Glenn Ligon brings jazz to the Whitney

It must have been incredibly daunting to put together the thought-provoking exhibit, “Blues for Smoke,” at the Whitney Museum, which runs through April 28. The brainchild of Bennett Simpson, curator at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, in consultation with the artist Glenn Ligon, the exhibition attempts to demonstrate how the blues inspired, nurtured and affected the Western sensibility and aesthetic from the 1950s to the present. Amazingly, they have caught the amorphous spirit of the blues in paintings, multi-media installations, photography and sculpture, leaving a visitor not only humming but with a deep appreciation of what the blues means to our culture. The title comes from Jaki Byard’s debut solo recording, “Blues for Smoke” (1960), an improvisation on blues form.

bearden_Eastern BarnRather than a history of the blues, tracing its origins in early 20th century African American vernacular culture of the Mississippi Delta and New Orleans, Simpson writes in his catalogue essay, “It holds artists and art worlds together that are often kept apart, within and across lines of race and generation. It resists telling a single story based on the assumed self-evidence of a category or culture, but maintains the urgency for a multiple-meter of ostensibly divergent stories.” To this end, visitors can stop at listening posts and video viewing stations to hear musicians such as Lightnin’ Hopkins and Sun Ra, and watch television programs and documentaries. The museum is also holding concerts, performances and readings related to the blues.

The show tells many varied and intriguing stories, getting off to a powerful start in the first gallery with David Hammons installation “Chasing the Blue Train” (1989). A dark blue toy train runs around the room on a lengthy track, bounded by the lids of six baby grand pianos turned on their sides, circling around and around piles of coal. In the background, recordings of Theolonious Monk, John Coltrane and James Brown’s “Night Train” play on boom boxes loudly and simultaneously, creating a tense and chaotic atmosphere. Not just a tribute to Coltrane’s “Blue Train,” the installation conjures up images of all the night trains in African American history.

Artist Romare Bearden also takes trains as a symbol, using them as representations of the black migration North after slavery, as the carriers of hauled materials from steel yards and as the providers of blacks with jobs. In his “Train Whistle Blues II” (1964), a crowded montage of faces and instruments, looking stuffed into a small room, conveys the intensity of jazz, the resiliency of the musicians and their fractured lives. Real musicians are the often the subject of photographer Roy De Carava, who captured the force of the great saxophonist in “Coltrane #24” (1961) and the gentleness of the singer in “Billie Holiday” (1952), both of them embodiments of the blues. In the physical carriage of the man and woman in de Carava’s “Couple Dancing” (1953) their affection for one another is infused with melancholy. But the blues are not simply melancholy, as artist Jean-Michel Basquiat demonstrates in two drawings from 1982, which capture the rhythm, complexity and jagged nature of the blues, with word and lines wildly juxtaposed. That’s the genius of the exhibition, its ability to bring together so many seemingly disparate works and make a visitor appreciate the sensibility that they share.