Blues for Smoke: An interview with Bennett Simpson

by Ingrid Calame
Date Published: May 16, 2013
Zoe Leonard <i>1961</i>, 2002 - ongoing. Blue suitcases, Dimensions variable. Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Gisela Capitain, Cologne, Germany. Photo by Bill Jacobson.

Zoe Leonard 1961, 2002 – ongoing. Blue suitcases, Dimensions variable. Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Gisela Capitain, Cologne, Germany. Photo by Bill Jacobson.

Walking into “Blues for Smoke,” curated by Bennett Simpson at the MOCA Geffen, was like walking into a logically and radically inclusive dream of culture. Titled after the Jaki Byard tune of the same name, it riffs and delves into what the blues is. From classic blues like Robert Johnson to experimental blues like the Art Ensemble of Chicago, we hear the blues, see the blues, and experience the blues as a structural influence on visual artists, filmmakers, writers, and popular culture.

With “Blues for Smoke,” Simpson created a place of open investigation, questioning, scholarship, and acceptance in which I had a profound experience. Positioning and examining the blues as a great intellectual movement, he brought examples of its effect on all types of artists—black and white, conceptual and abstract, gay and straight, historical and contemporary. Jarring the usual associations created by art history and culture, he created new links between works through the lens of the form and content of the blues: David Hammons with Zoe Leonard, Lorraine O’Grady with Liz Larner, Rodney McMillian with Roy DeCarava, Romare Bearden with Mark Morrisroe, Rachel Harrison with Jimmie Durham.

I felt the factions of my own life and identity gathered. My interracial family and the prejudice within, my bisexuality, and my adult and child self all felt reflected here. The question “How does history get written?” was for me personal and urgent. I wanted to talk with Simpson from the place where the show hit me, which is my heart. I was curious about his background as well as the intellectual journey that he has taken with this visual, auditory, and written net of connections.

INGRID CALAME: What did you set out to do in “Blues for Smoke”?

BENNETT SIMPSON: Well, I guess I could say that I set out to recognize “the blues” as a potent and contradictory field of culture—one that could be relevant to the present moment rather than existing, as is often the case, as a kind of relic. I set out to let the blues be a trigger, or maybe an envelope, for thinking about contemporary art. What kinds of conversations or discourses could the blues enable for us today? That was sort of the opening question. I have my answers, for sure: things like the unstable condition of identity politics in recent art; certain formal contexts in relation to social content; a poetics of everyday experience; problems of persona, self-visibility, self-deferral.

It also felt important to recognize the blues, as a legacy of African-American aesthetic life, within the central, mediating space of the big contemporary art museum. To recognize the blues as potentially central to art rather than as marginal. To say that the blues can direct us towards the major issues. It is often the case that exhibitions focusing on race or gender end up being simply affirmative or celebratory yes, we exist. It seemed necessary to avoid that by letting identity issues push the conversation into other spaces. To embrace the complication and heterogeneity.

Installation view of "Blues for Smoke" at The Geffen Contemporary at MOCA, October 21, 2012-January 7, 2013. Photo by Brian Forrest.

Installation view of “Blues for Smoke” at The Geffen Contemporary at MOCA, October 21, 2012-January 7, 2013. Photo by Brian Forrest.

IC: Part of what moved me about this show was your trust of the audience. You didn’t try to sum it up for us. You left so many questions open.

BS: I think it’s difficult to talk about trusting the audience because I don’t know who the audience is.

IC: But you didn’t try to second-guess us.

