming was maintained until 1989). The Just Above Midtown exhibition also documents the financial struggles, and there is a wall with a poignant collage of unpaid bills and overdue notices. That there was irony in having the JAM exhibition at MoMA, a museum that has served as the generously funded epitome of the (White) art establishment that JAM sought to challenge, was not lost on its organizers and is actually acknowledged. The lead interview in the accompanying catalogue, between Bryant and Thelma Golden, the Director and Chief Curator of the Studio Museum in Harlem (which is a partner in the exhibition and catalogue publication), is titled Can JAM be JAM at MoMA?
The exhibition is more crowded than most exhibitions at MoMA, mixing works of art and a large amount of documentary material, organized chronologically over three gallery spaces, each one focused on one of the three main venues JAM had occupied. Some have suggested that it needed more space, and by implication that MoMA did not allocate enough space, but I rather liked the somewhat disorderly curatorial din. The result is a very immersive exhibition experience and a rich archive, which effectively captures the energy and cross-fertilization of JAM. Perhaps JAM can be JAM at MoMA after all, courtesy of the sort of sensitive, thorough, impeccably self-reflexive curatorship Lax, Bryant and the other members of the exhibition team have brought to the project.
Caribbean artists, and artists with Caribbean connections, have been active participants in the African American art scene and this was also the case at JAM. Lorraine O’Grady is of Jamaican parentage and Fred Wilson, whose parents were from St Vincent, was also a regular presence at JAM. Mallica “Kapo” Reynolds had an exhibition there in 1975, which was presented by Roberta Flack, one of Kapo’s most avid supporters. The Kapo exhibition was followed by David Boxer’s first international solo exhibition, also in 1975. The young Albert Chong, to cite another Caribbean connection, had a solo exhibition there in 1983. It was particularly moving for me to see Kapo’s work in the exhibition, in which he is represented by a portrait of Roberta Flack, and the larger painting There She Go Satan (1974) from the National Gallery of Jamaica’s Larry Wirth Collection. I am used to seeing the latter work in our National Gallery’s Kapo Galleries, where it is surrounded by many other Kapo works, but at MoMA this extraordinary work really shone as what was, at least to me, one of the highlights of the exhibition.
MoMA is usually known as the bastion of American high modernism, and of artistic Whiteness, but the museum does in fact have a more diverse history. It for instance actively included Latin American and Caribbean art, and the work of self-taught artist during its early years in the 1930s and 40s – a history it is now revisiting as its exhibitions and acquisitions are becoming more inclusive. The founding director of MoMA Alfred H. Barr Jr. and his successor René d’Harnancourt had an active relationship with the early Centre d’Art in Haiti, resulting in the acquisition of several Haitian works, and were advised by the Cuban art critic and curator José Gomez Sicre. Early acquisitions and exhibitions programmes also included work from Mexico, Cuba, and elsewhere in the Caribbean and Latin America. The Cuban artist Wifredo Lam’s famous The Jungle (1943), for instance, was acquired in 1945 and while the painting had mixed fortunes at MoMA, notoriously hanging in a marginal location near the entrance to the coat room in the 1980s, it is now recognized as a key work in the permanent collection.
Just Above Midtown: Changing Spaces continues at MoMA until February 18, 2023.
Dr Veerle Poupeye is an art historian specialized in art from the Caribbean. She works as an independent curator, writer, researcher, and cultural consultant. The second, revised and expanded edition of her best-known book “Caribbean Art” was recently published in the World of Art series of Thames and Hudson. Her personal blog can be found at veerlepoupeye.com.