MOCA’s “Blues for Smoke” isn’t what you think it is. It’s not a Geffen-sized history of how a musical genre influenced visual art. Should you expect that, you’ll be puzzled that much of the art is about the blues and a lot isn’t; some dates from Billie Holliday’s time and some is from last year; most is by African-Americans and some isn’t.
“Blues for Smoke” is really about the tragic dimensions of African-American life and a certain way of coping with that; and how that sensibility influenced creative media ranging from abstract painting to TV’s The Wire (right). Look at it that way, and it all makes sense. There’s no more mission creep than in the usual group show.
Organized by MOCA’s Bennett Simpson, with help by Glenn Ligon, “Blues for Smoke” shows a number of mid-century African-American greats who are just about never seen in L.A. museums. The roster includes Edward Clark, Beauford Delaney, Jeff Donaldson, Melvin Edwards, Barkley Hendricks, Senga Nengudi, Alma Thomas, Bob Thompson, and Jack Whitten. Below is Whitten’s Black Table Setting [Homage to Duke Ellington], a 1974 squeegee abstraction anticipating Gerhard Richter.
Most of the above are represented with a single work only. Exceptions are sculptor Edwards and painter Delaney, who gets a wall of literary and musical portraits—James Baldwin, Jean Genet, Charlie Parker—and a single abstraction.
Another painter, Jeff Donaldson, ought to be much better known. Born in Arkansas, he moved to Chicago and co-founded the AfriCOBRA movement. MOCA is showing one of his best-known works, JamPact JelliTite (for Jamila) (top of post, 1988). It’s jazz musicians rendered as abstractions—something like Picasso’s Three Musicians except for the abiding sense of horror vaccui. Donaldson looks way back, before Picasso, to Louis Wain’s psycho-ward cats and way forward to Benoit Mandelbrot’s fractals. There are comparisons to Gustav Klimt, Aaron Douglas, Lee Mullican, and Italian Futurism.
More to the point is Afrofuturism, the cultural movement that transmutes the diaspora’s hardships into a goof on the oppressor’s technocrat wet dream of science fiction. Afrofuturism is more of a parallel development to the blues than it might appear. It’s a musical movement too, most widely known via Sun Ra and George Clinton. “Blues for Smoke” has a video of SF writer Samuel Delaney and Space Is the Place, Sun Ra’s 1974 cinematic vehicle. Sun Ra lands his spaceship in Oakland and plays a Bergmanesque card game to determine the fate of the black race. It’s a very alternative 2001: A Space Odyssey, filmed on the same soundstage as the porn film Behind the Green Door.
For all the Deitch-doomsday talk, MOCA is ending the Mayan calendar with a bang (see also “Destroy the Picture”). The museum keeps collecting, too. “Blues for Smoke” displays major new acquisitions by William Pope.L and Henry Taylor. Below is Taylor’s 23-foot-wide Warning Shots Not Required, shown earlier this year at PS1.