BS: Right, no, I can’t do that, because art is not about that. Art is about what artists do and what artists make. And artists don’t make art for the audience. They make art for themselves, for history, or for culture. They don’t make art for those people that might come to see it one day in a museum. So it’s not that I trusted the audience; I trusted the artists. I trusted that what they would say would be true in some way. And if it wasn’t true, then I didn’t want it in the show. As a curator, if you don’t trust the artist, first, you’re doing a disservice to the audience. If you trust the artist and the artist trusts you, then the audience will follow. Now, there’s a lot of art out there that the audience will never get. Some of it is just because it’s not gettable; it’s not good; it doesn’t know how to communicate. And some of it’s really difficult and challenging, and only smaller groups of people will get it. But I think everybody in some way has some feel for the blues. The blues is a kind of cultural idea, and it exists out there independent of both art and the museum. It’s big enough and common enough that people could come to the show with some sense of it. Even if they don’t necessarily have the words for it, or they don’t understand it as a cultural creation, or they only think about it in terms of music. If you take this thing the blues and apply it to art, people will start to try to make connections. Certainly, there’s a lot of art in the show that has never been talked about in relation to the blues. But by putting the blues frame around it, it allows them to feel more at home with the art.

IC: Do you think the blues makes them feel more at home because it’s a more homey medium than fine art?

BS: Well, I think people are a lot more comfortable with music than they are with art. Music is a way in, a foil for dealing with art ideas in this show. We’re not talking about music that has the cultural baggage of being like high art, like classical music. We’re talking about music that is vernacular and popular. Even though, in the case of a lot of the jazz in the show, it’s not necessarily popular; it’s very experimental. But I think just opening the door a little bit to things that people feel comfortable with will allow them to come in. And even if they don’t know why I put so-and-so in the show or what this sculpture or painting is, they can still hold it in their mind and live in that space of possibility.

IC: Do you think music is more comfortable for people because we listen to it privately while art we mostly look at publicly?

BS: I think many people have a deep feeling for music as a thing they come to themselves—outside education or institutions. We talk about “my music,” but rarely “my art.” Music is a much more pervasive, imaginative space than visual art, which by and large most people access in museums or galleries. And those places have the weight of hundreds of years of high culture, all of the anxious symbolic capital of learning, status, and value. I’m not a populist in the current reactionary sense of the term, but I do believe that more people than we ever care to admit have the capacity to deal with artistic complexity, and that museums need to think of better ways to encourage this.

IC: You mentioned trusting the artists, but you fundamentally trusted yourself. When I look at “Blues for Smoke,” I feel an individual making subjective choices in the curating of the exhibition.

BS: I know what you mean, but I would prefer to say ‘an individual making original or uncommon choices.’ Subjectivity reduces to psychology. However, I do acknowledge that this was an exhibition with a strongly “authored” point of view. Now, yes, I had to trust myself to learn a lot of things, to bristle at the limitations of my experience, and to begin to formulate my own questions. I had to trust that I knew what I was doing enough to take some unorthodox steps—like putting Liz Larner and Zoe Leonard next to Melvin Edwards, or Roy DeCarava next to Mark Morrisroe, or thinking about the new queer hip-hop in a space adjacent to free jazz. I had to trust that white artists and black artists could both contribute to a conversation that that has specific roots in African-American tradition. I had to trust that sentimental work could be next to analytical work, abstract painting next to conceptual art, work from the 1950s and 1960s next to stuff made now. I had to trust that the ambiguous and uncomfortable things about the blues were a necessary part of its meaning.

I Now, I think probably a lot of people walk into the show and go, “Huh? Why is that here?” Or “That isn’t the blues!” OK, I accept that. A very valid part of what curators do is making something that people will have questions about, despite the fact that museums trade in identification and ownership. Much about the process of making “Blues for Smoke” was about overcoming doubt—mine and other peoples’—while still maintaining doubt as crucial to reflection.

IC: That something is not always legible?

BS: Yes. Clearly, the blues is not always legible—and that’s part of its extreme power! Rhetorical points aside, if you want to have a conversation about my decisions and intentionality and deliberation, I can sit here for days and tell you exactly why every single piece was in the show, what I was going for, and what conversations I thought important to have.

IC: Can you be more specific about what you felt needed to be said?

