From left, all details: James VanDerZee, Escape Artist (1924); John Akomfrah, Precarity (2017); still from Magic Mike XXL (2015), directed by Gregory Jacobs; Ash Arder, Broadcast #3 (2018); Derrick Adams, Sunday’s Best (2017).
Black One Shot is a series that stages brevity and precision in response to a single work of black art, contemporary and/or prescient. Using a 1000-word conceit, it references the pressures on scholars and curators to present complex discussions and formulations of blackness for public consumption, political action, and academic relevance. It disputes staid frameworks of interpretation that cannot or will not account for the speculative, ambivalent, and irreconcilable ways of black forms. It speaks to the ongoing case for black lives and art mattering. And it conjures up the necessary intimacy generated between a critic and their object.
As an assembly of strategies, impulses, and circuits, these pieces conduct an historiographic and aesthetic review of how blackness and the arts demand and distend. We circulate them as a new measure of art criticism, one keyed to the channels and frequencies of blackness, pleasure, and critical contemplation. Black visual and expressive culture and all to which it is connected is better for these queries.
With 30+ contributors, b.O.s. will run the course of summertime, when the living is (un)easy. We invite you to follow and share as new work is issued every two weeks. Thanks to all the contributors and special thanks to Abram Foley, editor of ASAP/J.
This third transmission (7.2.18) features Shawn Michelle Smith on James VanDerZee’s Escape Artist, Mark Anthony Neal on John Akomfrah’s Precarity, Kristen J. Warner on the Augustus striptease in Magic Mike XXL, Jessica Lynne on Ash Arder’s Broadcast #3, and Uri McMillan on Derrick Adams’s Sunday’s Best.
– Michael Boyce Gillespie and Lisa Uddin (Editors)
In the late 1980s, Vicksburg, Mississippi-born fashion designer Patrick Kelly quickly rose to prominence.1 An eventual favorite of American celebrities, early clients of Kelly were often prominent black women—Iman, Cicely Tyson, Grace Jones, and Pat Cleveland.2 Before his death in 1990, Kelly had become the first American designer admitted into the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne, the governing body for the French fashion industry. A retrospective of his work was produced by the Brooklyn Museum in 2004, curated by Thelma Golden, and his archive of sketches, runway footage, and ephemera was donated to the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in 2014.
New York-based artist Derrick Adams drew extensively on this archive for his recent show, Derrick Adams: Patrick Kelly: The Journey (2017), an exhibition presented by the Studio Museum in Harlem.3 At the center of the exhibition was Adams’s “Mood Board” series: new abstract mixed media collages on paper “responding” to Kelly’s archive that often incorporated his signature fabrics, Vogue and Butterick dress patterns, oversized buttons, and other quirky embellishments. I traveled to New York City in the fall of 2017, first to research Kelly’s archive at the Schomburg and later to view Adams’s exhibition, which had been recently extended. This essay reads Kelly’s exuberant design work through the lens of Adams’s series, and Sunday’s Best (2017) in particular. The focus of my reading below is less on Adams’s piece per se, but rather how it enables a greater comprehension of Kelly’s oeuvre and the ontologies it proposes.
The bold graphic-like colors of Adams’s pieces are the first thing that struck my eye. Bright fire-engine reds, propulsive yellows, and deep blues animate several works—each with iterations of Runway in their titles—while swaths of luscious zebra and leopard print fabrics feature prominently in others. All the pieces are set against backgrounds of black paper and canvas-colored dress patterns that ensure the vibrant Pop Art effect of the exuberant colors and surfaces.4 In Adam’s “Mood Board” series, the sumptuous curves and shapes mimic the sensuous lines of the body present in many of Kelly’s stylized sketches of fashion models and outfits.5 It is a beautiful staging of a cross-generational multi-disciplinary dialogue between Kelly and Adams via renderings of pattern, color, and geometric form. The “Mood Board” series possesses something akin to movement, or even embodiment; in their painterly qualities they seem to almost sway or dance on the walls. While movement is a common aim or effect of much abstract painting, embodiment is more difficult to discern. And yet, style—featured so prominently in Kelly’s oeuvre—is inextricably linked to embodiment, a fact Adams seems keenly aware of. As a result, embodiment looms prominently in Adams’s black abstraction, despite the absence of explicit figures. Instead, the contours of Kelly’s clothing patterns, cut up and distributed throughout Adams’s grids, continuously trace the outline of the body, even while the body itself is fragmented and elusive.
