Dear Shaded Viewers,
I was contacted the other day by Susan Martin aka Some Serious Business, that she is presenting IZHAR PATKIN The Making of the Black Paintings A Performance Archive in New York April 18-May 31, 2020. She asked me because back in 1983 Izhar Patkin contacted me to create a bride for a backward contortionist for a performance of The Meta Bride at his gallery Holly Solomon in NYC. It was a challenge and also great fun. My friend Sally Beers was commissioned to make a rubber tuxedo for the groom, David McDermott who was singing a Gershwin-like, soulless rendition of Grandmaster Flash’s “The Message”. The performance on Easter Sunday culminated with McDermott singing “I Do” and my bride, Ula evoked the athletics of breakdancing-twisting herself into a cubist-like sculpture attired in my white leather and Calais lace wedding gown.
“To Whites every Black holds a potential knife behind the back, and to every Black the White is concealing a whip. We were born into this dialogue and to deny it is fatuous. Our responsibility is to overcome the sins and fears of our ancestors and drop the whip, drop the knife. In Izhar Patkin’s parable of racial cannibalism we see that when a man with a .45 meets a man with a shotgun I guess the man with the pistol is a dead man.”
“Genet’s play was written for a black cast, partly in whiteface, to perform for a white audience, and Patkin’s stenciling carries this idea perfectly. His use of Olympia’s black maid, as well as Olympia herself…extends Genet’s paradigm of political colonialism to encompass cultural colonialism, inferring the status of blacks in white culture.”
“Genet is my Michelangelo.”
“Some Serious Business and Howl! Happening are pleased to present Izhar Patkin: The Making of The Black Paintings. Izhar Patkin’s virtuosic The Black Paintings (1985–86)—a painterly adaption of a play by Jean Genet—is one of the most significant and inventive works to come out of the East Village in the 80s. An immersive room-size piece painted on black neoprene-rubber curtains, it expands upon the conventions of painting itself and also upon narrative, metaphor, installation art, and theatricality. The paintings, measuring 22 x 28 x 14 feet, were first exhibited at the Limbo Gallery in 1986. There, literally inside the painting, creators John Kelly, Lydia Lunch, and Charles Busch staged iconic, cutting-edge performances. The Museum of Modern Art acquired The Black Paintings in 1988, and they were shown at the Whitney Biennial in 1987 and last exhibited at the Stedelijk Museum in 1990.
Having immigrated from Israel in the late 70s, these early works were Patkin’s way of sorting out the terms and mythologies of his new American homeland. They manifest and respond to issues vital to the artist at that time—the death of formalist painting and the birth of identity politics; the return of narrative; and the upsurge in performance, installation, and time-based art. The exhibition showcases the centrality of storytelling and metaphor to his work and is motivated by his emotional response to and keen observation of mainstream American culture. “Metaphors create identity. They are the DNA of language, predictive of hereditary cultural diseases,” he asserts. “We live in the age of correction, but we need reinvention. As an artist, just dealing with anecdotal politics in my work wasn’t an option. All that is normative must be examined at its roots, including the constitution of paintings. English is a white Christian language. The deep doctrines in language itself are something I had to address,” Patkin adds.
Produced by Susan Martin of Some Serious Business, this timely exhibition curated especially for Howl! Happening is meant to underscore Patkin’s singular visual inventions, which he employs to critically unpack the prejudices he sees as deeply rooted in the norms, conventions, and default settings of our collective metaphorical language.
“Artists have always been in the forefront of social and cultural innovation. It’s through invention that the artist has agency in the world,” says Martin. A catalog contextualizing the exhibition will include essays by art historian Sarah Wilson of the Courtauld Institute of Art in London, cultural commentator Carlo McCormick, curator and historian Chaédria LaBouvier, and philosopher and cultural historian Kazembe Balagun. Public programs, co-curated by Howl! education director, Katherine Cheairs, include panel discussions, a Genet seminar, film screenings, and other events with fellow artists, writers, and activists intended to contextualize the works and invite dialogue on the state of conversation in contemporary art, and the ontologies of race, identity, and cultural programming.” said Patkin.
Izhar Patkin The Black Paintings – Catalog cover: Limbo Gallery, 1986
Norman: The Average American Male, 1981
The Meta Bride, 1983 collection, the Whitney Museum of American Art, NYC
The Black Paintings, 1985-86 collection, Museum of Modern Art, New York
The paintings will be represented by the cast of characters: 13 life-size portraits stenciled on black chrome-coat paper. Measuring 93 x 42 inches, each collage is linked with a quote from the character in the play. Of the 13 principal characters in Genet’s book, 10 of the collages were modeled on Patkin’s friends. The other three are Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer; The Meta Bride; and Laure, the black maid in Manet’s painting Olympia.
Patkin adapted Jean Genet’s The Blacks: A Clown Show as a narrative device for paintings that tap into a wide range of visual metaphors challenging the binaries of black and white. Patkin was drawn to the play because, as he says: “When Genet asks: ‘First of all, what’s his color?’ he questions and inverts these artificial dualities. I felt Genet was painting the play, not just writing it. As a painter, I don’t use black as the opposite of white. They are colors among colors. With Genet as my dramaturge, The Black Paintings were my way to repudiate how these binaries are encountered in language and everyday life.”
Written for Belgian director Raymond Rouleau’s all-black theater company, The Blacks was first performed at Le théâtre de Lutèce in Paris in 1959. The play comments on the supremacist ideologies that underpinned colonialism—its black characters trapped within negative perceptions of blackness while the whites are caricatures of imperial cruelty, of “whiteness.” First performed in New York City at the St. Mark’s Playhouse in 1961, The Blacks was the longest-running off-Broadway non-musical of the decade. Directed by Gene Frankel, the cast featured James Earl Jones, Louis Gossett Jr., Cicely Tyson, Godfrey Cambridge, and Maya Angelou.
Among the ironies of The Blacks is the fact that this protest against the white world was itself written by a white man. Genet’s ability to identify with victims of prejudice owed much to his own identity as an orphan, a homosexual, a thief, and a convict. Genet’s grievances are contained within a highly disciplined art form and channeled through humor and constant inversion. In the play, as in The Black Paintings, the audience is inherently a key “actor.”
This play, written, I repeat, by a white man, is intended for a white audience, but if, which is unlikely, it is ever performed before a black audience, then a white person, male or female, should be invited every evening. The organizer of the show should welcome him formally, dress him in ceremonial costume and lead him to his seat, preferably in the first row of the orchestra. The actors will play for him. A spotlight should be focused upon this symbolic white throughout the performance. But what if no white person accepted? Then let white masks be distributed to the black spectators as they enter the theater. And if the blacks refuse the masks, then let a dummy be used.
—Genet’s prelude to The Blacks
For Genet, writes Neal Oxenhandler, “blackness is the hallmark of all those who suffer exclusion, deprivation, degradation; all those who are oppressed, minorities of all kinds, men of all castes and classes; homosexuals and thieves as well as black and Jews; women; and those whose role in society is to realize themselves as outsiders…” 1
In a review of The Black Paintings, the poet Hezy Leskly commented on the connection between the work and the audience: “When you walk into The Black Paintings, you are A Community.” Herbert Muschamp had a similar experience stating, “I thought the power of the show lay not in the cease-fire of the battle between black and white, but in the collapse of the dualism between self and environment [other].”