The Pulitzer Arts Foundation’s current exhibition of “Blue Black,” curated by Glenn Ligon, features more than 50 pieces by more than 40 artists with an overtone of unapologetic blackness and a celebration of African, African American and Caribbean culture.
On display through October 7, “Blue Black” was inspired by, and is the namesake of the Pulitzer’s permanently installed Ellsworth Kelly wall sculpture. When Ligon, an acclaimed visual artist, came for a site visit for an upcoming show of his work, he was haunted by Kelly’s piece – which essentially spans almost the entire height of the two-story Pulitzer Arts Foundation.
As he toured the gallery, he felt the piece speaking to him by way of a familiar song. “The show sort of started because when I was in the galleries, I kept hearing Louie Armstrong sing, ‘What did I do to be so black and blue?’” It made him think about the two colors get connected in so many different arenas – blues music, African American people and, of course, the formal pairing of the two colors.
“I know it was designed around the space – and not the other way around it – but they seemed in such harmony,” Ligon said if Kelly’s sculpture. “And because it is a permanent installation, every show that is housed in this space has to respond to it in every way.
I thought it would be interesting to create an exhibition that directly took on the two colors in the Kelly – because they so resonate visually, conceptually, emotionally and spiritually.”
Among the pieces that would come together to create “Blue Black,” a few speak directly to the current climate in St. Louis with respect to law enforcement and the African American community.
“It was not something that I thought about at all,” Ligon said during a press preview of the exhibition back in June. “But it it’s definitely an important conversation that the works create.”
The pieces, and the entire exhibition, have a new relevance in wake of the nonstop protests that have continued for nearly two weeks in response to the acquittal of former police officer Jason Stockley in the 2011 shooting death of Anthony Lamar Smith.
One of the first paintings visitors who enter the “Blue Black” exhibition currently on display at the Pulitzer Arts Foundation see is Kerry James Marshall’s “Untitled (policeman)” (2015).
“I thought it was interesting to put the Kerry James Marshall in this exhibition, particularly because it was such a direct representation of police power,” Ligon said. “But he just looks like your uncle sitting on that car hood. That’s what’s really complicated about that image. He’s not readable. He’s just kind of there, but he’s wearing the uniform.”
Ligon believes that Marshall’s painting references a painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat entitled “The Irony of the Negro Policeman,” (1981) and speaks to the relationship between law enforcement and the African American community.
“Given that we are in St. Louis, given how close we are to Ferguson – given how important those have been, not only in this community but nationally and internationally – that it is important that there was a reference to that in the show,” Ligon said.
His words came a full two months before the not guilty verdict was handed down and St. Louis City and caused the region to once again erupt in protest.
“It is a complicated reference. And it’s a terrific painting,” Ligon said. “I thought this was one that works well with what I want to do and it also exceeds my argument for why it should be in the show – because it’s such a good, complicated painting.”
Ligon’s own “A Small Band” (2015) consists of the words “blues,” “blood” and “bruise” illuminated in six feet-high neon that sits diagonally across from Kelly’s “Blue Black.” Ligon references the words of Daniel Hamm. Hamm was part of the “Harlem Six,” a group of young black men wrongly accused and convicted of murder in 1965. Following his release from prison, Hamm spoke out against the police brutality he experienced while in custody, testifying “I had to, like, open the bruise up and let some of the blues blood…bruise blood…come out to show them.”
One of the final paintings in “Blue Black,” is by Kara Walker’s large tempera and watercolor collage, “Four Idioms on Negro Art #1 Folk” (2015). The painting shows men in military uniforms pointing weapons at black figures as they slide down stripper poles with their hands in the air.
“The issue with respect to law enforcement and the African American community is complicated,” Ligon said. “These works compliment the issue – and its ongoing complexity.”
The Pulitzer Arts Foundation’s installation of “Blue Black” will be on display through October 7 at The Pulitzer Arts Foundation, 3716 Washington Boulevard, St. Louis, MO 63108. For more information, call (314) 754 1850 or visit www.pulitzerarts.org.