The Fogg Museum's latest exhibit, "Prints of Darkness," glorifies the role of black in art. Weyerhaeuser Curator of Prints Marjorie B. Cohn has organized her, exhibition around a strong the matic core--the centrality of black in people's conception of art, emotion, politics and society. Cohn "invites" her viewers to examine the string of black rectangles contained in the exhibit with imagination, and to consider the importance of black in our conceptual ordering of the world.
Through its exploration of the emotional and symbolic impact of black, Cohn's exhibit tries to show that "every cultural construct, from alchemy to academe, from liturgy to law, has found a role for black." According to Cohn, black has permeated our society as a "symbol of the absolute." The ubiquitous power of black is further evidenced in the political realm--"blackness has become a mark and divider of the races." While these observations appear self-evident, When grouped together they have a greater impact.
Cohn chose to limit her study of black to prints because she believes the intensity of "blackness" in a carbon or intaglio print is substantially different from the more fragile writing inks and watercolor pigments. Also because prints are made from a single layer of black and tend to form an opaque, continuous surface, they project a constancy and immutability not found in drawing or painting.
Cohn's exhibit traces the use of black in Western prints over the past 500 years. She stresses, how ever, that this is not an historical evaluation; rather, the older works were selected to represent "cate gorles of meaning," like death on conflict. By contrast, Cohn does not ascribe such limited meaning to the contemporary works in the collection, (which are decidedly more numerous and varied), but believes that they should be oper to individual interpretation.
In the course of this dark assemblage, some surprisingly familiar names come to light notables such as Rembrandt Delacroix, Matrisse, Jasper John and Ahdy Warhol show their darker sides. And we get a disturbing perspective on some of our old favorites--Johns' signs ture stars and stripes become muddied, and Warhol's shiny look at Campbell's soup becomes squished and overladen with murky images.
Predictably, the exhibit also features an array of virtually indistinguishable black rectangles, black rectangles juxtaposed with other black rectangles, and black-on-black compositions. Works such as Richard Serra's "Clara Clara II" and Adja Yunker's "Unititled III" experiment with black texture and three-dimmensionality.
A number of political works further extend the symbolic scope of black in the exhibit. Wernes Buettner and Ilubert Kiecol's scatstered and swirling black conveys the chaos of post-World War If city in Germany with unusual force. One especially powerful work in the exhibit, Glenn Ligon's "Four Etchings," uses black on white and black on black type to represent the dynamics of race in society. Repeating the statement "I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white, background, in black on white, the background becomes gradually black and smudged. When the type is then fully black on blacks the etching reads. "I am invisible."
Although a string of black rectangles doesn't necessarily whet the artistic appetite, Cohn's system abtic exploration of different uses of black gives a decidedly fresh perspective on its immense cultural significance.