Garrett Bradley Reminds Us That Black Joy Always Existed

Garrett Bradley’s quicksilver, imperious video installation “America,” at the Museum of Modern Art is an indictment wrapped in a celebration. Completed in 2019, it reimagines some of the signal events of Black life and culture in the United States during the early decades of the 20th century — reclaiming lost or overlooked pieces of history in a display of inexhaustible narrative and spatial complexity.

This is Bradley’s first solo exhibition in a New York museum, her first foray off the single screen into three-dimensional space and the second in a series of collaborative exhibitions mounted by MoMA and the Studio Museum in Harlem. Basically, the larger, older institution provides the space; the smaller, younger one, the expertise. It was organized by Thelma Golden, the Studio Museum’s director and chief curator, and Legacy Russell, its associate curator.

Like other Black artists of her generation — among them the painter Amy Sherald — Bradley shies away from depicting Black suffering. This tendency is especially clear in “Time” (2020) an innovative feature film centering on one family’s journey through incarceration that won the prize for best director of an American documentary at Sundance this year. (It is available on Amazon Prime Video and a must-see.)

“America,” on view through March 21, pushes this country’s original sin of slavery and its ongoing tragedies to the middle-ground. Racism is an inescapable shadow, but we’re left to make our own connections among scenes that are variously triumphal, mysterious, everyday, surreal and ironic. The numerous vignettes Bradley shot in black and white, without sound, for this work are short or very short; a dozen of them refer, often obliquely, to Black achievements or tragic events that mostly occurred between 1912 and 1929. The Library of Congress has specified these years as a big gap in film history: 70 percent of all films made then were lost thanks to the zealous studios, switching from silent to sound, that threw most of them out. In an act of reclamation, Bradley staged scenes alluding to moments like the 1919 murder of the popular jazz band leader James Reese Europe, the first African-American to receive a public funeral in New York City, and the 1933 performance of Florence Price’s Symphony in E minor by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra — the first time a major orchestra played a work by a Black woman.

With overlapping images projected on, and refracted by, four lightweight screens suspended at the center of a large gallery, Bradley’s ambitious effort adds new energy to both Post-Minimalism and Pictures Generation appropriation art. The piece is built around an existing film: the exuberant, unfinished “Lime Kiln Club Field Day” of 1914, radical in its time for its emphasis on Black joy and romance and its all-black cast, led by the great Bert Williams, a well-known comedian, who performed in blackface. In other words, Bradley is reconstructing both Black (and thus American) history and film history, and asserting that the radical optimism of “Field Day,” had it been finished and released, would have inspired additional films about Black achievement.

Punctuated by the high-spirits and faster speed of “Field Day,” Bradley’s “America” sets us in motion, circling the screens, exploring the possible identities, stories and symbols of its shifting stories and their regular moments of aural and filmic lyricism. Not to mention some perceptual overload: Does the piece use two, three or four channels? You think the images proceed in matched pairs — especially since only two projectors are visible — but then suddenly, they don’t. In every way, this work is a constant discovery.

Playing on a loop of nearly 24 minutes that feel shorter, the projection asserts Williams’s stature at the start, with a formal portrait followed by stills of him on the set of “Field Day,” including one in which he consults with one of the film’s two white directors. (The film was also unusual for having an integrated crew.) From there, and in no particular order, the head of a woman in a leather pilot’s cap appears against clouds, an image as heroic as a postage-stamp; then we see her tumbling through space. She represents Bessie Coleman, the first woman to earn an international pilot’s license, killed in 1926 in a fall from a plane while practicing a stunt. Symbolizing the founding of baseball’s National Negro League in 1920, a young man in a team uniform swings a bat, his gesture melding smoothly into the swing taken by his younger self. This one of several cinematic thrills Bradley builds into her structure.

Bradley’s best scenes have a depth that supports repeated viewing and exploration. It took me several times through to notice that in the sequence about Price, a woman conducting a small orchestra is suddenly awarded a blue ribbon, which feels off. It seemed to highlight the sometimes patronizing quality of white tolerance and Black fatigue with a society whose racism requires so many firsts in the first place.

Other less specifically race-related sequences feature two children seated at a modest apartment’s kitchen table, who drift off while listening to a Bakelite radio, a staple of domestic life. One vignette turns surreal, evoking the poetic paintings of Hughie Lee Smith: A group of excited boys converge on a man selling balloons in a decrepit empty lot. The camera looks up to the balloons, which are floating into the sky, while their seller seems to rise up with them and then return to Earth, like a magician. The camera looks downward to the boys’ unturned faces, which register a confusing array of emotions.

The journey of a white sheet through several scenes exemplifies the fluidity of Bradley’s camera, storytelling and mutating meanings. It begins with a white sheet worn by a white man sitting under a tree in a sunny field — an oddly benign, pastoral reference to “The Birth of a Nation,” which, released in 1915, glorified the Ku Klux Klan. In Bradley’s scene, a woman carrying a parasol calmly approaches the man, tears the robe off him and repairs it. The sheet morphs into a robe in a Baptism witnessed by several matrons in Sunday hats, then flaps on a laundry line where the young boys return, trying to pull it down. Finally it settles in the dirt of a corral. There it is circled by mounted men who evoke Buffalo Soldiers, a Black cavalry regiment that participated in the 1916 Mexican Expedition, led by Gen. John J. Pershing. One of the riders picks up the sheet with a long stick, whereby it becomes a flag. At this point, if you look up, you’ll realize that the four screens are held aloft by copper tubes resembling flag poles. Suddenly, they’re heraldic banners hanging proudly in an ancestral hall.

Another strong component of Bradley’s effort is its lush mercurial music, scored by Trevor Mathison and Udit Duseja, and occasionally mixed with conversation. At one point you may hear a voice saying: “America? That’s a tricky question.”

Projects: Garrett Bradley

Through March 21 at the Museum of Modern Art, 11 West 53rd Street. 212-708-9400; moma.org.

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