The Usable Past: Reflections on American History 2000–2017

This exhibition of prints and drawings from the 21st century explores how artists re-create the present through their investigations of historical people, places, and events.

America (2013) by Kim RuggThe Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

On a Usable Past

Adopted from a 1918 essay by literary critic Van Wyck Brooks (1886–1963), the term “usable past” calls for a rewriting of American history that, in turn, actively reshapes the nation’s collective memory. By citing historical and contemporary sources, the images in this exhibition build upon this concept as a way to grapple with the trauma and triumph that people of color have experienced in America. Prints, drawings, and photographs are often used to communicate political ideas, circulate messages, and empower the public. In particular, the accessibility and multiplicity of printmaking has been instrumental to liberation movements throughout the 20th and 21st centuries. From appropriating protest signage to re-envisioning the United States map, these artists excavate history to explore longstanding issues of activism, violence, and identity that persist in contemporary society.

Condition Report (2000) by Glenn LigonThe Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Conceptual artist Glenn Ligon (born 1960) is known for blending language and appropriated imagery. Condition Report, comprised of two screenprint-inkjet prints, derives from placards carried by black male sanitation workers during a 1968 strike in Memphis, Tennessee.

Following the wrongful death of two coworkers, the men protested for an equitable work environment, carrying signs that read “I AM A MAN.”

These prints are based on one of Glenn Ligon’s early text paintings. Seen here are notations from a museum conservator that indicate the painting’s cracks and stray marks, an assessment known as a condition report.

The juxtaposition of Glenn Ligon’s “I AM A MAN,” paired with the annotated report, highlights the de-contextualization that has occurred to the protest sign from its radical origins to its treatment now as a precious artifact.

The 1968 sanitation strike was documented by African American photojournalist Ernest C. Withers. News of the protest attracted the support of Martin Luther King Jr., who spoke to the group the night before he was assassinated.

“I AM A MAN” has become an artifactual statement of African American history as well as a continued assertion of humanity. Glenn Ligon’s use of the protest placard reflects a contemporary interpretation of this statement that is both individual and collective. Through reproducing physical evidence of the ravages of time on his own painting, he prompts reflection on how history has changed since the Civil Rights era.

Martin Luther King, Jr. (2002) by John Wilson, Jr.The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Fueled by the turbulent political climate during his lifetime, sculptor and printmaker John Wilson (1922–2015) created portraits of black dignity as an effort to combat racial injustice.

This life-size portrayal of Martin Luther King, Jr. illustrates him as an everyday man. King is shown with a fully finished face, and his casual clothing is composed of only simple bold lines against a nondescript background.

Wilson’s loose drawing style and printed finger smudges mimic his grand charcoal drawings created around the same time.

Martin Luther King, Jr. is traditionally viewed as a messianic figure and primary spokesperson for civil rights. Here, he is depicted in his full humanity, an ordinary citizen who helped bring progressive change to American society.

Codec Rite (2) (2007) by Jamal CyrusThe Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Spotlight: Jamal Cyrus

Houston-based artist Jamal Cyrus (born 1973) is concerned with revisionist histories and uses traces of the past to critique the present. He is known for excavating FBI memorandums from the Civil Rights era and the Black Power movements of the 1960s and 1970s to highlight the government-sanctioned surveillance of black bodies.

Listen to Jamal Cyrus discuss how Palmer Hayden’s painting impacted Cyrus’s own process for making this work.

Inspired by Palmer Hayden’s 1937 painting The Janitor Who Paints, Jamal Cyrus embodied the persona of a black male who balances his work as a janitor with his artistic practice. Working on the floor, Cyrus swept graphite powder over a piece of paper, which created the streaking effect in this work.

The streaking is paired with a screenshot found on YouTube from a 1968 documentary on Huey P. Newton, co-founder of the Black Panther party. Newton’s face repeats along the margin of the frame to resemble a filmstrip in motion.

