How just above midtown the freedom of the black avant-garde expanded – 71Bait

Just Above Midtown: Changing Spaces, currently on view at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York, takes us back to 1970s and ’80s New York to evoke the panache of the black avant-garde, and testifies to the gallery’s founder Linda Goode Bryant’s awareness that she and her staff are making history in real time. The exhibition features a range of works by artists associated with Just Above Midtown (JAM) – including David Hammons, Suzanne Jackson, Senga Nengudi and Lorraine O’Grady – as well as archival materials. The gallery walls are strewn with fragments of Goode Bryant’s own writings, such as the popular saying, “Let’s just do it ourselves.” Stitched together, these three elements provide an elegy for JAM, which closed in 1986, and embody on Glorious is the gallery’s move towards art forms that transcended mainstream commercial interest and its radical reworking of the scope of a cultural space’s responsibility to artists.

In 1974 Goode Bryant was 25 years old and working as the director of education at The Studio Museum in Harlem. As told in David Hammons: Body Casts, 1968-1979 (2021) Goode Bryant asked Hammons why he had not yet exhibited in New York, to which the artist replied tersely, “I do not exhibit in white galleries.” Goode Bryant took this statement not as a cause for sympathy but as a call to action and opened the doors of JAM at 50 West 57th Street (just down the street from MoMA) Later that same year, the gallery quickly became a bastion for artists, particularly living black artists, interested in making and exhibiting work on their own terms.

Linda Goode Bryant and Janet Olivia Henry (undercover) at Just Above Midtown, Fifty-Seventh Street, December 1974. Courtesy Hatch-Billops Collection, New York; Photo: Camille Billops

Hammon’s statement that he did not exhibit in white galleries indicates a decision he made of his own volition. (Although we can speculate that this might also have been the case, he didn’t say, “White galleries won’t show me.”) Such an attitude allows us to understand JAM’s commitment to physical exhibition and gathering spaces as a vehicle to extend the freedom of the black vanguard, particularly by giving them a different choice as to where and under what circumstances they can disseminate their work.

While the project introduces itself exactly What constitutes “freedom” remains unfinished—particularly in relation to black subjectivity and its associated aesthetic—we can view freedom here as the practice of multiplying the avenues we can access to achieve our desires. In the context of JAM, Goode Bryant and her collaborators were indeed interested in practicing freedom by creating another option for artists who, like Hammons, refused to be reduced by commercial corporations unable to accommodate the galactic ingenuity of their work.

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David Hammons (left) and Suzette Wright (centre) at the body print-in held in conjunction with Hammon’s Greasy Bags and Barbeque Bones exhibition, Philip Yenawine’s home, 1975. Courtesy: David Hammons and Collection Linda Goode Bryant, New York; Photo:Jeff Morgan

The pioneering spirit of Goode Bryant and her collaborators is further illustrated by an anecdote about Norman Lewis’ painting No. 2 (1973), which featured in one of JAM’s early exhibitions. During the opening, someone leaned against the painting and accidentally smeared the surface with hair conditioner. After the crowd seeped out and Goode Bryant turned off the lights to prepare to leave, she noticed the oily stain. Goode Bryant was uninsured but refused to return a damaged painting in Lewis’s studio and turned to her friend Faythe Weaver for help, who crumpled up a piece of bread and began gently blotting the surface: ‘It will pull it out of the canvas and out of the painting.’ Lo and behold, she was right: “I don’t think either of them ever knew the difference. Thank God,” Weaver reflects in the audio that accompanies the exhibit. While the hair grease debacle may have caused some to throw up their hands, Goode Bryant moved on.[their] innate ability to use what we have to create what we need” (MoMA Exhibit Text, 2022).

JAM possessed a profound ability to change based on the needs of its components, strengthening its ability to truly serve artists by providing them with both spatial and informational resources to exercise their agency. For example, JAM didn’t just exhibit Hammons’ now famous exhibition body casts, but invited the artist to lead a workshop where he taught community members to use his innovative method and create their own artworks. We can also check out JAM’s seminars, such as the Business of Being an Artist, which ran from 1978-1981 and taught artists the intricacies of the trade, and the Brunch with JAM lecture series, which ran throughout the year 70s and presented curators and artists alike. Such programs, running in parallel with the gallery’s exhibition schedule, illustrate the fact that JAM was not just a place to exhibit, but also a place to nurture, to push one’s artistic practice to the edge while accommodating structural needs. In other words, JAM taught artists how to survive in a social, political and historical context that favors easily exploitable forms.

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Enter Senga Nengudi Air propo at JAM, 1981. Courtesy: Senga Nengudi

To this end, the sentiments “We have become a laboratory for artists to advance their work” and “Collaboration is […] essential” also appear on the gallery walls. Lorraine O’Grady performed the first iteration of “Mademoiselle Bourgeoisie Noire” at JAM in 1980, showed up unannounced at the gallery opening, donned a dress made of over 180 pairs of white gloves and proclaimed – as described on the artist’s website – ” Black art must take more risks”. In addition, JAM sponsored a 1981 joint performance by Nengudi, choreographer Cheryl Banks and jazz composer Butch Morris, which is documented in Changing Spaces. Each example announces the gallery’s support for artworks that have eluded capture or containment in a market context, as well as a celebration of forms that have emerged from creative exchange. JAM’s legacy assumes that while the arts industry has long celebrated supposed individual “genius,” enduring brilliance is forged through experimentation and collectivity.

Just Above Midtown: Changing Spaces is on view through February 18, 2023 at the Museum of Modern Art, New York.

main image: Barbara Mitchell (center right) and Tyrone Mitchell (far right) at the opening of the Synthesis exhibition, November 18, 1974. Courtesy: the Hatch-Billops Collection, New York; Photo: Camille Billops

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