Postcolonial Thoughts: Martin Puryear “Passing through the color line” Part III

by Christopher Hutchinson

The current exhibition at the Rubell Family Collection is made up of work by 31 African American artists. It shows more than 200 works of art, occupying the entire 45,000-square-foot exhibition space of the Rubell Family Collection. The show is called “30 Americans” and is a portrait of contemporary African-American art.

The artists presented are: Nina Chanel Abney, John Bankston, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Mark Bradford, Iona Rozeal Brown, Nick Cave, Robert Colescott, Noah Davis, Leonardo Drew, Ren?e Green, David Hammons, Barkley I. Hendricks, Rashid Johnson, Glenn Ligon, Kalup Linzy, Kerry James Marschall, Rodney McMillian, Wangechi Mutu, William Pope.L, Gary Simmons, Xaviera Simmons, Lorna Simpson, Shinique Smith, Jeff Sonhouse, Henry Taylor, Hank Willis Thomas, Mickalene Thomas, Kara Walker, Carrie Mae Weems, Kehinde Wiley, Purvis Young.
30 Americans. Rubell Family Collection, Miami. Impressions from the Private View on December 4, 2008

The Rubell Family collection “30 Americans” is a very impressive collection of  Black artists.  This exhibition creates a forceful statement by placing African-American artists side by side, precept upon precept, academic and folk as a collective and as individuals.  Names such as Purvis Young, William Pope.L, and Wengchi Mutu are usually separated by a selfish collective taste.  In this exhibition there is a new automatic and organic dialogue that occurs between the vast range of Blackness and its contribution to the Western canon with those typically outside of it.  This exhibition is a huge statement to the fact that Black contribution is not only relegated to Basquiat; rather, Black/African has participated and contributed to a necessary American modern art dialogue.

Many collections of Black/African art are so specific that these obvious relationships are not present and are often seen as opposing points.  The success of this exhibit lies with the over 200 pieces in one place dialoging with each other, even though some of these artists capitalize on the victimhood of Blackness.  The dialogue is more important.  This exhibition can and should be used as a jumping off point young artists/collectors/and critics.

Martin Puryear, Deadeye, detail, 2002, Pine, 58-¼ x 68-1/16 x 13-3/8”, Private collection, Image courtesy McKee Gallery, New York, Photo: Michael Korol, New York © 2007 Martin Puryear.

Martin Puryear, Deadeye, detail, 2002, Pine, 58-¼ x 68-1/16 x 13-3/8”, Private collection, Image courtesy McKee Gallery, New York, Photo: Michael Korol, New York © 2007 Martin Puryear.


This begs the question.  Why Martin Puryear was not included in this exhibition. Did Puryear’s successful transition into Western academic dialogue exclude him from this dialogue past and present of Blackness?  The Rubells would definitely know of the Yale graduate with numerous accolades.  The quote below by Rubell Family answers the previous questions.

We decided to call [the exhibition] “30 Americans.” “Americans,” rather than “African Americans” or “Black Americans” because nationality is a statement of fact, while racial identity is a question each artist answers in his or her own way, or not at all. And the number 30 because we acknowledge, even as it is happening, that this show does not include everyone who could be in it. The truth is, because we do collect right up to the last minute before a show, there are actually 31 artists in “30 Americans.”
—Rubell Family, November, 2008 – See more at:


The RFC (Rubell Family Collection) signals a change where it is no longer acceptable to constantly reiterate and validate a collection by acquiring the mandatory Basquiat to be contemporary and acquire a Bearden as the crowning achievement of Black/African authenticity.  The RFC frees the tried and trodden “Black art” rubric to include artists present today.  Many African-American institutional collections are littered with board members that are stuck promoting antiquated notions of what encompasses the Black/African authenticity and forcing new artists to abide by developed Harlem renaissance, never truly surpassing Ernie Barnes’s “J.J” sugar shack.  That “J.J” rubric points to the main problem with those type of collections. They are mostly referential, never actually contemporary—rather, they are doomed to be dated, working backwards in a romanticized Black vocabulary.  At the time the sugar shack was created it was already dated.  The RFC proves this is unacceptable in 2016.


Globalism & the Universal

“The dominant propaganda systems have appropriated the term ‘globalization’ to refer to the specific version of international economic integration that they favor, which privileges the rights of investors and lenders, those of people being incidental.

In accord with this usage, those who favor a different form of international integration, which privileges the rights of human beings, become ‘anti-globalist.’

This is simply vulgar propaganda, like the term ‘anti-Soviet’ used by the most disgusting commissars to refer to dissidents. It is not only vulgar, but idiotic. Take the World Social Forum, called ‘anti-globalization’ in the propaganda system—which happens to include the media, the educated classes, etc., with rare exceptions.

The WSF is a paradigm example of globalization. It is a gathering of huge numbers of people from all over the world, from just about every corner of life one can think of, apart from the extremely narrow highly privileged elites who meet at the competing World Economic Forum, and are called ‘pro-globalization’ by the propaganda system.

An observer watching this farce from Mars would collapse in hysterical laughter at the antics of the educated classes.”—Noam Chomsky

How the RFC differs from a typical globalist/universal exhibition is while globalism/universal exhibitions claim to present an inclusive art theory and methodology, they often do not, rather they accomplish the subjugation of indigenous peoples under the Western rubric of formal investigation.  If the formal rubric cannot be imposed then another artist is chosen that has indigenous qualities that can still qualify as new “discovery” under the formal elements. This “discovery” paints a “savior” view of the indigenous people in where the native is still dependent on the “discovery” of the West to be valid.

Global exhibitions are filled with artists like Martin Puryear where the indigenous aesthetic is suppressed to connect the visual language of the formal.  Globalism allows the stagnation of Western academia mastered in graduate school to spread to the globe under the pretense of advocating for the indigenous.  It is in this deceit that Puryear is muddled.

African-Americans should not edit their work to “Pass” into a Western vernacular that relies heavily on the African aesthetic.  The cost of “Passing” is too high, so high it too becomes just as dead as the West.  Do not entertain these calculated stipulations that Puryear subscribes to that has made him successful.  “Passing” constantly needs validation.

Christopher Hutchinson 2Christopher Hutchinson is an accomplished Jamaican conceptual artist, professor and contributor to the art community as a writer, critic and founder of the nonprofit Smoke School of Art. He is a Professor of Art at Atlanta Metropolitan State College and has been featured as a lecturer including prestigious engagements at University of Alabama and the Auburn Avenue Research Library. For two decades, Chris has been a practicing artist. His works have been exhibited in internationally recognized institutions including City College New York (CUNY) and featured at the world’s leading international galleries such as Art Basel Miami. He has always had an innate passion for creating spaces where Africans and people of African descent contribute to an inclusive contemporary dialogue—ever evolving, not reflexive but pioneering. This requires challenging the rubric of the canon of art history, a systemic space of exclusion for the Other: women and non-Whites, and where necessary he rewrites it. He received his Master of Fine Arts Degree in Painting from Savannah College of Art & Design, Atlanta and his Bachelor of Arts Degree from the University of Alabama in Huntsville, Alabama.


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Categories: Art, Postcolonial Thoughts, Writing


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