Jamal Cyrus’s drawing directly critiques how socioeconomics often prohibited African Americans from achieving acclaim for their artistic talents. By drawing upon sources like Palmer Hayden and the Black Panther Party, Cyrus creates a nuanced depiction of African American history.

Genet from the series Ready Made Africans (2005) by David McGeeThe Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

David McGee (born 1962) critiques social identity using signifiers located throughout mainstream American culture and beyond. Inspired by the work of social critic Stanley Crouch (born 1945) and his critique of the canonization of whiteness in literature, McGee's watercolor series “Ready Made Africans” pairs names of white male authors with portraits of black men.

Here, the name Jean Genet—a 20th-century French petty criminal turned essayist and social activist—is coupled with an image of a black male in an orange prison jumpsuit.

David McGee's juxtaposition challenges the glorification of whiteness and marginalization of blackness in Western culture. Genet also suggests how both cultural and social erasure is achieved through the mass incarceration of black people in the United States.

Untitled (2013) by Nick CaveThe Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Nick Cave (born 1959) is a performance artist and fabric sculptor known for his wearable Soundsuits, created to disguise—but not erase or conceal— traces of racial, sexual, and gendered identities.

Nick Cave made his first Soundsuit in 1992 as a response to the brutal beating of black motorist Rodney King during King’s arrest by four white police officers in Los Angeles the year before.

Despite the widely televised footage showing the use of excessive force, a grand jury acquitted the accused officers, leading to the Los Angeles Riots that erupted after the verdict.

Nick Cave’s multi-layered screenprint is a departure from his usual three-dimensional work but still possesses similar visual elements such as furry hands, and feet with shoes.

Even using the flat screenprint technique, Nick Cave achieves a layering of forms and colors suggestive of movement and the performative activation of his three-dimensional suits.

Resurrection Story with Patrons (2017) by Kara WalkerThe Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Kara Walker (born 1969) creates silhouetted fantasies of pre-Civil War America that draw on the grotesque and oppressive reality of plantation life in the American South. In Resurrection Story with Patrons, she uses the triptych format of Western European religious altarpieces to memorialize the African American experience.

In the central panel, Kara Walker meditates on the power of historical monuments by depicting a sculpture of a black female who towers over several figures working to raise the form upright.

The flanking panels show two African American figures as the wealthy patrons who commissioned the work, elevating these unlikely figures to positions of honor.

Kara Walker’s oeuvre engages with the usable past by spotlighting the legacy of slavery in American society and the racialized violence that continues today.

The Strangest Fruit (2014) by Vincent ValdezThe Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Spotlight: Vincent Valdez

Texas-based artist Vincent Valdez (born 1977) investigates American history to highlight structures of white supremacy, and violence against—and the continued oppression toward—people of color. In “The Strangest Fruit,”  Valdez represents the bodies of Mexican and Mexican American men who were terrorized and murdered by lynching in the 20th century. He emphasizes the scope of white supremacist violence by inserting these bodies into a history that has often focused on the African American experience of trauma. These two prints are part of a larger series in which Valdez explores ideas of masculinity using portraits of his family members and friends to reference male archetypes in Latino culture.

In The Strangest Fruit, the left panel aligns past acts of violence with those of the present. A Mexican American male figure dressed as a modern-day cowboy is contrasted against a sharp white background. For artist Vincent Valdez, the white void represents erasure and the dominant cultural expectations of masculinity. With no explicit signs of struggle or violence, the figure floats midair seemingly from an invisible noose.

The right panel appropriates text from Abel Meeropol’s poem and song Strange Fruit. Popularized by Billie Holiday in 1939, the song’s lyrics use hanging fruit as a metaphor for bodies of African American people hanging from trees in the American South. Vincent Valdez presents the lyrics in English with the same lines inverted in Spanish. He localizes the context, changing the words of the song from “Southern trees” to “Texas trees,” and “Black bodies” to “Brown bodies."

