The word “mourning” makes one think of a funeral. That is often followed by a repast, where people brought together in sadness share memories and experiences, find solace in company, and discover—or reaffirm—commonalities. The new exhibit Grief and Grievance: Art and Mourning in America, on view at the New Museum in New York City through June 6, can be thought of as an artistic repast. The thirty-seven Black artists whose works are represented here range widely in age and choice of medium—from painting to photography to video to audio to installation. Even so, their works are in conversation with one another, forming sly and surprising connections.
The guiding force behind Grief and Grievance was the influential Nigerian curator, art critic, and educator Okwui Enwezor. Before his death at the age of fifty-five in 2019, Enwezor conceived of the show as a means of addressing “the concept of mourning, commemoration, and loss as a direct response to the national emergency of black grief.” The New Museum’s own description goes a step further. According to its website, the exhibition addresses “the national emergency of racist violence experienced by Black communities across America.”
Grief and Grievance occupies four floors of the museum. In such cases, it’s usually best to start at the top and work one’s way down; here, that means beginning in a room dominated by Rashid Johnson’s 2016 work Antoine’s Organ. Roughly sixteen feet high, twenty-eight feet long, and ten feet wide, the work is made of black steel with nine tiers and vertical bars. The tiers are crowded with potted plants—not just symbols of life, but actual life. Here and there we also find glow lights, video monitors playing some of Johnson’s previous works, and copies of well-known books by Black authors. We can read it as a trenchant comment on a nation characterized by mass incarceration: symbols of a thriving culture contained within a structure that recalls a cell block.
Mounted on the walls nearby is Mark Bradford’s Untitled (2020). Here, you might say, the conversation among the mourners begins. The three-dimensional grid of Johnson’s work finds a counterpart in Bradford’s, whose spark was a color-coded map that accompanied the McCone Report, a study commissioned by Gov. Pat Brown of California following the 1965 Watts Uprising. John McCone, a former CIA director, had identified unemployment and substandard schools as some of the underlying causes of the unrest; the map reduces areas of Watts to particular kinds of criminal activity and deterioration. Bradford’s work challenges—obliterates—such reduction. On this ten-foot-high, twenty-four-foot-wide canvas, red bleeds into yellow, yellow is streaked by tan and divided by rivers of black; shades of brown curve, flow, and interweave. There are shapes, too, almost resembling a forlorn face, a reaching arm—and nothing is simple, nothing fits into a premade box.