Blues for Smoke
Feb 7–Apr 28, 2013

A portrait of a woman by Mark Morrisroe.

Mark Morrisroe (1959–1989), Untitled, c. 1981. Gum bichromate print, 24 15/16 x 20 7/8 in. (63.3 x 53 cm). The Estate of Mark Morrisroe (Ringier Collection) at Fotomuseum Winterthur, Switzerland. © The Estate of Mark Morrisroe (Ringier Collection) at Fotomuseum Winterthur

Blues for Smoke is an interdisciplinary exhibition that explores a wide range of contemporary art through the lens of the blues and blues aesthetics. Turning to the blues not simply as a musical category but as a field of artistic sensibilities and cultural idioms, the exhibition features works by over forty artists from the 1950s to the present, as well as materials culled from music and popular entertainment.

The exhibition’s title is drawn from a 1960 solo album by virtuoso jazz pianist Jaki Byard in which improvisation on blues form becomes a basis for avant-garde exploration. The title suggests that the expanded poetics of the blues is pervasive—but also diffuse and difficult to pin down. By presenting an uncommon heterogeneity of subject matter, art historical contexts, formal and conceptual inclinations, genres and disciplines, Blues for Smoke holds artists and art worlds together that are often kept apart, within and across lines of race, generation, and canon. 

A series of performances, events, screenings, and readings will accompany the exhibition.

Blues for Smoke is organized by The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. The exhibition is curated by Bennett Simpson. At the Whitney Museum, the installation is overseen by Chrissie Iles, Anne and Joel Ehrenkranz Curator.

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Blues for Smoke will be accompanied by a series of concerts, performances and readings showcasing the enduring legacy and innovative possibilities of the blues in contemporary music and live art. Reflecting on the exhibition's consideration of "the blues" as a political and aesthetic idiom within the visual arts, the performances will showcase contemporary musical forms that extend aspects of the blues legacy. The series will look at music, as well as poetry and playwriting, as powerfully expressive forms, conceptual orientations, and looser frames which enable improvisation, repetition and communication. Through various experimental approaches, these artists bring forth the powerfully ecstatic, improvisatory, conceptual, political, mournful, and incantatory aspects inherent in the blues.

The Blues for Smoke performance series is organized by curator Jay Sanders.


Mykki Blanco
Thomas Bradshaw
Loren Connors
Keiji Haino
King Holiday
Lonnie Holley
Ashok Kondabolu (Dapwell)
Annette Peacock
Prince Rama
Matana Roberts
Himanshu Suri (Heems)
Victor Vazquez (Kool A.D.)

Watch and Listen

In the News

"As a musical category blues is hard to pin down, and this show makes the job harder, which seems to be its point. It’s saying: Blues isn’t a thing; it’s a set of feelings, a state of mind, maybe a state of grace."
The New York Times

"There is such a bombardment of absolutely stunning paintings, installations, sculpture and visual presentations that it is difficult to tear yourself away until the moment is fully digested."
Amsterdam News

"Drawing together various art forms (video, sculpture, painting, and live performance) across the lines of race, multiple generations and interdisciplinary canons, Blues for Smoke places the idioms of blues, and other distinctly African-American traditions, at the center of the American tableau of creativity."
The Grio