Your first encounter in the Guggenheim Museum’s ambitious new exhibition, “Going Dark: The Contemporary Figure at the Edge of Visibility,” will likely be with four looming figures draped in voluminous clothing. It’s hard to see if anyone (or anything) is hiding under the slightly futuristic hoodies. Acid green projected light – known as chromatic green, used by film studios for “green screen” effects – bathes the grand gallery next to the rotunda. The result is paradoxical: the figures are so enormous that they should be unmissable, but with this intense lighting, you may have difficulty distinguishing them.
Stare at this installation by artist Sandra Mujinga long enough, and as you turn toward the rotunda, something remarkable happens: the stark white museum turns entirely pink. (The effect fades as your eyes readjust.)
Mujinga’s work is a fitting introduction to an exhibition that questions what it means to be seen and to see oneself, particularly when seeing takes place across racial and other lines. What does it mean, especially for people of color, to be hyper-visible and subject to increased surveillance, while being erased from view, forgotten from the social and political landscape? How does looking at each other through these layers of stereotypes and misunderstandings distort our perception of the world? If being visible is a trap, is there comfort in near-invisibility?
These are questions that the exhibition’s curator, Ashley James, raises in “Going Dark,” which features the work of 28 artists, including three new commissions. Among them are Faith Ringgold and Charles White, the exhibition’s distinguished elders; Lorna Simpson and David Hammons, famous conceptualists of the 80s and 90s; and a troupe of young artists including Tiona Nekkia McClodden, Sondra Perry and Farah Al Qasimi.
It’s a compelling counterpoint to the art world’s seemingly endless hunger for black portraits by superstars like Jordan Casteel, Amy Sherald, Henry Taylor, and Kehinde Wiley, who have long offered images of black subjectivity to through figuration. In this show, the silhouette is often barely there.
Former Guggenheim director Richard Armstrong wrote in his foreword to the carefully crafted catalog that the exhibition is “a manifestation” of the museum’s “dedication to engaging new and diverse audiences.” This is the first time that 17 of the 28 artists – largely black and all of color – have exhibited their work there, including Ringgold, Dawoud Bey and Chris Ofili.
One of the highlight works of the exhibition is the painting “Invisible Man” (1986) by Kerry James Marshall, inspired by Ralph Ellison’s 1952 novel. In this book, the anonymous main character lives in a state of social obscurity : “I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. » Marshall translated this idea into painting: the faint outline of a naked man barely emerges from the ink background. It’s almost, but not quite, a monochrome. The image is difficult to make out, but also uncomfortable to look at: the character’s stark white eyes and teeth, as well as her nude pose, come dangerously close to cruel old stereotypes.
Given that the Guggenheim has long focused on abstract art, the exhibition’s engagement with the monochrome—in the work of Ellen Gallagher, Sable Elyse Smith, and Ofili, among others—provides an important lens, influenced by race, through which to view modernist art. Ringgold’s “Black Light” paintings from the late 1960s show her literally reducing the amount of white in her pigments, resulting in a palette of near blacks. Rejecting the debasement of dark-skinned people in white culture, she created images of moon-faced, wide-eyed men and women that require the same kind of scrutiny as an Ad Reinhardt painting .
Glenn Ligon and Tomashi Jackson draw inspiration from other mid-century movements. In Ligon’s “Figure” (2001), 50 self-portrait photos screen-printed on brightly colored paper move in and out of readability, created by his Andy Warhol-inspired technique; they ask what happens when you add race to the pop artist’s mix of queer desire and celebrity culture. “Day Glow: Backlash” by Tomashi Jackson (2022) consists of historical photos from the civil rights movement printed on vinyl. By enlarging the dots of his halftone process (shades of Robert Rauschenberg) and layering the vinyl with marble dust, paper bags, canvas and other materials, the artist disrupts optical perception of the viewer while encouraging them to question their relationship to the history of these archives. the images contain.
