On the first day of the graduate seminar Museum Interpretation Practices, offered by the RISD Museum in partnership with the John Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanities, students were assigned the task of describing, deducing, and speculating on an object’s values and beliefs, and our ideas about its time, without the aid of exhibit labels. I chose Andy Warhol’s Race Riot, 1964.
In undertaking this assignment, I followed T.J. Clark’s style of experimental art writing in The Sight of Death, where he chronicles daily visits to the Getty to better understand his shifting perspectives on his object of study, and gathers a storehouse of experiences before synthesizing an interpretation. Clark’s interpretive method favors the hyper-local, quotidian, and durational. If Foucault has it that power operates at all levels of society, Clark’s criticism answers with a politics of everyday life. Combining his diaristic style with methods in material culture, artifact studies, and critical theory, my interpretation of Race Riot, 1964 took shape as the following:
I was familiar with Race Riot before I was assigned to observe it on the first day of class. I passed by it many times on my way to previous RISD courses, but I never gave it much time. I put this section of the RISD Museum on the back burner because I wanted to enjoy it with time. Now was my chance to consider it with more curiosity and imagination. My immediate thoughts conjured historical moments of brutal violence, though, ironically, I thought of movies and art. Four in particular: Quills (2000), The Crucible (1996), Joseph Beuys’ I like America and America Likes Me and Goya’s The Third of May 1808. I thought of these works in particular because they evidence the trope of artists challenging systemic brutality, and they also, of course, represent violence. In the case of the Marquis de Sade in Quills, the violence in question is a burning at the stake. In The Crucible, there are witch-hunts and hangings, and in Goya, an execution by a firing squad. All of these scenes leapt from the image of the police dog chewing at the flesh of the black civil rights protester in Race Riot. Yet, more historically, Race Riot summoned the core genealogy of GOP white supremacy: Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential run that campaigned against New Deal liberalism and the Civil Rights movement, and promoted state’s rights to consolidate structural racism. Even if Goldwater didn’t win the election, his campaign defined a social value system fixed in racism and conservatism that is commonplace today.
My thoughts moved to Joseph Beuys' I Like America and America Likes Me. It may have been the visual resemblance to Race Riot: the black and white rendering, the ferocious dog, the political gesture. Then looking more closely at Race Riot, I thought Warhol was abstracting brutality; erasing, or sanitizing, the brutal occurrence. I was looking at the detail of the bite. Disquieted, I asked myself what was at stake for an artist like Beuys to put himself in danger with a coyote in a gallery? I looked at the black protester in Race Riot and tried to comprehend his reality. What had been at stake for him? Certainly not a commission. Reading Race Riot’s curatorial file, I find out that it was part of a series called Death and Disaster for a 1964 gallery show in Paris, where it sold for $15,127,500. While the painting communicated horrific aspects of the American Dream to a global public, the question remains as to how politically committed Race Riot was. Can we get a clue by observing its aesthetics?
Prior to my second of the three trips I made to visit Race Riot, I thought of how Warhol abstracted sections of the painting, namely the dog biting the protester. The reason I kept thinking of his abstraction of Race Riot was to situate it with his late-seventies abstract expressionist series Shadows. It appears Warhol became aware in making of the Race Riot series of an aesthetic he would later develop in Shadows, a method of zooming into photographic details to extract or contract zany and edgy color schemes. Only Shadows is more overtly linked to Post-war abstract expressionist painting, and Warhol being a Pop Art artist sparked suspicion in me with regard to his use of black protest imagery. Did Race Riot give birth to Shadows? And if it did, how was the black body implicated in the reinvigoration of a white school of American painting? Indeed, the title Shadows seems suggestive of Warhol’s imaginary and also the Euro-American modernist imagination more broadly. I considered Michael North’s study of how Gertrude Stein, Picasso, Ezra Pound, and T.S. Eliot utilized blackness to grasp their modernist aesthetic [i]. Shadows, in this respect, originates from spectroscopic experiments with the black body in Race Riot. What, then, can be said of black representational space? This question lingers as I make my way to the museum.
