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Review: HBO Documentary ‘Black Art: In the Absence of Light’

“Black Art: In the Absence of Light,” acclaimed director Sam Pollard’s new documentary film that begins airing Tuesday on HBO, opens with an excerpt from a famous interview on the 1976 “Today” show.

Tom Brokaw is the host. David C. Driskellartist and art historian, is the guest speaker on the program to discuss his groundbreaking exhibition, “Two Centuries of Black American Art: 1750-1950,” the first major museum study of his subject.

What, Brokaw wants to know, did Driskell think of the critical beating in The New York Times by Hilton Kramer, the paper’s chief art critic?

Despite a significant abundance among the 200 works of art collected by dozens of important artists, the critic insisted that the exhibition was “often more interesting as a social history than for its aesthetic revelations”. Remarkable as anthropology, that is to say not as art history.

Artist David C. Driskell, working in his studio, died in 2020 of COVID-19


The old racist trope distinguishing between merely interesting artifacts and profound works of art – that is, between objects produced by “primitive” and “civilized” cultures – was inescapable. Driskell didn’t have it.

Rather than take the bait and mount an unnecessary defense, he delivered a devastating response. Stopping at the mention of the name of the eminent art critic, he replied, in essence: Who?

Driskell missing Kramer.

The occupant of the most important seat in American art journalism was knowingly made a cipher. For the vital purposes of a discussion of the long-ignored history of black art in museums, newly emerging in the wake of the civil rights era and sparked by America’s bicentennial celebrations, the view ignoring Kramer was irrelevant. A renowned white critic and his obtuse complaint about the exposure of a black curator disappeared into thin air.

Next question?

You could say that Driskell mirrored what Ralph Ellison probed in his indispensable novel, “The Invisible Man”: the controlling and smothering power of social and cultural invisibility. Pollard’s documentary immediately turns into a splendid painter Kerry James Marshallwho saw Driskell’s “Two Centuries” exhibit when he debuted at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art at age 21, and for whom Ellison was also a touchstone.

Provocative cultural connections are subtly unveiled. Marshall, now 65, has since established himself as one of the most important artists of his generation through a nuanced and moving portrayal of black American civilization.

“Black Art: In the Absence of Light” could use some edgier moments like that. The film covers a lot of territory, including interviews with notable artists, curators, historians and collectors. Harlem’s Studio Museum gets special attention – though Driskell, who once chaired the art department at Fisk University in Nashville, is quick to set the record straight by acknowledging the contributions of colleges and universities historically black. Driskell, who tragically died of COVID-19 last spring at age 88, contributed to what were likely his last interviews.

Still, the film looks blurry. It is partly a welcome testimony to an art exhibition and its broad impact on two generations of artists, partly an investigation into what an arbitrary selection of black artists have achieved since then. , partly an analysis of various issues within a culture too often characterized as monolithic and partly a chronicle of a crucial institutional infrastructure that has grown exponentially in the new millennium. By themselves, any of these topics would fill a documentary to overflow.

Better too much than too little, of course, especially during this particular Black History Month – a cultural moment balancing on the razor’s edge between charged and hopeful. Also streaming is Pollard’s brilliant documentary “MLK/FBI, which describes in excruciating detail the racist campaign of destruction waged against the civil rights leader by J. Edgar Hoover. I would suggest watching it first, followed by “Black Art: In the Absence of Light”, which ponders the fruits of the institutional demand for cultural equity animated 45 years ago and only now beginning to come true .

“Black art: in the absence of light”


When: Tuesday premieres

Note : TV-MA (may not be suitable for children under 17)

Operating time: 1 hour, 25 minutes