Curator Howard Singerman on Acts of Art and Rebuttal in 1971

Kristen Clevenson, Hunter College Art History MA Candidate

Acts of Art and Rebuttal in 1971 at Bertha and Karl Leubsdorf Gallery takes as its focus the 1971 exhibition, Rebuttal to the Whitney Museum Exhibition: Black Artists in Rebuttal, mounted by Acts of Art Gallery in response to the Whitney Museum’s exhibition Contemporary Black Artists in America of the same year. In the current exhibition, the many curatorial voices—supplied by Howard Singerman, Sarah Watson, and a collection of Hunter College MA Students—have bridged the gap between documents of institutional critique and stunning examples of visual art.

Howard Singerman, the Phyllis and Joseph Caroff Chair of Art and Art History at Hunter College, sat down with Kristen Clevenson to discuss Acts of Art and Rebuttal in 1971.

Installation view: Acts of Art and Rebuttal in 1971, Hunter College Art Galleries, 2018. Photo by Stan Narten. Left to right: Ademola Olugebefola, Pharaoh’s Journey, 1966-71; Ademola Olugebefola, Shango, 1969; Cliff Joseph, Superman (those who claim power over others are bereft of true power), 1966.

Kristen Clevenson: First, I wanted to ask: what brought you to the exhibition topic?

Howard Singerman: It came out of conversations with Valerie Cassel Oliver who is a curator at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond. Here at Hunter, as a Goldberg Visiting Curator, [Cassel Oliver] did two weeks on making African American Art History in the museum and getting that history to stick. We were talking about Cinque Gallery. Cinque had crossed my radar in several ways, but it was like, “Okay, what is this history and why isn’t there a history of this?”

So, I proposed to teach a curatorial seminar called Spaces for African American Art in New York, 1968-1975. In the course of research for the class, I came across a letter that Benny Andrews writes to Reginald Gammon where he mentions the Rebuttal show, which I knew something about but not tons. The Rebuttal exhibition [would often only be mentioned in writing as] a paragraph or two about the response to the Contemporary Black Artists in America show, and the Whitney was at the center, the Whitney was the subject. But I came across this letter—which we now have in a vitrine downstairs—saying, “The Rebuttal show offers a chance to give art historians a handle to grasp in putting whatsoever it is that happened this time in history concerning a group of artists identified by their Black skins.”¹ So when they said this will give art historians a handle to grasp it was like, “Okay, got it!”

Installation view: Acts of Art and Rebuttal in 1971, Hunter College Art Galleries, 2018. Photo by Stan Narten. Left to right: James Denmark, Island Paradise, 1966; Vivian Browne, Two Men, 1969; Benny Andrews, Liberty #6 (Study for Trash), 1971; Ademola Olugebefola, Pharaoh’s Journey, 1966-71

KC: Something I enjoyed was the use of documents in the exhibition. Oftentimes, for example in the Incomplete History of Protest at the Whitney, such archival materials are separated from the visual art, tucked behind a wall, or in a more transitional space, where you’re like ‘Oh, the history section.’ Here, the exhibition and the catalogue consciously forefront that documentation. How did you seek to weave in that history, as you tell the story of what happened 40 years ago and a bit of what has happened since?

HS: The way that the ephemera or the vitrines get set up, there are sort of multiple threads that run through it. One of the texts we read in the class was a volume called Black Art Notes.² It was published in 1971 by the sculptor Tom Lloyd, who was the subject of the very first exhibition at the Studio Museum in Harlem. One of the things Lloyd does shortly after is open up a community art center in Jamaica, Queens; he talks about the importance of community based art and community art centers…. and a good deal of it is about documenting the presence of Black art makers. So, it’s newspapers, reviews, magazines, invitation cards, archives. Lloyd’s guidelines for a study center was one of the touchstones for the historical section of the exhibition.

The second piece [that prompted including archival documents] was when Dindga McCannon came into the seminar, she, without being prompted to do so, brought in an archive. She brought in her old exhibition mailers, old catalogues, spread out cloth and put these archival materials on top of it.³ So, she brought in the archives and we thought “Okay.” And then, so much of the discussion—whether it was in Susan Cahan’s book (Mounting Frustration: The Art Museum in the Age of Black Power, 2016) or in our Acts of Art and Rebuttal catalogue—is the back and forth of letters.

Rebuttal Poster 1971
Poster for Rebuttal to the Whitney Museum Exhibition: Black Artists in Rebuttal at Acts of Art Gallery, 1971. RYAN LEE Gallery, New York and Adobe Krow Archives, Los Angeles.

KC: The influence of archives is something that we’ve embraced so much now, whereas galleries in the 60s didn’t have any records at all…

HS: It’s true, artists didn’t either. And it is the case, I think, that an artist like Dindga McCannon or Vivian Browne, felt the need to self-archive basically because nobody else was going to do it for them.