February 13, 2016
I arrive for my second visit of Race Riot. The night before I re-read two previously assigned texts on material culture and artifact studies: Jules David Prown’s Mind in Matter and Susan M. Peace’s Thinking About Things; also Warhol’s curatorial file. I don’t follow Prown and Pearce step-by-step, but I am informed by their vocabulary. I’m prompted to look for contexts and patterns of mind. I’m eager to connect observations of iconology and style to applied arts and devices. I seek out transmitted meanings, engaging objects intellectually and emotionally. I cluster artifacts, ruminate typology, super randomly. I think of Albert Pilavin’s Collection and how it might relate to the Paula and Leonard Granoff Galleries.
Initially I sit right in front of Race Riot. I make an effort to bring my back my thoughts on abstraction and black representational space. I focus on what’s blurry in the painting. It does nothing to me. I pick up my stool and walk around to survey what surrounds it. Facing Race Riot there’s a Pollock. I find it amusing that in my object file there’s a copy of a Warhol biographical sketch that puts him second to Pollock “in terms of influence and historical import,” and here they are, eye-to-eye. On the wall adjacent to Race Riot there’s a Hockney and a Baldessari. I reason these two artists would appeal to Pilavin, judging by his taste for Wood Gaylor (whose elegant coloration, open attitude, and witty play of shapes recalls Hockney); and Morton Livingston Schamberg (who had a fascination with machines and was a proto-dadaist, like Baldessari). I realize that imagining these typologies isn’t bringing me resonance with regards to Warhol; on the other hand, I do feel psychic momentum gaining traction. Right next to Race Riot, on a platform, there’s a vogue red “Pop” chair accompanied by a matching colored “Pop” typewriter. These furnishings put me in a universe of first-world affluence and Saul Bass. I unfold my stool near the typewriter and attempt to string together thoughts and feelings, but immediately my attention is alerted by the political messages playing on the television monitor across the platform. I follow along:
The NEW MEDIA STATE
Is dependent on propaganda
For its existence
It is the consumer
Who is consumed
Now we’re getting somewhere. The words materialism and propaganda politicized my relational stance to Warhol and all the objects surrounding. I was brought back to earth. For the past hour I had lingered on the selective entification of the collector, but now social class and social order was brought back to the equation. I came back to the question of Race Riot’s politics. Was it symptomatic necrophilia of the Atomic Age, market-logic banality of evil, nihilist capitalist scum? I leave the museum feeling all of the above, but also with the contradictory joy of having seen cool stuff. Does it all belong to the mannequins? Is the gallery their kitchen and living room?
February 14, 2016
My heart, break into a leap!
This time the mannequins are hosting me. The first thing I do on my third and last day of observing Race Riot is return to Television Delivers People (1973) by Richard Serra. It moved me so much the day before, I wondered if its placement in the gallery was gestural radical museology. I cruised the gallery with that in mind and noticed other connections to mass communication and mechanical reproduction. Parallel to Serra’s televised footage is Warhol’s newspaper clip, and parallel to Warhol’s newspaper clip are two Bolshevik-era plates (one by designed by Malevich) that promote working class struggle and Constructivist aesthetics. Still on the opposite end of the gallery, behind Serra’s video display, there’s a Frankenstein canvas—though not a zombie, a programmed ghoul. What to make of this perception? Am I thanatoid in a necropolis?
I move on to experience the gallery through the vantage point of all the mannequins in the room: these affluent women authorized as superficial consuming objects. I have a feeling of depraved decadence, like I’m helpless without shopping. I imagine paintings and photographs on the wall as windows to the world, and see in the peripheral distance the reality in the Roy de Carva, Danny Lyon, Jacob Lawrence, Aaron Douglas, Diego Rivera, and Joaquin Torres Garcia. What would happen if these realities took center stage? What if the domestic scenes were reshuffled? What if a Glenn Ligon painting stood eye-to-eye with Race Riot—which would seem mannequin?
I gather there’s room for experimentation. I intend to return to these objects with new readings, new understandings. More soon.
[i] See Michael North The Dialectic of Enlightenment: Race, Language, and Twentieth-Century Literature (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994).