Between Absence and Presence: Rising River Blues


(left) Whitfield Lovell, Whispers—Mattie When you Marry, 1999. Charcoal on wood and found objects. Courtesy DC Moore Gallery © Whitfield Lovell and DC Moore Gallery, New York (right) Whitfield Lovell, Whispers—Rising River Blues, 1999. Charcoal on wood with found objects, 90 1/2 x 52 1/2 x 48 in. Courtesy DC Moore Gallery © Whitfield Lovell and DC Moore Gallery, New York

In Whitfield Lovell: The Kin Series and Related Works, the two tableaux pictured above (Mattie When You Marry at left and Rising River Blues at right) face each other on either end of a gallery. They were originally conceived as part of a larger installation that the artist developed in 1999 during a residency in Denton, Texas. Presented here, the single female and male figure represent the collective lives of Quakertown, the rural African American community that once thrived in the center of Denton from 1875 until 1924. In 1924, the residents were displaced when they were perceived as a threat to a nearby all white girls school. To help summon their memory, Lovell immersed himself in thousands of old family photographs from the Texas African American Photography Archive in Dallas.

The melodic sounds of “Rising River Blues” emanate from the phonograph you see in Rising River Blues and set the tone for the piece. The artist stimulates our sense of sound and sight with the textured layering of strewn clothes evocative of disembodied individuals, thereby inviting the viewer into a space that hovers between absence and presence.

Rising River Blues
Rising river blues, runnin’ by my door
Rising river blues, runnin’ by my door
They runnin’, sweet mama, like they haven’t run before

I got to move in the alley, I ain’t ‘lowed on your street
I got to move in the alley, I ain’t ‘lowed on the street
These rising river blues sure have got me beat

Mmm, mmmm, mmm, mmmm, hmmmm
Mmm, mmm, mmmm, mmm, hmmm,
Mmm, mmmmm

Come here, sweet mama, let me speak my mind
Come here, sweet mama, let me speak my mind
To cure these blues gon’ take a long, long time
–lyrics by George Carter, 1929

Whitfield Lovell: The Kin Series and Related Works is on view through Jan. 8, 2017.

The Sweet Scent of Magnolia


Whitfield Lovell, Kin VII (Scent of Magnolia), 2008. Conté on paper,silk flower wreath, 30 x 22 ½ x 3 in. Collection of Julia J. Norrell © Whitfield Lovell and DC Moore Gallery, New York

The subtitle of Whitfield Lovell‘s Kin VII draws an immediate connection to “Strange Fruit,” a protest poem about lynching made famous by singer Billie Holiday in 1939. The startling pairing of a male figure with a red and pink bouquet of silk flowers is reminiscent of the song’s ironic contrast of the sweet scent of magnolias with the smell of burnin’ flesh. And yet, as with all his work, the artist seeks to open up many possible meanings depending on the perspective of the viewer.

As scholar Kevin Quashie has written, “Are these flowers from his room, a private and unusual explosion of color? The flowers he gave to a date or the ones he brought to a funeral? A sign of his desire to visit all the world’s spectacular gardens? . . . [Or] a more ominous reading—his killed body marked by a wreath . . . we can wonder if he loved pink and purple tones, without ignoring the possibility of racist violence. Whatever the story, the flowers are a surprise that interrupt the dominant narratives that might be ascribed to the profile of a black man of that age.”

Strange Fruit
Southern trees bear a strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swingin’ in the Southern breeze
Strange fruit hangin’ from the poplar trees

Pastoral scene of the gallant South
The bulgin’ eyes and the twisted mouth
Scent of magnolias sweet and fresh
Then the sudden smell of burnin’ flesh

Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck
For the sun to rot, for the tree to drop
Here is a strange and bitter crop
–original poem by Abel Meeropol, 1937

Whitfield Lovell: The Kin Series and Related Works is on view through Jan. 8, 2017.

Artist as Poet: The Purest Red

On July 21, 2016, Deputy Director for Curatorial and Academic Affairs Klaus Ottmann shares an overview of Karel Appel: A Gesture of Color. In anticipation, we’re sharing examples of Appel’s poetry paired with his artwork on the blog. 

Appel_Wounded Nude

Karel Appel, Wounded Nude, 1959. Oil on canvas, 72 x 95 5/8 in. Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris

In my inner life exists a desire
for the purest red
my nervous system is red
my tissues are red
my entire being is red
the primal animal lies
on the beach
as a broken red sun
drenched with dark red blood

Karel Appel, “Ode to Red”







Appel_Floating Like the Wind

Karel Appel, Floating like the Wind, 1975. Oil on canvas 78 3/4 x 102 3/4 in. Private Collection © Karel Appel Foundation, c/o ARS New York, 2016

Never heard the sound of her voice
floating over the desert
full of space nostalgia and loneliness
where yellow camels stare into infinity

Karel Appel, “Fata Morgana”