Malik Gaines on “Just Above Midtown: Changing Spaces”

Malik Gaines on “Just Above Midtown: Changing Spaces”

Janet Henry and Linda Goode Bryant at Just Above Midtown, 50 West 57th Street, New York, December 1974. Photo: Camille Billops.

EVEN THE OPENING OF “Just Above Midtown: Changing Spaces,” an exhibition chronicling the approach, sensibility, and material existence of Linda Goode Bryant’s now-celebrated artist-run space, was itself a legendary scene. Goode Bryant, the dauntless activist, filmmaker, and JAM founder, and Thomas (T.) Jean Lax, the inventive researcher and curator of performance and media at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, danced energetically, face-to-face, in a West African modality before a line of Senegalese drummers. (Lax curated the show with Lilia Rocio Taboada in collaboration with Goode Bryant and Marielle Ingram.) The musicians were a planned celebratory element, while the dance was impromptu, and the very scene exercised a tension at work in presenting the archive of the nimble, improvisatory, power-thwarting JAM gallery inside MoMA’s intractable halls.

The exhibition manages to be many things at once: a joyous reunion, a necessary revision of New York art history of the 1970s and ’80s, a manifesto of Black-directed arts work, a performative tallying of incalculable debt (evinced by a stretch of wallpaper comprising unpaid bills). It is also a confrontation—situated within present institutional efforts toward re-recognition and light repair—between brilliant Black invention and that powerful appendage of white wealth, museum culture. A line map applied to a gallery wall depicts one of JAM’s locations and its proximity to giant art institutions, where many of the participating artists worked and saw art. A black-and-white video projected on another wall, which was made using a camera borrowed from the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s education department, shows artists David Hammons, Noah Jemison, and Randy Williams dressing collector Marquita Pool-Eckert in a sculptural costume. Another chart offers a balance sheet juxtaposing MoMA’s and JAM’s finances. MoMA’s amount to more.

This difference from the permanent, the endowed, the pre-consecrated, or, as Linda Goode Bryant once put it, the “musty-dank-but-spotless,” can in fact produce better art.

Angela Bryant, Horace Brockington, and Roberta Wolfe Bryant during the renovation of Just Above Midtown, 50 West 57th Street, New York, fall 1974.

While museum power lingers at the edges, the exhibition focuses on a more compelling institutional tale. Tracking works across the gallery’s three Manhattan locations between 1974 and 1986, “Changing Spaces” demonstrates how a set of aesthetics, a social scene, and a politically urgent sense of self-defined creativity aligned to foment an anti-institution. On its cover, the accompanying catalogue pictures Goode Bryant at a desk cluttered with papers, art in the background, seemingly engaging in what Fred Moten and Stefano Harney would later call “fugitive planning and Black study” (acts necessarily structured by compulsory debt). “Planning is self-sufficiency at the social level,” wrote the pair, “and it reproduces in its experiment not just what it needs, life, but what it wants, life in difference.” This difference from the permanent, the endowed, the pre-consecrated, or, as Goode Bryant once put it, the “musty-dank-but-spotless,” can in fact produce better art—not just in the sense of this or that piece’s being more valuable or impressive, but in the way that the works contribute to a voluminous ensemble of objects, gestures, and intentions. Influential artists such as Maren Hassinger, Cynthia Hawkins, Suzanne Jackson, Senga Nengudi, Lorraine O’Grady, and Howardena Pindell, to name but a few, are understood here as beings with life contexts as well as art ideas. The ensemble widens to include abstraction alongside figuration, expressionism alongside Conceptualism, performance alongside painting, and, importantly, Black artists creating the situation for showing work alongside non-Black artists. One remarkable concatenation of wall labels lists Barbara Chase-Riboud, Robert Rauschenberg, Betye Saar, and Raymond Saunders, staging a logical conversation that at the time only JAM could have actualized.

Janet Olivia Henry, The Studio Visit, 1983, mixed-media, 14 × 19 1⁄2 × 21 1⁄2".

The exhibition rewards us with many unexpected works that stand on their own while capturing this spirit of entanglement. Jamaican preacher and artist Mallica “Kapo” Reynolds’s memorable oil portrait of the singer Roberta Flack brings so much more to the space than an engagement with form. Janet Olivia Henry’s The Studio Visit, 1983, is a small diorama of an artist’s live-work loft, featuring a little sleeping mat on the floor, personal items in the corners, a sink against a wall, and a tiny Mies van der Rohe daybed. In the middle, surrounded by miniature paintings strewn on the floor, sits an artist, here taking the form of a Lieutenant Uhuru doll modified by a fresh haircut and white jumpsuit. She shows her works to a curator portrayed by a customized Spanky doll in a smart green getup and brown cowboy boots. The scene is so true, so funny and sadly cute, but also beautiful in its self-recognition. Then there’s Camille Billops’s Madame Puisay, 1981, a gorgeous glazed-earthenware chair shaped like a nude femme body. Is she an image of a sitting woman, or is she for sitting on? Is it art or furniture? The answer is yes to all of these, an echo of Goode Bryant’s boundless yes, which kept JAM going for more than a decade. The artist is the infrastructure. While offering such expenditures can be exhausting, “Changing Spaces” reminds us how powerfully transformative that kind of work can be.

On view through February 18, 2023.

Malik Gaines is a writer and performer and an associate professor of visual arts at the University of California, San Diego.

Mallica “Kapo” Reynolds, Roberta Flack, 1970, oil on canvas, 24 1⁄2 × 20 1⁄2".

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