Trailer for “Black Art: In the Absence of Light.” | Video by HBO

 

THE OPENING SCENE OF Sam Pollard‘s documentary “Black Art: In the Absence of Light” is half-century-old footage of NBC’s Tom Brokaw talking with David C. Driskell (1931-2020) on the Today Show. The interview is about Driskell’s seminal exhibition “Two Centuries of Black American Art” a survey of more than 200 works by 63 artists. An artist, scholar, and curator, Driskell was chair of the art department at Fisk University in Nashville, when he began organizing the show at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where it opened in 1976.

Brokaw asked why Driskell had a problem with describing the presentation as an exhibition of “Black art.”

“When one says Black art it more or less isolates the Black artist from the mainstream of American art and even though this has happened throughout the years, where you have critical acclaim, historical analysis etc., the Black artist has not attempted to set himself apart. He has tried to be part and parcel of the mainstream,” Driskell said.

“But aren’t you setting him apart, in effect, by putting the show together with just Black artists?” Brokaw asked.

“Only because he has not had an audience with majority culture, for the most part, and because an exhibition of this nature gets his work before the public. Had this exhibition not been organized, many of the artists who were shown here never would have been seen,” Driskell replied.

With that exchange, Pollard sets up the film. “Two Centuries” drew record attendance and shifted cultural awareness, introducing the American public, the Black community, and the mainstream art world to a spectrum of 19th and 20th century Black artists.

“Two Centuries” frames “Black Art,” providing a through line to the 21st century and the practices of today’s most highly regarded African American artists and their contributions to visual culture. The film serves as an introduction to artists claiming space in the contemporary art world with unprecedented market attention, gallery representation, and museum recognition. Many reflect on the groundbreaking exhibition, Driskell’s leadership in the field, and their connections to artists who came before them.

Artists including Radcliffe Bailey, Sanford Biggers, Jordan Casteel, Kerry James Marshall, Betye Saar, Amy Sherald, Carrie Mae Weems, Kehinde Wiley, and Fred Wilson are interviewed in the film and several are shown working in their studios. Maurice Berger (1956-2020), Mary Schmidt Campbell, Sarah Lewis, Richard Powell, Valerie Cassel Oliver, Swizz Beatz (Kasseem Dean), and Bernard Lumpkin, are among the curators, scholars, and collectors who contextualize the artists’s practices and the significance of their critical attention.

Driskell’s aim to have Black artists be “seen” has certainly gained ground, but the circumstances still feel tenuous. “I think we are part of a continued renaissance. It’s been happening. What I’m most excited about is, Do we have the capacity to be great makers in the absence of light?” artist Theaster Gates posits in the film.

“If Blackness has something to do with the absence of light, does Black art mean that sometimes I’m making when no one’s looking? For the most part, that has been the truth of our lives. Is there a light? Yes. But until we own the light, I’m not happy. Until we are in our own houses of exhibition, of discovery, of research, until we’ve figured out a way to be masters of the world, then I’d rather work in darkness.”

For nearly 50 years, Pollard has been making feature films and documentaries, shedding light on the Black experience and distilling American history and culture. “Black Art” is his latest film. The documentary premiered on HBO Feb. 9.

“For me it was really about understanding the African American artistic experience. To see these artists at work, to see their process, to see why they want to create.” — Sam Pollard

An award-winning producer, director, and editor, Pollard has collaborated with filmmakers Henry Hampton (1940-1998) and Spike Lee and worked on projects about Barack Obama, Zora Neale Hurston, Marvin Gaye, Bayard Rustin, August Wilson, Sammy Davis Jr., Bill Traylor, Maynard Jackson Jr., and Max Roach (forthcoming). Most recently, he directed “MLK/FBI,” which opened in theaters and on demand Jan. 15. The documentary examines the FBI’s harassment and surveillance of the civil rights leader in the 1950s and 60s.

Pollard serves on the faculty of New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts and also teaches at the School of Visual Arts in New York City (MFA Social Documentary Film). He received a 2020 Lifetime Achievement Award from DOC NYC and was honored with a Career Achievement Award from the International Documentary Association, last month.

