Last weekend at a ceremony in Stockholm, American art historian and critic Huey Copeland was awarded the Absolut Art Award for Art Writing. His proposed project for the grant is a collection of essays titled ‘Touched by the Mother: Contemporary Artists, Black Masculinities, and the Ends of the American Century’. We spoke to Copeland about the scope of this new work and his approach to understanding art history through the lens of critical race theory.
Berlin Art Link: Tell us about your planned book project ‘Touched by the Mother’. Who are some of the artists you’ll consider during the selected time period of 1966-2016?
Huey Copeland: It’s a really expansive time period with a large number of artists so I’m really gathering essays, articles, interviews, reviews: Theaster Gates, Dave McKenzie, Glenn Ligon, Rashid Johnson, Noah Purifoy, Merton Simpson, Sun Ra. Really just a compendium of some of the most compelling artists working in that period. Both male artists of African descent and artists engaging with the visual construction of black masculinity. There will also be some new pieces there. I’ll be writing an essay trying to think about the sculptures of Charles Ray and how they engage questions of race and masculinity.
I’m trying to use the frame of male artists of African descent as one node around which one can construct a history of recent contemporary art, or a survey of it at least, that opens onto the huge range of media, forms and questions that contemporary artists—wherever they may be working—are engaging with.
BAL: Where did this interest begin?
HC: When I started looking at all my work together, the earliest moment in terms of my critical writing was engaging with Purifoy; Purifoy working in the context of the aftermath of the last riots in 1966 and the number of different collaborative sculptures for which he’s so well known, in Joshua Tree, California. That seemed to me to be an apt starting point, because it’s an artist trying to make new possibilities aesthetically out of the aftermath of destruction, violence and riots. That seemed particularly apt as a moment to anchor the collection, given where we’re at today, politically, in terms of questions about racial violence. But also in terms of what a number of black artists, like Gates, or Mark Bradford, or Rick Lowe, are trying to do: investing in their communities, where they’re at, to have new kinds of aesthetic enterprises, new kinds of experiences. These have the same ambition as Purifoy’s outdoor desert museum – very much saturated in the urban context, trying to engage the community.
I think both practices, whether we’re thinking about 1966 or 2016, understand the sense of black communities always being in the aftermath of catastrophe and how you move forward from that. This is wonderfully theorized by Edouard Glissant, looking back to the history of transatlantic slavery and the slave trade and trying to think about what that abyss means, and how you make meaning in life, for that. I think that’s a question that artists of African descent are continually posing in their practices and it’s a question that all of us are dealing with in some form today, as we confront ecological crisis, increased nationalistic political discourse, and a real sense of precarity.
BAL: What is the significance of the title of your book?
HC: ‘Touched by the Mother’ is a quote taken from an astonishing essay by Hortense Spillers, who is a really brilliant black feminist cultural critic and theorist, whose background was in literary studies but whose imagination and impact far exceeds any disciplinary bounds that we might try to place on it. The same goes for this essay, that the quote comes from, which was published in 1987 in ‘Diacritics’. It’s called ‘Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book’. In it, Spillers is really trying to think about the effects of transatlantic slavery on the constitutional construction of notions of the African American family unit. It’s a wide-ranging, dense, incredibly lyrical and beautifully written text and I encourage everyone to read it.
Near the end of it she comes to this astonishing conclusion: she makes the argument that what slavery enacted was the reduction of black bodies to flesh, bodies that are radically un-gendered. In the context of slavery, this un-gendering means that bodies are treated as commodities that can be sold. But enslaved child-bearers can have no claim on their children, and it makes their relationship to the enslaved mother almost more important, because the condition of the child follows that of the mother. If your mother was enslaved, so shall you be, too. For Spillers, what that means is the African American male, more than any other community of American males (she makes this distinction very clear) has been touched, handed by, the mother. This is their primary or perhaps only contact of parental relationship that can be acknowledged, even if it can be torn asunder at any moment. She makes this claim that the African American male’s task, having been touched by the mother, is to embrace the female within. To me this really suggests an expansive possibility for black male practitioners to develop a feminist and queer ethos that allows them to tend to the flesh of their kin and of the world, regardless of normative, imposed categories of gender or sexuality. I thought that was a great frame or title for thinking about, not only the actual politics of a number of the practices that I engage with in the book, but also for thinking about potential for world-making that these practices open up onto.
