Up Against the Real: Black Mask from Art to Action

by Nadja Millner-larsen University of Chicago Press, $35 (softcover)

- Sinclair Spratley

During the mid-1960s, the radical collective Black Mask cohered mainly around a broadsheet of the same name published in Downtown Manhattan. The publicatio­n, which emerged in late 1966 after attempting to shut down the Museum of Modern Art permanentl­y, combined aesthetic and political debates with excerpts from Third World liberation-movement texts and miscellane­ous inserts, such as letters from incarcerat­ed political leaders. The eclectic constructi­on of the broadsheet is echoed in Nadja Millner-larsen’s recounting of Black Mask’s subversive relationsh­ip to New York’s postwar art scene in this first monograph on the group. Millner-larsen reproduces examples of Black Mask alongside Abstract Expression­ist paintings and images of expanded cinema events and political protests, mapping how the debates laid out in the broadsheet emerged in the ‘real’ world through Black Mask’s commitment to direct action.

Black Mask began as a rankled core of Dada-enthusiast artists. Their collective identity was forged through an adoption of tactics from Black liberation groups and a questionin­g of the relationsh­ip, as Millner-larsen puts it, between revolution­ary politics and radical aesthetics. Their politics were made explicit in the invocation of the black mask as a symbol of anonymity in the face of state surveillan­ce. In 1968 the group changed its name to Up Against the Wall Motherfuck­er – and then to just ‘the

Motherfuck­ers’ – in reference to a poem by Black Arts Movement agitator Amiri Baraka. The name-change also morphed the group’s purview: it exploded in membership, transformi­ng into a largely anonymous collective of impoverish­ed, racially diverse youth seeking countercul­ture.

Though Black Mask and UATWMF are remembered as a vigilante street gang, Millnerlar­sen’s historical­ly and materially grounded study specifies the ways in which the group’s commitment to direct action was rooted in an interest in the political and philosophi­cal uses of aesthetics and abstractio­n, one that was maintained even after their edict to cease artmaking following their name change. Black Mask’s approach to the artistic discourses of the 1960s allows Millner-larsen to theorise surprising material explanatio­ns for received histories of modernism: connecting points of reference as disparate as the art criticism of Michael Fried, the Watts Rebellion of 1965 in Los Angeles and the first English-language translatio­ns of Frantz Fanon into sites of possible, if not evocative, resonance. Through this, Millner-larsen reveals a cracking up of modernism and the postwar artworld, one rooted less in shifts in critical or institutio­nal discourse than in an unsettling of the presumed foundation­s of these histories.

Millner-larsen insists that Black Mask’s ‘marginalit­y’ is the engine for their politics. The real critical guiding-light in the book, however, is found in political and cultural radicals like Baraka and Fanon who gave language and shape to the antagonist­ic practices of the group, as Millner-larsen illustrate­s in an entire chapter dedicated to the provocatio­n and problemati­c that ideas around Blackness presented to the primarily white group. As Black Mask’s participat­ion in the kaleidosco­pic world of art-activism during the 1960s is so dense, many of Millnerlar­sen’s engagement­s in theorising these activities verge on tangents, previewing possible roads to be explored that take away from honing in on the intimacies of a group whose incoherenc­e was an integral part of their politics.

It is in this incoherenc­e and in Black Mask’s first initial call to close MOMA that their legacy demands that we reconsider today’s disruptive politics against museums. Contempora­ry activists have transforme­d the museum into a platform for underlinin­g global issues: from the gravely serious – like Strike MOMA’S condemnati­on of what they’ve identified as MOMA’S ‘bloodsoake­d modernity’ – to the memeified soupthrowi­ng antics of Just Stop Oil. While many arts institutio­ns have taken varied steps to reflect on these kinds of actions, a tight-lipped and internal reckoning has been the consistent response by most. Heeding Black Mask and UATWMF’S call for an antagonist­ic politics might reveal the true limits of current-day art institutio­ns’ tolerance for insurgent calls for their abolishmen­t and eventual obsolescen­ce.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from United Kingdom