Sunday’s Best (2017) perfectly exemplifies this unique relay between abstraction and the textures of the body. Featuring large panels of forest green and black on each side, the work’s focus is the object at its center: an approximation of a figure (or is it?) composed of black, white and brown-colored shapes, a half-circle of gingham fabric, Vogue dress patterns, and a slice of watermelon serving as a makeshift diadem. The intensity of that green, especially juxtaposed against the juicy watermelon and the work’s title, is no doubt informed by Kelly’s relationship to the American South. As his archive makes clear, Kelly’s boisterous sartorial aesthetics were influenced by the grandeur of the black church, reflected by his affection for the black women he so emulated and designed for. In a document on Patrick Kelly stationary, now housed in the Schomburg, Kelly composed a list of things he loved. In addition to the expected nods to buttons and bows, and Cleveland and Baker, the list featured humorous entries, such as “Lycra Dresses and Spare-Ribs” and “Pretty Girls and Valentine Candy Boxes and Fried Catfish.” If Kelly was unavoidably queer, he was also unabashedly black and Southern.6 Consider the prominence of the watermelon slice in Adams’s Sunday’s Best. Here, one of the most denigrated symbols of Southern blackness in American culture writ large loses its potent edge, suggesting instead a quiet, and yet playful, celebration of black culture. The watermelon slice, moreover, is emblematic of Adams’s interest in embodied abstraction.7 The watermelon, like Kelly’s patterns, conveys its own history and identity, provoking a psychological response in viewers. Yet in its stylized two-dimensional flatness, the watermelon also recalls Kelly’s recurring conversion of derogatory imagery into idiosyncratic fashion embellishments. Thus, in re-routing the watermelon through Kelly’s sartorial archive, it is tempting not to read the watermelon through its usual loaded referents, such as voracious consumption. Instead, in its placement on top of a cut-up Vogue dress pattern, the watermelon echoes the line of the absent and yet palpable body.
In Sunday’s Best, we perceive Adams’s investment in a different type of abstraction, particularly in relation to embodiment. Adams has remarked elsewhere on the performative sensibilities of this series, highlighting his desire for the two-dimensional pieces to replicate “a sense of movement of the body or garment” without direct use of the figure.8 The rough-hewn unfinished edges of Adams’s collages, moreover, in their handmade quality, also index the labor of Kelly’s hands in the design and sewing of his garments. I am reminded of Adams’s words here: “Looking at his fashion, I always thought about Patrick as being an artist more than just a designer with an audience and client—a performative sculptor who made textile objects and soft sculptures.” In this way, Adams’s words strongly suggest that Patrick Kelly is a neglected figure in contemporary black aesthetics.9 Patrick Kelly’s oeuvre—as Derrick Adams’s collages imply—occupies a unique intersection between fashion, performance, material culture, and black aesthetics. It is not simply about dressing the body, but more so about new configurations of being.
This is one of five essays from the third transmission of b.O.s. (Black One Shot). Read the other essays here:
b.O.s. 3.1 / Escape Artist / Shawn Michelle Smith
b.O.s. 3.2 / Precarity / Mark Anthony Neal
b.O.s. 3.3 / Augustus Striptease in Magic Mike XXL / Kristen J. Warner
b.O.s. 3.4 / Broadcast #3 / Jessica Lynne
About the editors:
Michael Boyce Gillespie is Associate Professor of Film at The City College of New York, CUNY. He has published on film theory, black visual and expressive culture, and contemporary art. Recent work includes co-editing (w/ Racquel Gates) the “Dimensions in Black: Perspectives on Black Film and Media” dossier for Film Quarterly 71.2 (Winter 2017). He is the author of Film Blackness: American Cinema and the Idea of Black Film (Duke University Press, 2016). He is currently working on his next book tentatively titled Death Grips: Film Blackness and Cinema in the Wake. He would rather live in Oakland than Wakanda.
