Portrait of Charlie Parker, 1968, Oil on canvas
Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, New York
The Whitney Museum of American Art exhibit, “Blues for Smoke,” features an exciting array of works by a wide range of contemporary black artists. But it offers so much more. A journey back in time, the combination of works, inspired by African-American music, slips you, with a heady mix of anticipation and foreboding, into a dark, back alley jazz club that would be easily at home in the ruins of Potsdam, Berlin, or along the steamy backwater canals of New Orleans. The mood of the show captures the feeling of folks gathered at smatterings of café tables as you enter, where you sit and listen to live jazz vocals in an atmosphere tinged with the bite of a gin cocktail and the halo of cigarette smoke.
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.