Whitney Museum

The Whitney Museum of American Art is offering homage to the importance of blues and jazz in American culture with its latest exhibit. Blues for Smoke, which debuted February 7 and closes April 28, is an interdisciplinary installation. The exhibit examines modern art through the lens of the blues aesthetic by featuring the work of over 40 artists from the 1950s to the present. Blues for Smoke also features images and other materials from music and popular entertainment as well as classical pieces of art.

Blues for Smoke was initially curated by the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, but the installation has been traveling to various museums in metropolises. The Whitney Museum’s press release notes the title of the exhibit was inspired by jazz pianist Jaki Byard’s 1960 album. “The title suggests that the expanded poetics of the blues is pervasive—but also diffuse and difficult to pin down” the release states.

Blues for Smoke has been gaining warranted traction at the Whitney Museum. Writer Chase Quinn describes the exhibit experience as “dynamic” and a “journey back in time.” Quinn writes for theGrio:

“This dynamic exhibit examines the pervasive and interdisciplinary influence of blues music and jazz aesthetics on American art and culture. Drawing together various art forms (video, sculpture, painting, and live performance) across the lines of race, multiple generations and interdisciplinary canons, Blues for Smoke places the idioms of blues, and other distinctly African-American traditions, at the center of the American tableau of creativity.

In a pique of innovation, live, pop-up performances occur along with the exhibit, in which spectators migrate from room to room in a parallel dialogue with the themes of rootlessness, travel, and transience that are integral to blues and jazz aesthetics, the blues as a way of life, and the lives of blues musicians. The day I attended, there were such pleasures as listening to the stylings of Brooklyn-based band, King Holiday, which boasts a range of musical inspirations from blues to rock to reggae. Their sound was a perfect complement to the exhibit’s argument for the wide-reaching influence of the blues on contemporary music and pop culture.”

Quinn also cites the importance of slavery in developing the blues and how the Blues for Smoke exhibit acknowledges the institution.

“This exhibit accurately chronicles the collective, tormented, and triumphant experience of being black in America,” Quinn writes.

“We see the yoke of slavery represented by twisted manacles of welded steel in the work of Melvin Edwards, progressing to the migration of black people away from the South in the mournful collages of Romare Bearden. Kara Walker also offers an unforgettable and disturbing comment on the horrors of slavery in an animated piece that portrays the rape of a black woman by a white man using her signature paper cut outs in the work ‘Ms. Pipi’s Blue Tale.”

The blues captures life for communities of color in America like few genres have. Art lovers owe kudos to the Whitney Museum of American Art for hosting the “Blues for Smoke” exhibit. The museum is expanding common connotations of art to explore the complexities of blackness.

Blues for Smoke is being accompanied by concert performances and other events. New Yorkers can experience the exhibit and all of its offerings by clicking here for the schedule.

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