Lisa Uddin is Associate Professor of Art History and Visual Culture Studies and Paul Garrett Fellow at Whitman College. She has published widely on race, space, and human/nonhuman entanglements in modern and contemporary visual culture, and is the author of Zoo Renewal: White Flight and the Animal Ghetto (University of Minnesota Press, 2015). Her current book project, Sunspots: Black Cosmologies of California Design, considers black expressive practices in formations of California architecture and urbanism since the 1960s. She is mid-tone beige.
- After a lackluster year in New York, where he moved to at the suggestion of model and confidant Pat Cleveland, Kelly moved to France in 1980, again at Cleveland’s suggestion. First working as a costumer for the nightclub Le Palais, Kelly met his eventual business partner and lover Bjorn Amelan in 1983; Amelan introduced Kelly to prominent editors and designers. By 1985, French Elle published a six-page spread on Kelly in its February issue. And by this point, Kelly began staging full fashion shows and selling his slinky, body-conscious designs (Kelly was dubbed by Harper’s Bazaar the “King of Cling”) and quirky accessories, which often re-appropriated black iconography including Josephine Baker and gollywogs.
- She famously closed one of his shows modeling a modern take on Josephine Baker’s banana skirt, which was photographed by Bill Cunningham and featured in Details magazine.
- The exhibition was in partnership with the Schomburg Center for Black Culture and the New York Public Library’s Countee Cullen Library in Harlem. It was exhibited at the latter from May 3-October 20, 2017 alongside runway footage from past fashion shows as well as other ephemera from the Schomburg archive.
- This vivid contrast in color and surface is also present in Adams’s recent joyous ode to black leisure in his Culture Club series of black figures (many of them children) idly floating in swimming pools, these poignant portraits themselves a powerful corrective to art historical neglect of black representation. For an insightful analysis of this series, see Lydia Gordon, “Notes on Leisure: An Essay,” http://playtime.pem.org/notes-on-leisure-an-essay/
- And while the majority of these pieces are resolutely abstract, peer at Queen of Everything (2017): the juxtaposition of a Vogue dress pattern, yellow panels, leopard print, gold neckplate bijou, and those exquisite banana appliqué—their overlapping edges visible in person—clearly reference the icon Josephine Baker but in its magnetic subtlety evokes something at once alluringly magical and strangely elusive.
- Perhaps this love of black Southern culture, and its source as a wellspring of inspiration for Kelly’s bouncy aesthetic is what partly attracted the late Maya Angelou to Kelly; she proposed to write a book about Kelly, a project she unfortunately never finished. Notes from her proposal, dated March 4th, 1993, are included in Kelly’s archive at the Schomburg.
- I am suggesting that Adams’s interest is in dialogue with but nonetheless distinct from other forms of black abstraction. Thus, Adams’s series shares the experimentation—with structure, materials, opticality, surfaces, and black vernacular practices, for instance—that is a leitmotif of the abstraction that developed among black artists in the late twentieth century. See Kellie Jones, “To The Max: Energy and Experimentation,” Energy/Experimentation: Black Artists and Abstraction, 1964-1980 (New York: The Studio Museum in Harlem, 2006), 14-34.
- See “Derrick Adams in Conversation with Hallie Ringle,” in Derrick Adams: Patrick Kelly, The Journey, Exhibition Guide, The Studio Museum in Harlem, 2017: 9. In this way, Adams’s “Mood Board” series occasions, or necessitates, a “more haptic notion of the artistic act,” one that “struggle[s] to make visible the ephemeral motion of the body embedded within” it, even in its seeming flatness. Michelle Stephens, Skin Acts: Race, Psychoanalysis, and the Black Male Performer (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014), 86.
- His elision is reminiscent of the art historical neglect of dancer-sculptors Maren Hassinger and Senga Nengudi who, like Kelly, easily crossed tightly guarded aesthetic categories in their intrepid artistic explorations. Hassinger and Nengudi’s collaborative pieces in the 1970s, as I have argued elsewhere, lie somewhere between sculpture and performance. See Uri McMillan, “Sand, Nylon, and Dirt: Senga Nengudi and Maren Hassinger in Southern California,” in We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965-1985: New Perspectives, (Brooklyn Museum; Duke University Press), 97-118.