A number of objects in the exhibition address the role of photography in the classification, colonization, and criminalization of people of color. Much of this work shares a lineage with Lorna Simpson’s art of the 1980s and 1990s. In “Time Piece” (1990), Simpson captures four nearly identical images of a woman that resemble a medical textbook or an anthropological study. However, she is only shown from behind, which allows her to escape the viewer’s gaze – and therefore any attempt to categorize her.
Stephanie Syjuco’s “Block Out the Sun” series (2019-2022) comes from her work in the photographic archives of the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. Excavating the visual records of a simulated village where Filipino inhabitants were on display at the exhibition, she rephotographs these documents, covering the subjects’ faces with her hands — to protect them from our eyes.
The blur provides a similar anonymity to the residents of Harlem in Ming Smith’s nighttime photos from his series “Invisible Man” (1988-91). Where Smith uses a long exposure to create her effect, Sondra Perry, in her video loop, “Double Quadruple Etcetera Etcetera I & II” (2013) relies on a Photoshop tool that removes unwanted elements to partially obscure bodies of two dancers. (A dancer, artist Joiri Minaya, also features in “Going Dark.”) Although there’s little to see in Perry’s video — flashes of brown skin, braided hair and a white chimera changing – I dare you to tear your eyes out. far.
John Edmonds overexposes his film to create solarized prints with velvety surfaces in which his black male subjects take refuge in the shadows. A series of dark, barely lit images from Dawoud Bey’s “Underground Railroad” project (2017) reminds us that for slaves on their way to freedom, darkness was both a space of danger and also of protection.
Not surprisingly, the hoodie appears in many forms. Kevin Beasley casts him in resin in “…isn’t it?” (2014), while Edmonds depicts doubly obscured young men – hooded and seen from behind – in his large-scale photographs from 2018. Hammons mounts a hood directly on the wall with “In the Hood” (1993) and in “ Repeating the Obvious” (2019), Carrie Mae Weems presents the clothing in 39 ghostly images of Trayvon Martin, whose murder at age 17 embodied the projection of white fear onto the black male body.
And then there’s “Mixed Blessing,” a 2011 sculpture by Anishinaabe artist Rebecca Belmore, which uses a hoodie and synthetic hair to create a reclining figure, her braids spreading around her on the ground like bird feathers. His outstretched arms can be read as a gesture of prayer, gratitude, or submission to punishment – a complex mixture that simultaneously expresses cultural pride and grief over the violence inflicted on indigenous peoples.
For anyone who has looked at contemporary art at other museums and galleries in recent years, “Going Dark” is filled – too many – with familiar faces. What I missed here is the pleasure of discovering new voices that often comes from a large thematic exhibition.
Fortunately, there are still surprises. Among them, an ink drawing on wood panel by Charles White (1918-1979), which the curator discovered in the artist’s archives. Made in the 1960s, one side shows an unfinished sketch of a man, while the other is a sea of blackness from which a figure tentatively emerges – rendered as negative space. “Summhour,” a 1974 work by David Hammons, made me laugh out loud: a kitschy bouquet of daisies in watercolor and ink obscures a clutch of brown penises, perhaps alluding to stereotypes of hypersexualization.
Spoiler alert: if you look toward the museum’s oculus, you’ll see a mysterious black orb hanging down. It contains several cameras. Halfway up the rotunda, you will have the opportunity to hand over your phone to an attendant and enter a makeshift theater where you can view live cameras of what is happening in the museum, processed by a program of AI used by museums for security reasons. purposes. Look closely and you’ll notice occasional glitches with the technology: it sometimes incorrectly identifies works of art as human, probably because it can’t tell the difference between an image of a body in a work of art and that of a sensitive body. (Pretty perfect, given the theme of the show.)
This site-specific installation, created by American Artist, is quite brilliant: it makes palpable and immediate the hypervisibility and surveillance that so many of the works in “Going Dark” address. In this curtained space, we are the spectators, invisible to those outside. Walk into the rotunda and the camera only sees us as a potential threat. Which would you rather be?
Going Dark: the contemporary figure at the limit of visibility
Through April 7, 2024, at the Guggenheim Museum, 1071 Fifth Avenue, Manhattan; (212) 423-3500; guggenheim.org.