BS: Well, take the gallery that featured Jack Whitten, Ed Clark, Alma Thomas, Charles Gaines, and William T. Williams, with the new installation by Kori Newkirk in the middle of the floor. This room was oriented around painterly abstraction—gestures of expansion, ongoingness, process—that was prevalent in the late-1960s and 1970s. A generational context. Though all of these artists received recognition in their day, their contributions struck me as doubly marginalized: on the one hand by the racism of the art world that was oblivious or cavalier to the deep context and reference of their work, and on the other hand, by prejudices internal to discourses of African American work at the time which privileged legible social content—imagery of struggle, realism. I thought that one of the things my own generational vantage provided me, a vantage from the moment dubiously called “post-black” or post-ideological, was an opportunity to hold up this earlier group as pioneers. These are artists who deserve to be much better known! To me, their work grasped a basic blues notion, that abstraction could be quandary and anticipation at the same time. And here the importance of music can’t be overstated, from Whitten’s “sheets of light” paintings that take off from Coltrane’s “sheets of sound” or Williams’s own hard-edged painting. Kori Newkirk’s sculpture, with its found shopping cart assemblage and ring of blue glitter, might seem out of place because it’s the work of a younger artist, but his complicated references to displacement and homelessness—and sublime beauty—somehow connect to the critical gaps and flights going on around it. The work is called Y’all, not in allusion to his neighbors in the installation, but maybe to all of us. That said, there are definitely moments in art history that are homeless.

IC: Experiencing Kori’s piece in the context of abstraction and conceptualism made me think of it in relation to Minimalism—to Carl Andre and a whole different line of thought. I really loved Charles Gaines’s being in the room with all of the painting.

Installation view of "Blues for Smoke" at The Geffen Contemporary at MOCA, October 21, 2012-January 7, 2013. Photo by Brian Forrest.

Installation view of “Blues for Smoke” at The Geffen Contemporary at MOCA, October 21, 2012-January 7, 2013. Photo by Brian Forrest.

BS: I included very early work by Charles in that gallery, two sets of his Regression series drawings, from 1974. You know Charles is a “Conceptual Artist,” right, but he was trained as a painter in the late Sixties and early Seventies, and as a young man he knew Jack Whitten and Ed Clark well. I was struck by these drawings because of their insistence on a kind of abstraction. They’re hand-drawn grids that contain numerical markings generated by logarithmic permutations. They’re simultaneously very precise and very unstable reminiscent in a way of Sol LeWitt. Now Charles was, and remains, invested in a critique of intentionality and expression that would seem to be at odds with some of the other works nearby, but what he was beginning to get at through a systems lens was essentially a kind of paradox, an incommensurability of form and process that is echoed in other ways in that room. Rather than locating him in an art historical way, through category or school, I wanted to emphasize the importance of his thinking about indeterminate and mobile space. There’s a quote from Amiri Baraka on the wall above his drawings that says “The clearest definition of now is the present participle. Worship the verb, if you need something.” Charles is an advocate of movement. No surprise that he’s also a jazz drummer!

IC: He is also a link between those different kinds of abstraction—painterly, formal, and conceptual.

BS: Well, sure, there are many kinds of abstraction. There are many kinds of painterly abstraction. Our discourse about abstraction and painting unfortunately has been really narrowed down as we get further away from the dominant moment in the 20th century of painterly abstraction, Abstract Expressionism. But, yes, there are all kinds of abstraction. There’s cultural abstraction, musical abstraction, psychological abstraction—

IC: What is psychological abstraction?

BS: Hmm… I just mean the abstraction of our relation to the world and to other people. The abstraction of our mental and personal and emotional responses to things.

IC: In your talk you said, “The blues are yours and everyone else’s. In the blues you understand what you feel in relation to what everyone else feels.” To be able to understand yourself in relation to others is not an easy thing.

BS: No, but it’s one of the fundamental motivators of art and definitely of the blues. In the blues, the self is an “other”; the self is at odds with itself. Identity has been foisted upon you or imposed upon you, to the extent that you feel uncomfortable in the world. And so you imagine feeling otherwise, and you create to feel otherwise. That the tension between the inside and the outside is basic to the blues.

IC: My mother never allowed me to watch Richard Pryor growing up, though on the sly I did. When I was watching him in the exhibition freely after all these years, it was remarkable to me how brilliant he is, how not there he is, and how he’s performing a self. I was surprised that I could relate to this performed African American self. And I thought, “How come I’m relating to him not as ‘other’?” I think my mother wanted him to be truly other, but somehow he was very familiar.