“Black Art” was executive produced by Henry Louis “Skip” Gates Jr., and Jacqueline Glover, with Thelma Golden, director and chief curator of the Studio Museum in Harlem, serving as consulting producer. Gates and Golden invited Pollard to direct the film. “For me it was really about understanding the African American artistic experience. To see these artists at work, to see their process, to see why they want to create,” Pollard told Culture Type.

Yesterday, I spoke with Pollard by phone. We talked about how the project came about, documenting the artists and their work, and the significance of the film’s title:

 


David Driskell in his studio, Still from “Black Art: In the Absence of Light,” 2020 | Courtesy HBO

 

CULTURE TYPE: The film that became “Black Art: In the Absence of Light” originated with Henry Louis Gates Jr., who brought the idea to HBO. How did you get attached to the project as director?

SAM POLLARD: Skip (Gates) brought in Thelma as an advisor/consultant and they were working on it for like a year (with another director). Then they reached out to me and asked me if I was interested. I said, “Yes.” Then Skip and I had pitched the idea to Thelma of doing a film framed around the 1994 exhibition that she curated, “Black Male.” (“Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary American Art” at the Whitney Museum of American Art). She thought that was the wrong direction and suggested that we reach out to David Driskell, the late David Driskell, who had curated the exhibition “Two Centuries of Black American Art.”

I reached out to David, met up with him, and pitched the idea. Then we talked about doing an interview in the summer of 2019, which we did. Then my producer started reaching out to other artists that we wanted to focus on who might have known about “Two Centuries of Black American Art” and the impact of that exhibit on their own careers. That’s why we reached out to Kerry James and Kara Walker. Amy Sherald and Theaster Gates, and others.

You have done a variety of films over the years, including the PBS series “I’ll Make Me a World: A Century of African-American Arts” focusing primarily on music, stage, film, and literature. Was there much visual art in that documentary?

Yeah. We did a section about African American art. We even interviewed Faith (Ringgold) around that time.

Beyond the film, what was your experience with visual art in general? Was this a topic you wanted to revisit?

I grew up knowing about some of these Black artists like Aaron Douglas and Romare (Bearden) and Jacob Lawrence. August Savage. So I was aware of these artists. I’ll be honest with you, it was an opportunity for me to take on a project that I found interesting in terms of the African American experience and that’s why I did it.

 

“I don’t really buy into this notion that this is a renaissance because I’ve seen what that means. One minute we’re very popular within the mainstream society and then we are forgotten about five minutes later.”
— Sam Pollard

 


KARA WALKER, Detail of “Insurrectiokn! (Our Tools Were Rudimentary, Yet We Pressed On),” 2000 (cut-paper silhouettes and light projections, dimensions variable). | © Kara Walker, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York Purchased with funds contributed by the International Director’s Council and Executive Committee Members. 2000.68

 


Theaster Gates in his Chicago studio, Still from “Black Art: In the Absence of Light,” 2020 | Courtesy HBO

 

Currently, we are experiencing what some would call a renaissance in Black visual art. Having worked on “I’ll Make Me a World” in 1999, did you feel like it was a ripe moment to give some context to what is going on now?

Here’s my answer to that. It’s always a good time to document the African American experience on all levels—art, poetry, literature, film. I don’t really buy into this notion that this is a renaissance because I’ve seen what that means. One minute we’re very popular within the mainstream society and then we are forgotten about five minutes later. I’m too cynical to say this was an important moment for me to make this film. I mean, listen, it’s great that many of these artists are being recognized now by the mainstream. I think that’s fabulous. But for me, it was really about understanding the African American artistic experience. To see these artists at work, to see their process, to see why they want to create. That’s what it means to me.

What you are talking about gets into what Theaster Gates was talking about, which is where the title of the film derives. He was speaking about working in the “absence of light.” Can you say a bit about his work and his comments in that direction and how it became a signal for the film?

He’s a special artist. He’s both a wonderful artist and an entrepreneur. Understanding that, there shouldn’t be a separation in terms of what he does as an African American artist and how he’s trying to have an impact on the Black community in Chicago. When we were sitting down, listening to him talk about his process, how he came to understand where he came from by knowing about Dave Drake (the 19th century potter) and then him understanding, and you know this, we have been looked at as invisible people for many years and so now this was an opportunity. He says we are creating in darkness and you have to be mindful. When you are given acceptance into the mainstream you can be co-opted. Your work can be co-opted. Your lifestyle can be co-opted. When he was talking and my wife, who is my partner, Joyce (Vaughn), she heard this line from him “in the absence of light.” That just made sense that it should be the title.

