Just above Midtown, Linda Goode Bryant’s Daring Gallery takes center stage at MoMA

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Art

Ayanna Dozier

Installation view of “Just Above Midtown: Changing Spaces” at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2022. Photo by Emile Askey. Courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art.

Printed on the wall of the Museum of Modern Art’s third-floor gallery is a quote from artist and curator Linda Goode Bryant that reads, “Let’s do it ourselves. The statement is indicative of what is to come: a rare glimpse through the lens of Bryant’s gallery Just Above Midtown (JAM) into the artistic stories of those – primarily artists of color – who have done groundbreaking work in the 1970s and 1980s. Of course, it was the systemic conditions created by large white-run institutions like MoMA that neglected her work and that of her fellow artists that prompted Bryant to “do it” herself by founding and leading JAM.

During the press preview for MoMA’s “Just Above Midtown: Changing Spaces,” Bryant asked, “Can JAM still be JAM at MoMA?” The exhibition, which has been in the works for five years, is co-curated by Bryant and Marielle Ingram (special projects assistant for the living installation and food initiative of Bryant Project Eats) with MoMA curator Thomas (T. ) John Lax. On view until February 23, 2023, the exhibition focuses on documenting a space and its oral histories. While it includes impressive works that have previously been exhibited at the JAM, it is notable for its ability to capture and redistribute a spirit of rebellion – the ethos that drove Bryant and others to create and empower place for art that has resisted market and institutional trends.

Installation view of “Just Above Midtown: Changing Spaces” at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2022. Photo by Emile Askey. Courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art.

Bryant founded JAM after working in then white-dominated spaces like the Studio Museum in Harlem. She sought to address the lack of exhibitions of radical black art, both at institutions like the Metropolitan Museum of Art where she once worked and elsewhere. Bryant convinced a landlord to rent her office space (just above) Midtown, much to the annoyance of the broker who, after reviewing Bryant’s financial records, insisted to the landlord that she couldn’t not pay the rent. “[The owner] asked me, “Why should I rent this building to you for $300 when I’m asking for $1,000?” Bryant recalled. “And I was like, ‘Because $300 is better than nothing!'”

Now, 50 years later, JAM is back in Midtown with its MoMA show, an irony and contradiction that Bryant and Lax embrace. “One of the reasons I agreed to do it was this challenge,” Bryant said. For Lax, the exhibition is an opportunity to leverage the museum’s vast resources so that JAM’s work and history can live both inside and outside of its physical space. The exhibition is less about bringing JAM into the MoMA canon and more about sharing the gallery’s story with others, especially artists, curators, and collectors who may feel creatively conflicted in this moment of market-oriented artistic expression. In fact, money is the main protagonist of this exhibition.

David Hammons, Untitled, 1976. © David Hammons. Courtesy of Hudgins Family Collection, New York.

Photo of David Hammons (left) and Suzette Wright (centre) at body print for “Greasy Bags and Barbeque Bones”, 1975, at Philip Yenawine by Jeff Morgan. Courtesy of David Hammons and Linda Goode Bryant.

Bryant was, in his own words, in exile from the art world after closing JAM in 1986 when the market took over. “JAM was not about objects. JAM was all about process and experimentation, and the money started showing up [towards the end],” she says. “Artists were initially skeptical [of the market]. But now, so many years later, I imagined what it would be like but it’s so fucking worse! There is a crisis in art now because it has been commodified.

To this end, the works in the exhibition demonstrate process-oriented practices, with pieces by David Hammons, Howardena Pindell, Vivian E. Browne, Senga Nengudi, Susan Fitzsimmons, Lorraine O’Grady, Janet Olivia Henry, and so many others Suite. In particular, Fitzsimmons Hang Ups: Hair (1979) features the artist’s hair, cut at age 26, wrapped in Lucite and presented on a hanger. The work was featured at the JAM in Fitzsimmons’ 1979 solo exhibition “Passing from Transparent to Invisible”. There are works like this that clearly speak to the conceptual and abstract orientation of the gallery and the artists it has supported. It was ideas and processes, rather than a fixation on what the art object would look like, that drove creative experimentation.

Senga Nengudi performing Air About at JAM, New York, 1981. Courtesy of Senga Nengudi and Lévy Gorvy.

It is no more obvious than with ghost of october (1980), large-scale sculpture by Rosemary Mayer made of plastic bags and cellophane. While Mayer’s work is central to the canon of feminist conceptual art, placing ghost of october in conversation with other like-minded works, as the MoMA exhibition does, feels like a cautious throwback to when creativity took precedence over aesthetic outcome.

While some may worry that MoMA’s resources will sanitize JAM’s mission statement, there’s enough thoughtful curation to allay concerns. Take, for example, the wall of debt. It features all of the unpaid bills Bryant has racked up performing JAM and supporting the vision of those around him. Some of the demands for payment range from polite to hostile, as Bryant’s unpaid bills have been mixed up from one collector to another. This wall and the accompanying audio reveal, in a shocking and transparent way, the reality that gives space to creative rebellion.

Installation view of “Just Above Midtown: Changing Spaces” at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2022. Photo by Emile Askey. Courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art.

“I come from a family of very modest means and I was a single mother with two children. The only resource I had was the ability to accumulate debt. I’m not ashamed of that,” said Bryant “You use what you have to create what you need.”

This refrain underlies every object, detail and testimony of collaboration present in “Just Above Midtown: Changing Spaces”. Thinking back to a time when these now largely canonical artists were not widely supported, audiences can be encouraged to say “fuck it” and go their own way, unswayed by market demands. For Bryant, it doesn’t matter how you go about it, as long as you feel like you have a choice in what you do. That’s why she started JAM, to give artists the freedom to create and exhibit what they love.

Ayanna Dozier

Ayanna Dozier is Artsy’s editor.

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