En Plein Air: Reflections of a ‘Black Flaneuse’ in New York

As I look back to document a few more reflections on my mid-February trip to New York, the memories that immediately return (writing three months on) create a remembrance that seems much more vivid than is typical when recounting past life experiences over that space of time. Moreover, the thoughts that have come back to me now are currently being experienced with a level of emotional intensity and aesthetic (re-)visualisation that is markedly more powerful than any prior reflections on wandering through the well-trodden cultural spaces of the five boroughs. Why? Well, perhaps, the varied combination of sights, sounds and multi-sensory experiences engaging with art back then – within and without the walls of museums, galleries and other heritage settings – now represent my last long-distance international trip (certainly for the remainder of 2020, and potentially much longer) for the foreseeable future. This imbues the process of remembering with a higher level of significance.

Like several previous trips to the Big Apple, the actualities of spending time in Manhattan, Brooklyn and the Bronx did not always live up to my pre-Covid-19 pandemic imaginings of a perfect visit – carefully curated and confidently committed to paper, as though the mere act of transferring those internal musings onto the physical pages of my diary to construct an itinerary of hoped-for positive events and stimulating interactions would somehow make those dreams a certainty. It didn’t, of course – as New York is a place where I regularly encounter the most overt and destabilising forms of racism and anti-blackness when I’m touring museums. Nevertheless, the bulk of my mosaic of memories (both during the planning stages of that trip, and the lived realities of what actually occurred) are now held within my store of significant, internalised, contemplative moments, which I now evoke to reflect on important life events before the Covid-19/coronavirus pandemic.

‘AMOR’ (2006) by Robert Indiana (1928-2018) – one of three famous public artworks from his “Love” series, on display within a rooftop sculpture garden along the High Line, close to West 28th Street. Collectively, the three pieces articulate ‘LOVE’ in English, Spanish (Amor), and Hebrew (Ahava) – thus symbolising – linguistically, and in other culturally significant ways – three of New York’s most historic and widely-spoken languages. Photo: Carol Ann Dixon.

I’ve chosen to post this specific day of reflections at this particular moment (eight weeks into lockdown, from my home in the UK) to help restore some semblance of still feeling fully connected to an exterior world.

The selection of images (shown above, and below) record one day of flânerie – my 21st-century equivalent of the Shay Youngblood-esque wanderings of a ‘Black Flâneuse’ in the city, transposed to New York’s contemporary urban landscape (as opposed to a 1990s Parisian cityscape).

Carol Ann Dixon pictured in front of the Vessel, Hudson Yards, New York (February 2020). The honeycomb-like, multi-layered structure was designed by British architect Thomas Heatherwick, and opened in 2019.

Taking Hudson Yards as my point of departure, the illustrated narrative presents views of – and perspectives on – a range of artworks I chose to capture (in words and pictures) wandering along the High Line, concluding my stroll inside the galleries of the Whitney Museum of American Art. 

The Vessel at Hudson Yards. Photo: Carol Ann Dixon.

‘Brick House’: Simone Leigh’s Sculptural and Architectural Tribute to Black Women

Carol Ann Dixon pictured in February 2020 in front of Simone Leigh’s monumental bronze sculpture ‘Brick House’ (from the series Anatomy of Architecture). This famous 16-ft high bust of a black woman was the inaugural public sculpture to be displayed on the High Line’s Plinth – an open-air exhibition space, located along the section of the walkway known as the High Line Spur, near 30th Street and Tenth Avenue.

Activism in Artistic Form

A recently created public sculpture that captured my attention along the High Line was a monumental-scale clock (shown below), positioned close to the 24th Street section of the outdoor exhibition space. This piece was created by Aberdeen-born Scottish artist Ruth Ewan and titled ‘Silent Agitator’ (2019). Her artwork was based on an illustration originally produced for the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).

‘Silent Agitator’ (2019) by Scottish artist Ruth Ewan. Aluminium, acrylic, paint. Dimensions: (55 x 20 x 12 in.) Photo: Carol Ann Dixon.

According to the interpretation text printed on a nearby panel, the clock was seen as a nod to the round-the-clock organising work of the IWW and their campaigns for labour rights. Consequently, the artwork was also seen as a contemporary representation of “the private vs. public separation of space and time we experience in capitalism, and a possible future where we gather together for their reclamation” (Source: High Line Art Exhibition – En Plein Air, April 2019-March 2020).