You talked earlier about the selection of artists, about reaching out to artists who had some knowledge of the “Two Centuries” exhibition. Did you also think about the artists in terms of generation, in terms of medium, the kinds of work they were doing, the kinds of subjects they were addressing? What was the variety or selection about?

There were some artists we selected because I loved their work and I like what they do visually. Some of them I like because they cause controversy. And I like that. We were very fortunate to locate and then go out and shoot Richard Mayhew, who’d been a part of “Two Centuries.” I felt it was time to give some props to Faith Ringgold, who is a phenomenal artist and activist. It was across the board. It was generational. It was people whose work I liked. It was people who I thought challenged the perspective of what it meant to be an African American. Those were the rationales.

 

“There were some artists we selected because I loved their work and I like what they do visually. Some of them I like because they cause controversy. And I like that.” — Sam Pollard

 


Faith Ringgold, Still from “Black Art: In the Absence of Light,” 2020 | Courtesy HBO

 

The scenes you had with Faith Ringgold and her daughter Michelle Wallace were great. It was an interesting moment when Ringgold talked about wanting to be a part of Spiral and she said when Romare Bearden wrote her back, his response was an unsolicited critique of her work.

Yeah, that was a good scene. She’s a very outspoken, very strong artist who believes in her work and believes in her commitment to what she wants to do. When she said that, I knew it had to be in the film.

And then Richard Mayhew. He’s the last living member of Spiral and it looked like you had archival footage of him and live interviews in three different time periods or moments. Is that right? Can you talk about capturing him?

We went to him. We shot the interview with him at his house outside of San Francisco. Then we went to his studio and watched him paint and then we were able to find some archival footage of him in other situations.

With Kerry James Marshall he almost serves as a bridge in the film. He’s an artist who visited the exhibition “Two Centuries of Black American Art” and he studied with Charles White. At the same time, he is also very much a prominent figure in contemporary art today. He spoke about his own practice, his use of black paint, and the significance of the figure. Can you talk about his role and participation in the film?

He was hard to get. We reached out to him a few times and he doesn’t have voicemail and I don’t know if he even does email. We kept calling and calling. I think my associate producer finally got him to pick up the phone and he said he would do it. He didn’t want us to show him actually painting. That’s why we shot some other footage. But he was hard to get. He is so well respected now as a painter and he has a very strong philosophy, like they all do, really. I mean, you can see that in Kara (Walker). She has a very strong philosophy. Theaster (Gates) has a very strong philosophy and so does Kerry James. Carrie Mae Weems. They all have very strong artistic and personal philosophies.

 


KERRY JAMES MARSHALL, “Untitled (Studio),” 2014 (acrylic on PVC panels, 83 5/16 × 119 1/4 inches / 211.6 × 302.9 cm). | © Kerry James Marshall. Purchase, The Jacques and Natasha Gelman Foundation Gift, Acquisitions Fund and The Metropolitan Museum of Art Multicultural Audience Development Initiative Gift, 2015.366

 


Kerry James Marshall in his Chicago studio, Still from “Black Art: In the Absence of Light,” 2020 | Courtesy HBO

 

It’s interesting. You talked about Marshall not wanting to be filmed painting. You have scenes of other artists working in their studios. Was there any resistance? Were other artists hesitant? Was that studio footage that you shot or footage that they provided?

It was a combination of both. With Amy we shot footage of her in her studio painting and then her putting up her pictures at the gallery where she had her exhibit. With Jordan Casteel, we used footage of her we shot, her painting in her studio. Then there was footage of another doc of her when she was on the streets of Harlem, I think. With Theaster, it was the same thing. We shot him doing his thing with the clay and then we shot him showing us around his quarry and then his wood shop. It was a combination of both. Kara we didn’t get working. But Kara Walker is well documented so that’s why we just had an interview with her.

Speaking again about footage, you had historic behind-the-scenes footage of “Two Centuries.” Who did that footage?