BS: Well, yeah, I mean, it is possible.

IC: What is possible?

BS: To relate to other people. It is possible—you know, I’m a white guy who made a show about something that comes out of African American culture. Do I have personal experience with some of the things that some of the artists in the show are talking about? Occasionally yes, occasionally no. But the blues is integral to American culture and I am an American—one who nevertheless also has eyes, empathy, and imagination. It is necessary to accept the distance between one’s experiences and those of other people, to appreciate how terrifying that distance can be, and then to ask yourself what it is you want to do with that distance. I knew I didn’t want to further the dynamic of cultural observation that typically has the white expert looking at the art of so-called “others.” I had to bring myself into it. I had to bring whiteness into it. I had to bring sexuality into it. All of those things are part of the blues anyway. The exhibition had to countervail against the ever-present reducing of the blues to one thing.

IC: Something else you said in your talk was, “Art makes me want to talk to people.”

BS: Actually, 95 percent of art makes me want to run the other way. But good art makes me want to talk to people. The best art puts things on the table. The best art makes propositions about culture that you have to sit down and deal with, intellectually, emotionally, however. But the point of thinking about art or looking at art is not to say “Oh, that means that,” or “That’s a really good example of that,” and then just be satisfied. The point of art, well, for me, is to take you out of yourself and make you re-imagine the world. Sounds very romantic, I know. Shouldn’t art change your reality?

IC: Has this show changed your reality?

BS: Well, it has taught me not to take for granted the stories and categories we use around art, that these are always bigger than we are taught. That our histories are always partial, excluding, potentially dumb. I guess the exhibition also made me confront areas I had by choice or ignorance been able to avoid.

IC: I saw portraiture as a thread in the show that brought in communities. Communities are so evident in the lives of artists because it takes a lot of support to make work—the friends and family involved in what you do, other creators alive and dead who are inspirational, and then the unknown viewers. What did you discover about communities in the process of curating this show?

Beauford Delaney, <i>Portrait de Jean Genet</i>, 1972. Oil on Canvas, 36¼ x 28¾ in.

Beauford Delaney, Portrait de Jean Genet, 1972. Oil on Canvas, 36¼ x 28¾ in.

BS: That they are often comprised of participants you might not expect. When I saw Beauford Delaney’s portrait of Jean Genet, my head flew off. And yet, why not? Delaney was part of the Paris avant-garde of the fifties, and Jean Genet was an incredibly curious individual. He was fascinated with realities that were not his. He supported the Palestinian freedom fighters and the Black Panthers. He lived in a world of his own making, and that world included Beauford Delaney. I thought that was incredibly beautiful. It also tells you something about the porousness and uniqueness of Beauford Delaney’s world in Paris in the fifties. Now, there are other communities in the show. There’s the community in Jeff Preiss’s film Stop, which is an abstract home movie about Jeff’s family and friends and life in New York. And then there’s the body of photographs of Carrie Mae Weems, Family Pictures and Stories, which is about her family community. And then there’s community in the conceptual and historical sense. The community implicit in the Art Ensemble of Chicago’s slogan “Great Black Music: Ancient to the Future,” in which Jelly Roll Morton, Ornette Coleman, and Missy Elliott might be part of the same tradition.

IC: I was thinking about communities through time, too. You curated a community that reflects the larger community in the world, a real mash-up.

BS: Here’s one thing to say: The community I want looks like that. This is in some way an ideal community, an ideal art history, an ideal set of coordinates. It’s a proposition about things that I think ought to go together or that we ought to be open to.

IC: Can you remember a peak of things coming together for you?

BS: Yeah, reading A Power Stronger Than Itself by the music historian and great critical mind George E. Lewis. It’s about the AACM, the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, but really it’s a history of experimental music in America from the fifties to the present. He uses the AACM—this musician-organized group that included the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Anthony Braxton, Muhal Richard Abrams, and all of these great contemporary musicians coming out of jazz—as a leaping-off point to talk about conflicting histories of experimental art making, the racializing of the avant-garde, and possibilities for critical or interpretive method. Why don’t we think about jazz as experimental music? Why is experimental music Cage and Stockhausen but not Charlie Parker? What is the history of those questions within critical writing? The book was an epiphany for me and gave me permission to think about extremely divergent creative products together.