My aim is not to say: “all black male artists are touched by the mother in exactly the same way, and they’re all feminists.” It’s not to essentialize. In fact, my intention is the opposite: it’s to say that touched by the mother, for Spillers and for me in this book, opens on a radical multiplicity and is reflected not only in the number of different artists that the book is engaging, but also in the number of different kinds of media that they’re working with: assemblage, video, installation, social practice, painting, sculpture and everything else.
For me, the framework of the book is one lens through which one might produce a survey of contemporary art that really takes seriously the economies of violence and vision and racialization that have been such a part of the construction of the modern world from slavery to the present.
BAL: How will these works/artists be integrated with your own personal reflections on contemporary American culture as a gay, black man?
HC: That is a perspective that is manifested in a number of the essays, in explicit ways. Writing about Kori Newkirk‘s work in the 2007 at the Studio Museum in Harlem, I made a sort of comparison of our own upbringings as gay youths emerging from suburban enclaves and what that means for our sense of aesthetic affinity, but also how we navigate moving through these different cultural realms. A number of my essays do foreground my own personal experience and my own narrative voice. They’re peppered throughout the collection and the production will really speak to bringing those aspects together across my work. The first person isn’t present in all the essays that will be included in the volume, but it is a really important aspect of the collection: how readers understand my own positioning in relationship to a number of different practices, even where the ‘I’ isn’t as strongly pronounced.
BAL: In your previous work on slavery and its impact on contemporary art history, what conclusions do you draw on the importance of race theory in art history and criticism?
HC: I don’t know if one can draw conclusions. In a certain sense, Art History as an academic formation is somewhat belated in thinking critically about questions of race, in relationship to other areas of the humanities. This is surprising considering how essential—even just as a student of western modernism—race is to the canon’s greatest masterworks. ‘Olympia’, and Laure the black maid in it: that painting is absolutely essential to the beginning of the modernist tradition. If we can’t think structurally about what the presence of that figure means, and how it’s deforming our understanding of representation, and shifting our notion of the aesthetic, then we are actually not seeing what is abundantly visually present in front of us.
T.J. Clark, who is probably the great interpreter of that work, talks about how the snake of ideology prevented him from really giving that figure its actual significance in the painting. I think Art History is now coming to grips with that snake. I think we’re in a really exciting moment, where a number of scholars are realizing the centrality of race to so many modernist articulations. The recent discovery of a racist joke underneath Malevich’s ‘Black Square’, for example, and how this fundamental modernist form is itself caught up in the logic of racialization. This is something that my work has been very invested in, bringing thinking from African American studies and Critical Theory to Art History, to reframe and actually start addressing what so abundantly appears before us in the visual archive. It’s an exciting moment to be having these conversations. We have a number of really amazing art historians—Krista Thompson, Rick Powell, Kellie Jones—who are grappling with and engaging with these questions and histories. Hopefully that will lead to a transformation of the discipline into one that is more able to acknowledge the structural importance of histories of slavery and colonialism to the formation of modernism and its successors.
BAL: Do you consider your many fields and projects as part of an ‘intersectional’ approach?
HC: Yes, that’s what I aim for. Whether I always achieve it, is not for me to judge. Kimberly Crenshaw, the main theorist of intersectionality, and Jennifer Nash‘s work are very important to my thinking. That’s emblematized in my third book project, which will be the one after ‘Touched by the Mother’ and is called ‘In the Shadow of the Negress: A Brief History of Modern Artistic Practice’. In many ways, the short book will be a retelling of the classic Paris-to-New York narrative of modern art, but this time focusing on a different dialogue: the ways in which black women’s bodies were so crucial to various forms of modernist and postmodernist articulations. Whether we’re talking about ‘Olympia’, or Brancusi’s ‘Blond Negress’, or Cindy Sherman‘s early ‘Bus Riders’, where she’s covering herself in dark makeup to simulate a kind of black identity: that will be one side of it. The other side is what black women artists have done in response to or in avoidance of that kind of representation. For me, the figure of the black female body is one at the intersection of radical racial difference and radical sexual difference that got conceptualized in the west. It’s precisely this mode of thinking intersectionally about the black female body and what that enables in representation, that allows us to extend the lens of intersectional analysis into the realm of art historical inquiry.