Five Conversations – Dialogues with Lubaina Himid

The paintings featured in the work ‘Five Conversations’ (2019) were created by internationally renowned British artist and arts scholar Professor Lubaina Himid, CBE, RA (b. 1954, Zanzibar, Tanzania). The installation showed five stylishly dressed women of colour, with diverse skin tones, painted onto five found wooden doors. Each reclaimed door originally came from traditional Georgian townhouses, so the contemporary portraits painted on their surfaces conveyed elements of theatricality, diversity and dynamism – very much in keeping with Lubaina Himid’s signature style of producing life-sized, sculptural cut-outs grouped into conversational figurative assemblages that are both playful and also politically aesthetic. As I stood and admired these women I felt I was part of their conversation, being welcomed into what I imagined to be animated discussions about expressions of black and brown womanhood, diasporic identities, and issues of corporeality in Western urban space.

Images from the Whitney Museum of Art

Once inside the Whitney, the works I chose to focus on during my perambulations through the gallery space were primarily modern and contemporary pieces created by African American and African Diaspora artists, as illustrated below in the selection ranging from works by the modernist painter Archibald John Motley Jr. (1891-1981), Harlem Renaissance sculptor Elizabeth Catlett (1915-2012), and quilter Effie Mae Howard (aka Rosie Lee Tompkins) (1936-2000), through to contemporary sculptures by Nick Cave and Simone Leigh.

‘Three Sixes’ (1986) by Arkansas-born, African-American artist and quilt-maker Effie Mae Howard – whose art was often shown using her assumed name Rosie Lee Tompkins (1936-2000) – is reflective of celebrated quilting techniques from the American South. ‘Three Sixes’ was made using quilted polyester double-knit, wool jersey and cotton. Photo: Carol Ann Dixon (February 2020).
Detail from the painting “Gettin’ Religion” (1948), by Archibald John Motley Jr. (1891-1981). This work depicts multiple interactions between characters on the streets of Chicago, representing imagery that evokes the era of the late 1930s and early ’40s presented in the form of a street parade. For Motley Jr, these animated group scenes of diverse characters were regularly used as as a form of socio-political commentary on issues of race, that juxtaposed racialised stereotypes of people on the South Side from the period (presented as caricatured figures with exaggerated features, typical of racist mainstream advertising throughout the segregated nation at that time) with realistic and more sympathetic representations of people he knew within the community, based on his own life experiences as a black Chicagoan. Photo: Carol Ann Dixon.
‘Head’ (1947) by Elizabeth Catlett (1915-2012). This terracotta sculpture was created by one of the most highly regarded and pioneering African American artists from the Harlem Renaissance era. Photo: Carol Ann Dixon.
An assemblage of two sculptures, photographed on display at the Whitney: ‘Birds of a Feather’ (2017) – a mixed-media sculpture by Jeffrey Gibson (shown left). Glass beads, wood, acrylic, felt, metal cones, nylon fringe and steel; ‘Soundsuit #20’ (2005) – a wearable fabric sculpture from the poignant ‘Soundsuit’ series by Nick Cave (b. 1959, Fulton, Missouri), shown on the right. Found sequins and hand-beading on fabric. Photo: Carol Ann Dixon.
Detail from ‘Portals’ (2016) by Njideka Akunyili Crosby. Acrylic, solvent transfer, collage of fabric and coloured pencil on paper. This collage-based figurative work was displayed at the Whitney during February 2020 Photo: Carol Ann Dixon.
‘Cupboard VIII’ (2018) by Simone Leigh. This sculpture was first displayed at the Whitney as part of the 79th edition of the Whitney Biennial (2019). Stoneware, steel, raffia, Albany slip. Photo: Carol Ann Dixon.

Further reading:

Elizabeth Catlett (1915-2012) – Artist’s biography and portfolio of works displayed online via Artsy: http://www.artnet.com/artists/elizabeth-catlett/

Nick Cave (b. (b. 1959, Fulton, Missouri, USA) – Artist’s biography and image gallery featured on the Jack Shainman Gallery’s web pages: https://jackshainman.com/artists/nick_cave

Simone Leigh (b. 1967, Chicago, Illinois, USA) – Artist’s biography and image gallery of recent sculptures, on Artsy: https://www.artsy.net/artist/simone-leigh

Archibald John Motley Jr. (1891-1981) – Artist’s biography and portfolio, featured on the Whitney Museum’s website: https://whitney.org/exhibitions/archibaldmotley

Shay Youngblood (2000) Black Girl in Paris: A Novel. Riverhead Books [Google Books]

NYC High Line Art website – featuring online summaries, updates and previews about current and forthcoming art commissions: https://www.thehighline.org/art/

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