A History of Salvage

History Refused to Die” proved to be a striking title for a memorable exhibition. On view at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art through late September, it marked a gift to the museum of 57 works from the Souls Grown Deep Foundation in Atlanta, an organization whose name derives from a poem by Langston Hughes. The foundation was started by William S. Arnett, a collector of African art who became fascinated in the 1980s by the work of self-taught black artists in the American South. Convinced that their art was part of a coherent tradition reflecting “the rich, symbolic world of the black rural South through highly charged works that address a wide range of revelatory social and political subjects,” Arnett has sponsored research, publications, and exhibitions on the subject. He has found himself dogged by controversy at times: In 1993, the arch-philistine Morley Safer aired a segment on 60 Minutes suggesting that Arnett was exploiting the artists whose work he promoted. (A full quarter-century later, Safer’s charges remain unsubstantiated.) And the gift to the Met testifies not only to the generosity of Arnett’s intentions but also to the abundant riches of the world he dedicated so much of his life to helping preserve.

A great way to approach “History Refused to Die”—though not the most obvious one—was from the back, taking the stairway up from the Levine Court on the mezzanine of the Met’s Wallace Wing, where you could pause and give some time to a set of fine contemporary paintings by the likes of Jennifer Bartlett, Anselm Kiefer, Kerry James Marshall, and Terry Winters (to name just a few). Heading upstairs from there, you soon found yourself on the second floor, in a room containing a couple of almost-too-typically-midcentury modern abstract sculptures by Barbara Hepworth and Isamu Noguchi, along with two very grand pieces by Clyfford Still, both dominated by insistent fields of blood-red, as well as an unusually tough Robert Motherwell, The Homely Protestant (1948)—which he retrospectively decided was a self-portrait—and one of the absolute masterworks of Willem de Kooning’s early abstract period, Attic (1949). Emerging from this array of classic modernists, you then came face to face with one of the best works in the show: Thornton Dial’s Victory in Iraq (2004), which hung outside the two rooms housing the rest of “History Refused to Die.” It’s a powerful assemblage painting whose incredibly heterogeneous materials—steel, clothing, tin, wheels, barbed wire, electrical wire, stuffed animals, and a mannequin’s head, among many others—have been tightly woven into a gorgeously tangled, optically pulsing battlefield that’s as beautiful as it is ominous. What was immediately clear is that this work can more than hold its own in the company of the best contemporary painters, even the great protagonists of Abstract Expressionism—for, if you looked to your left as you walked toward it, you might almost have been tempted to head toward another of the Met’s proudest modern possessions, Jackson Pollock’s massive Autumn Rhythm (1950).

Walking through the exhibition itself, you could see the sculptures of Lonnie Holley, Ronald Lockett, and Joe Minter, or the quilts by Loretta Pettway, Lola Pettway, and Annie Mae Young, all working in Alabama—all of which leave one wondering why some people are called, simply and without further qualification, “artists,” while others (the aesthetic qualifications of whose work are equivalent and in no need of allowances) earn that title only with the proviso “self-taught,” “folk,” or “outsider”?

In the book that accompanied the Met exhibition—confusingly, with a different title: My Soul Has Grown Deep: Black Art From the American South—Darryl Pinckney observes that “history still tells us that the sheer existence of this art was not predicted, and maybe that is the most important thing history can tell us about it.” And, in a way, Pinckney is right. Whether or not it’s really the best way of appreciating painting and sculpture, we are schooled to see the history of art as part of an ongoing story in which the baton of innovation and quality is picked up very consciously by a few highly self-aware individuals from their chosen precursors, and in which the meaning of a particular work lies not only in its form, style, and subject matter, but also in the way it implicitly reflects back on art history and seems to envisage some fresh potential for the art to come. As Harold Rosenberg once observed, “The density of meaning in a modern painting is always to some degree an effect of the artist’s engagement with the history of art, including ideas about it.” A painting like Victory in Iraq is nothing if not dense with meaning, and reflects the fresh potential of art—yet the history it is responding to is not the art of museums.

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