IC: Were there any moments when you felt scared? I sort of heard it when you were talking about meeting with Jack Whitten—that he was looking at you like you were crazy.

BS: Well, he wasn’t looking at me like I was crazy. He was looking at me like, “Does he even know what he’s getting into?”

IC: And what did you feel like you had to say about the blues?

BS: Yeah. Jack’s take on the project was incredibly challenging, but also so generous. He told me that I had “to be the boss.” That everybody would insist on this or that, but that it was my show—that it had to be my show. And that I had to get to that place or else it would be a failure! Talk about permission!

IC: The presence in the show of Matt Mullican’s Birth to Death List [1973] seemed like one of the places where you made it yours. That seemed structurally kind of like the blues.

BS: Yeah, I mean, it was. It is. You’re born, you die. That’s the blues in a nutshell. But it’s also an imagined life, and this is something that Mullican has always worked with in his art. He’s imagining an existence that is not his and filling it in by proposing a mental environment for that existence to have. It’s what writers do everyday. The work reads like a long poem of details about this imagined woman’s life.

IC: She starts to look at the mirror more frequently as she gets older and as she approaches death. Your approach to identities in “Blues for Smoke” is like this. In much of the work, self-reflection, change, and mortality come through. In your catalog essay you said something about being in a post–identity politics world.

BS: This is complicated. A lot of people have said that we are in a post–identity politics moment. The most everyday way people say that is, “Well, we have a black president.” As though the identity politics of the past no longer applies, which is utter silliness and wishful thinking. But this idea is felt in other ways too. Ten years ago, [curator] Thelma Golden coined the term “post-black” to talk about a generation of younger artists for whom the cherished ideas of the seventies and eighties—of uplift, celebration, tradition, and autonomy—were undergoing changes. Younger artists in the 2000s were talking about identity in a different way, open to the noise and the funk a little bit more. They were open to the complexity and the strangeness and the—

IC: To not being identified as black but to being identified as everybody?

BS: Yes, to not being labeled as a black artist and not having to perform these things that black art was supposed to do.

IC: Do you think that we are in a post–identity politics age?

BS: No such thing. Politics and identities will always be there but will always change.

IC: That relates to psychological abstraction—it has to do with self and other, how you understand yourself.

BS: I come from a long line of social workers, therapists, and ministers. So the subject of self and other is in the DNA.

IC: I noticed that you dedicated the book to your grandfather and your daughter. Why to them?

BS: To my grandfather, who was a Southern Baptist minister, because he was somebody who attempted to figure things out in a rough time, to make sense of society and politics in the South of the 1960s, and to define spiritual and moral need for himself. I looked up to him a lot growing up. And I dedicated the book to my daughter because when she’s old enough to understand it or think about it, the world will be completely different. It could be interesting for her to look back on it. Who knows what this place is going to be like in 20 years?

IC: In Wanda Coleman’s catalog essay, “My Blues Love Affair,” she writes about the development of her musical tastes. She recounts how her mother was disdainful of “black music” while her father loved it, so it only came out on special occasions like Christmas. In Coleman’s reflection, her mother was being a good Christian woman and trying to guide her children toward success. So this is the bending toward the norm, the dominant paradigm—in this case, whiteness. Sometimes, love can do this, be the inflictor of social codes that straitjacket and confound our identities. It’s not always the outside world that does the most damage to us. Acts of love can chisel away at the self so that you don’t feel real. This connects to Glenn Ligon’s point in his essay, “The Wire and the Blues,” about performing the self. That is not exclusively a queer experience—all of us perform ourselves for society; we become the easiest category of person to recognize.

BS: Glenn was talking about Kippenberger or Mark Morrisroe—I mean, these were artists that were performing themselves for society in a way that was completely at odds with society. We perform ourselves for acceptance, and we also perform ourselves to create distance from that general acceptance. I’m less interested in self-performance as a desire to belong than as a desire to not belong.