America (2013) by Kim RuggThe Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Canadian artist Kim Rugg (born 1963) re-envisions world maps with hand-drawn precision. In the cartographic ink drawing America, black text designating the locations of cities, states, and natural features fills a white page to construct the United States.

By eliminating man-made boundaries, Kim Rugg rethinks the social impact of borders and the construction of a national identity. The artist describes the lack of borders as “a great feeling of equality and unity, and the relationships between countries, states, and towns are re-evaluated."

This incredibly detailed drawing encourages slow inspection and reflection. In the spirit of the usable past, America provokes new ways of thinking about a present and future with and without the baggage of international, state, and county borders. Kim Rugg offers a vision of a future devoid of the physical barriers that reinforce the social and political divides in contemporary American life.

Credits: Story

“The Usable Past: Reflections on American History 2000–2017” was organized by Amarie Gipson, the 2016–18 Mellon Undergraduate Curatorial Fellow in the department of prints and drawings at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

Special thanks go to Jamal Cyrus and Vincent Valdez.

Generous funding for this project provided by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Nick Cave, published by Open Press Ltd., Denver, printed by Mark A. Lunning, “Untitled,” 2013, screenprint in colors on wove paper, artist’s proof XV, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, gift of Michael W. Dale, in honor of the Museum Collectors, 2014.809

Jamal Cyrus, “Codec Rite,” 2007, screenprint in powdered graphite, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Museum purchase funded by Clinton T. Willour; Kerry F. Inman and Denby Auble; and Lea Weingarten in honor of Bryan Miller, 2012.383

Glenn Ligon, “Condition Report,” 2000, (.A): inkjet print in colors on wove paper, (.B): screenprint over inkjet print in colors on wove paper, Museum purchase funded by Stephen Crain, W. Gregory Looser, and Tony Visage, in honor of David Schwab at “One Great Night in November, 2005,” 2005.1082.A,.B

David McGee, “Genet,” from the series “Ready Made Africans,” 2006, watercolor on wove paper, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, gift of Fredericka and Ian Glennie, 2006.275

Kim Rugg, “America,” 2013, ink on wove paper, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Museum purchase funded by the Moore Family Trust, 2014.749

Vincent Valdez, published by Hare and Hound Press, “The Strangest Fruit,” 2014, lithographs and inkjet prints on wove paper, edition 7/10, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, gift of Kerry F. Inman and Denby Auble, 2015.383.A,.B

Kara Walker, printed by Burnet Editions, “Resurrection Story with Patrons,” 2017, series of three etchings with aquatint, sugar-lift, spit-bite, and drypoint on wove paper, edition 12/25, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Museum purchase funded by Bill Pritchard, Ralph Eads, Tony Petrello, Gary Petersen, and Doug Schnitzer at “One Great Night in November,” 2017, 2017.378.1-.3

John Wilson, published by Center Street Studio, “Martin Luther King, Jr.,” 2002, hard-ground and soft-ground etching, aquatint, spit bite and foul biting, and printed chine collé on wove paper, working proof, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Museum purchase funded by Art + Paper 2015, 2015.256

Gascoigne, Bamber. “How to Identify Prints: A Complete Guide to Manual and Mechanical Processes from Woodcut to Ink-Jet.” Thames and Hudson, 1986.

Suzuki, Sarah. “What Is a Print? Selections from the Museum of Modern Art.” Museum of Modern Art, 2011.

Aldridge, Derrick P. “The Limits of Master Narratives in History Textbooks: An Analysis of Representations of Martin Luther King, Jr.” Teachers College Record, 2006.

Brooks, Van Wyck. “On Creating a Usable Past.” The Dial, 1918.

D’Souza, Aruna. “Kara Walker.” 4Columns, 2017.

Felshin, Nina. “But Is It Art? The Spirit of Art as Activism.” Bay Press, 1995.

Johnson, Whitney. “The Double Life of Ernest C. Withers.” New Yorker, 2010.

Loos, Ted. “The Artist Nick Cave Gets Personal about Race and Gun Violence.” New York Times, 2016.

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