Blues for Smoke

Feb 7–Apr 28, 2013

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 Performance Series

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.

Performance Series Artists Include:

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.)


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In the Lobby Gallery: Stan Douglas's Hors-champs

Hors-champs, a two-channel video installation by Vancouver-based artist Stan Douglas, presents a jazz performance staged and recorded in a Paris television studio. The title of Douglas's video installation borrows from the language of film. Translated from the French as "out of field," or more colloquially "off-camera," the term "hors-champs" refers to the capacity of certain images to create a sense of narrative space beyond what is immediately shown by the camera.

In Douglas's installation, four musicians interpret Spirits Rejoice (1965), one of the seminal compositions of 1960s free jazz, by the iconoclastic American saxophonist and bandleader Albert Ayler. Alternately wobbling and soaring, plaintive and ecstatic, the music's field of reference moves from the blues and spirituals to refrains of the French national anthem, all in a tangle of virtuosic soloing and collective improvisation. At the same time, the installation asks us to consider the relationship between the era the music evokes--the turbulent 1960s--and the moment of the work's creation. Made in 1992, a year that saw widespread and painful rioting following the acquittal of white police officers in the beating of Rodney King, the work was dedicated by the artist to the people of South Central Los Angeles.

This installation is part of the exhibition Blues for Smoke.

Explore works from this exhibition
in the Whitney's collection

View 6 works

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