KC: Was there something you learned from the process of curating this exhibition that you wanted to highlight?

HS: Everything! There is a tension, to go back to something you asked in your earlier question, between telling the history as history – the history of a moment, of a movement–and exhibiting works of art. One of the things I think is really powerful in the exhibition is the Art Students League panel discussion film, and it’s a film that is seldom, if ever, seen. Richard Mayhew organized the panel and it was very political, yet the relationship between art and politics in Mayhew’s own artwork is not visible. And that, I think, is an important thing to think about. But there’s the question of how to do justice both to the artwork and the history. And how to present the artists where they have enough space that the artwork is seen as artwork.

KC: That was something I was thinking about as well. How did you choose the ten artists and their works?

HS: There was a desire to show work that was in the [original 1971] exhibition, if we could find it… But then also to show work that was historically accurate. But mostly to show work that was strong, that would hold the space, that wouldn’t be too crowded. We chose the ten artists by understanding that the original Rebuttal exhibition was quite stylistically diverse and what held the artists together was their desire for autonomy, their desire to speak together about the situation. So, it was a political exhibition, even though the works weren’t necessarily political. That’s, I think, one of the things that we worked hard to do.

Most of the time I think I should say we. I mean, Tess Thackara, one of the MA students, is the person who did all the work in the Whitney archives. All of the students who became fellows [Clara Chapin, Marie Coneys, Miles Debas, Jazmine Hayes, and Tess Thackara] interviewed the artists and crafted the biographical essays. Miles Debas went out to the Vivian Browne archives. They were engaged and they helped determine the checklist and the artists on the list.

Installation view: Acts of Art and Rebuttal in 1971, Hunter College Art Galleries, 2018. Photo by Stan Narten.

KC: Lastly, I wanted to ask how you felt taking on this topic as someone who presents as white, especially after the critique of Robert Doty [the curator of the Whitney’s Contemporary Black Artists in America exhibition]. It was clear from the turnout at the opening of the show that Acts of Art and Rebuttal was engaged with the community that was being represented. So, I wondered, how did you go from the past to that?

HS: That is a real question and I have about three complex answers to it. One is that this is research I wanted to do, and histories I wanted to know, institutions I wanted to know. And then there’s Valerie Cassel Oliver’s suggestion that this is my work to do too. If these are questions you have about institutions, about roles, about artists, then do the work. There’s a quote that I use in the catalogue from [curator] Edmund Barry Gaither who basically says, the fact that there are Black museums and Black galleries does not absolve mainstream, white-identified institutions from doing this work.⁴ They have a responsibility to do the work too. And he says this needs to be part of general art history.

The way the catalogue essay ends, and this is something I learned, is that the same page of the New York Times that has the review of the Whitney’s Contemporary Black Artists in America and the Rebuttal—which both get dismissed in the crudest [way] possible—I mean, it’s like “they’re not very good and not very Black” is how John Canaday, the white critic dismissed them—that same page in the newspaper has Grace Cluck, the New York Times art writer, writing about the Guggenheim Museum’s cancellation of Hans Haacke’s survey exhibition because of his Shapolsky et al Real Estate Holdings work.⁵ There’s no contemporary art survey text, no writing on conceptual art, no writing on institutional critique, that doesn’t talk about the Hans Haacke work and the cancelling of the exhibition. And none of them talk about the Rebuttal exhibition or the idea of the counter exhibition as a mode of critique. But they’re on the same page. There’s some way that this is the same art history or part of the same art history, assuming we read them that way.

Interview has been condensed and edited.

Acts of Art and Rebuttal in 1971 is on display through Sunday, November 25, 2018 at Hunter College’s Bertha and Karl Leubsdorf Gallery, 132 East 68th Street New York, NY, 10065

¹Letter from Benny Andrews to Reginald Gammon, March 23, 1971. Reginald Gammon papers, 1927–2007, bulk 1960–2005. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. Series 2: Correspondence, 1964–2005: Andrews, Benny, 1971, 1992–2002.
²Lloyd, Tom, ed. Black Art Notes. Self-published, 1971.
³A photograph of Dindga McCannon’s personal archives presented at Hunter is included in Act of Art and Rebuttal in 1971 (New York: Hunter College Art Galleries, 2018), p. 100.
Edmund Barry Gaither, “Toward Viable Participation,” The Art Gallery (April 1970): 44. “[The] creation and development of Afro-American or Black museums does not relieve major American (white) art institutions of the responsibility to exhibit and collect the art of Afro-American artists, nor of the duty to integrate them into general art scholarship […] Afro-American museums do not negate or deny the need for galleries, other museums and college and university art programs to contribute to the educational and commercial expansion of art by Afro-Americans.’”
New York Times, April 7, 1971, p. 52.