IC: We all seem to belong to the blues. In the blues, everybody lives and dies. We all belong within pain, within a long history of pain that’s just human.

BS: Cornel West says the blues may be about catastrophe and a desire to overcome or transcend, but it is not about victory. It’s about prevailing and persisting and resisting and continuing on and keeping it together and finding some way to get over and the hustle and living through it. That’s not as fatalistic as you’re born, you die. The blues is about continuance and persistence, and I think that that’s positive. There’s hope in there.

IC: The framework of the blues is not very ironic, and yet you include work that is known for its irony.

BS: The blues is not ironic. The blues can be satiric, and it can be full of put on and gaming, but it is not ironic. Except in a cosmic, tragic way.

IC: Right, so that the pain that is part of things is just there. I mean, Martin Kippenberger in another context looks ironic.

Installation view of "Blues for Smoke" at The Geffen Contemporary at MOCA, October 21, 2012-January 7, 2013. Photo by Brian Forrest.

Installation view of “Blues for Smoke” at The Geffen Contemporary at MOCA, October 21, 2012-January 7, 2013. Photo by Brian Forrest.

BS: Yeah, well, the room that the Kippenberger is in is a bit of a kind of a curatorial critical experiment. His Martin, Into the Corner, You Should Be Ashamed of Yourself [1992] was originally a very ironic artwork. People were always telling Martin Kippenberger shame on you, you sexist, drunkard, racist, buffoon, you pig, you should be ashamed of yourself for being who you are, what you’re saying. So I think Kippenberger is poking fun at himself and at other people with that sculpture. But when I put him in that gallery with David Hammons’s Rocky [1990],the irony gets short-circuited.

I see them as both works that are about the impossibility of really inhabiting some authentic self. They push against persona. The Hammons piece is a stone; it’s an objectified black man on a pedestal; it’s a stone; it’s a head that has been turned into a stone with hair clippings glued onto it. Now, this is either horrifying, because we have a history of the objectification of black men, or it’s really funny, because it’s some riff on persistence and durability. “You can’t hurt me. I’m hard as a rock. I’m impermeable.” It’s a commentary on the self that is as complicated and performative and contradictory as the Kippenberger.

IC: I’m curious about your inclusion of Amy Sillman in the show. I was reading her essay in Artforum on Abstract Expressionism and remembering all her cartoons that I’ve seen over the years. It seems like her voice relates to the blues even more than the paintings.

BS: She’s somebody who has always had opposition in her art, between figurative imagery and abstract painting, gesture and picture, seriousness and lightheartedness, male and female, and the different kinds of bodies that she draws and paints. In all of the cartoons and the books that she has made and the essays that she’s written, there’s a sincere engagement with contradiction and multiplicity. I knew that for her it comes out of thinking about queerness and feminism. So I wanted to invite that into the show and invite her feel for bodies into the show. Bodies are both pleasing and disgusting, scary. They’re sites of lots of conflicting feelings and ideas. I thought that Amy belonged in a room with Kerry James Marshall and Henry Taylor. I picked the painting, and then she said, “Well, I don’t want to show that painting unless I can show one of my animations.” And so she made that animation on an iPad to go with that painting. It’s that painting’s partner, or its future.

IC: It seems like time has a lot to do with this show and the blues. Maybe that’s what’s so beautiful about this constellation of work, too—artists grappling with time. We all have to grapple with mortality, and the blues basically is grappling with mortality. You may have a life that sucks, and then you die. [laughs]

BS: Yeah, or you may have a life that sucks, but it might get better.

Ingrid Calame is an artist who lives and works in Los Angeles. Her work has been the subject of solo exhibitions at institutions such as The Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh, Scotland; the Kunstverein Hannover, Hannover, Germany; Savannah College of Art and Design Museum; the Albright Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo; the Indianapolis Museum of Art; and the Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia. Her work is represented by James Cohan Gallery, NY, NY; Frith Street Gallery,London, UK; and Galerie Schmidt Maczollek, Cologne, Germany. She has written for Frieze, Flash Art, and Art Issues.