It was an African American filmmaker who I think was a professor at Fisk. He was brought in to shoot a film about the exhibit and David’s work behind it. That’s how we got that footage. It was a filmmaker from Fisk or Los Angeles. I am not sure which, but they shot the original footage.

Do you know if those scenes of the paintings laid out on tables and being packed up for shipping was that at Fisk or LACMA?

I don’t know. It might have been at Fisk. You know, I don’t know. Couldn’t tell you.

 


Amy Sherald working on “Precious jewels by the sea,” 2019 (oil on canvas, 120 x 108 x 2 ½ inches). The painting was acquired in 2020 by the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Ark. | Courtesy HBO

 


Jordan Casteel in her New York City studio, Still from “Black Art: In the Absence of Light,” 2020 | Courtesy HBO

 

In terms of Henry Louis Gates and Thelma Golden, did either of them have a role or input as you were making the film, editing it, and coming up with the final product?

Skip was very involved. When we had our first cuts, we showed Skip and Jackie Glover who was then at HBO. She was the major point person from HBO. The first three or four cuts we showed to Skip and Jackie. Then Jackie left HBO and then Lisa Heller became involved. Then we were screening with Lisa Heller and Skip and then when we got the cut to a certain point, where we were all happy with it—myself, Lisa and Skip—we then brought in Thelma to give it her blessing. She had some questions about certain things, things she felt we needed to explain more in a certain way.

The film is dedicated to the memory of David Driskell and Maurice Berger. They died last year after having contributed substantively to the project…

Extremely sad.

…At the same time, it is a blessing to have documented their insights. Talk a bit about their participation in the film.

David was all up for it. After Thelma made the connection, I went up to his (New York City) apartment and we had dinner that night and he talked about the genesis of “Two Centuries,” the obstacles he faced, and the artists he wanted to put in, the artists he left out because he couldn’t get everybody in and he was so excited. He was excited about being involved and that it was going to be framed around “Two Centuries.” Then we made a date that I would bring a camera crew up to Portland, Maine, where he has a summer house. We were there in July or August (2019). I am not sure now. We spent two days shooting the long interview with him, which is basically the main one you see in the film, and we shot him working in his studio painting. Then after we had a cut in December/November, there was a feeling that there were some things we needed some connection to. So we reached out to do that second interview with David. We took a train to Maryland and we shot that last interview (in December 2019). I even showed him the first six or seven minutes of the cut. He was very pleased.

 

“David was all up for it. …he talked about the genesis of “Two Centuries,” the obstacles he faced, and the artists he wanted to put in, the artists he left out because he couldn’t get everybody in and he was so excited.”
— Sam Pollard

 

What about Maurice Berger?

We did an interview, I think it was in April. March or April. We did a bunch of interviews over a four-day period. We had done Mary Schmidt Campbell, Sarah Lewis and we did Maurice and he was wonderfully giving.

Berger has a profound statement near the beginning of the film about “Two Centuries.” He said what Driskell did was he said, “This is Black art. It matters and it’s been going on for 200 years. Deal with it.”

Yeah, that’s right. He said, “Deal with it.” CT

 

IMAGE: Top right, Sam Pollard. | via NYU Tisch School of the Arts

 

READ MORE Artists and curators share memories of David C. Driskell on Culture Type

 


Radcliffe Bailey in his Atlanta studio, Still from “Black Art: In the Absence of Light,” 2020 | Courtesy HBO

 

BOOKSHELF
The catalog “Two Centuries of Black American Art” accompanied the seminal exhibition organized by David Driskell in 1976. “David Driskell: Icons of Nature and History” documents the new traveling exhibition dedicated to the artist’s six-decade career. “Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary American Art” was published on the occasion of Thelma Golden’s exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art and includes a foreword by Henry Louis Gates Jr. “Kerry James Marshall: Mastry,” the artist’s definitive monograph, was published to accompany his three-decade retrospective. “Jordan Casteel: Within Reach” documents the artist’s first solo museum exhibition in New York at the New Museum. Several volumes explore the work of Theaster Gates, including “Theaster Gates: Black Madonna” and “Theaster Gates (Phaidon Contemporary Artist Series.”

 

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