Academic journal article Chicago Review

Seeing Eldzier Cortor

Academic journal article Chicago Review

Seeing Eldzier Cortor

Article excerpt

Eldzier Cortor died on Thanksgiving Day, 2015, about seven months after I interviewed him. He was ninety-nine years old. According to his son Michael, Cortor worked as an artist up until the day he died.

The New York Times ran a generous obituary of Cortor, which included a photograph of him, sitting upright and bow-tied, taken by the photojournalist Gordon Parks in 1949. This photograph presented Cortor just after winning a Guggenheim fellowship, which would take him to Cuba, Jamaica, and Haiti. The Times also ran a front-page story titled "Black Artists and the March into the Museum," in which Cortor was featured, and which included several short video-interviews with black artists.1 An assessment of black art in the twentieth-century art market, the Times piece underscored a bittersweet irony in the age of modernist formalism during which Cortor and other artists developed their careers. If a black artist chose to work in a figurative mode, then his or her work was likely to be pigeonholed by the white establishment as expressive of the "black experience." But if he or she chose to work in abstraction, then this work did not fit the category of "black art" as conceived by the country's leading museums.

Has the art world caught up with the idea that modernism was many things? Cortor-whose range of work is difficult to classify- remained skeptical. In one of the videos that accompanied the Times piece, the interviewer suggests that Cortor is now finally getting "an immense amount of recognition." Cortor gently interrupts: "Now you say that, you see. But I don't know that, you see."

You see: here is Cortor's verbal tic. It struck me as appropriate. Seeing and being seen, of course, have provided dominant metaphors for understanding African American identity, from W. E. B. Du Bois's concepts of visibility-including "the Veil" and "second-sight"-to one of the most memorable opening lines in American literature: "I am an invisible man," says Ralph Ellison's unnamed narrator in the novel of that name. The symbolism is clear: Will the complexity and range of black identity be acknowledged in American culture?

If Cortor is still an underappreciated artist, then the past few years have at least seen some high-profile recognition of Cortor's significance to the history of American art.2 The 2015 inaugural show of the new downtown Whitney Museum-aptly titled "America is Hard to See"-included two of Cortor's detailed woodcuts among over six hundred artworks drawn from the museum's permanent collection. In these woodcuts-both titled L'Abbatoire (1955-1958)-segments of deeply colored ink suggest human bodies, though the works do not necessarily allude to any specific scene of slaughter, as Cortor reminded me.

And yet, in the Whitney's new "A to Z" Handbook of the Collection (2016), Cortor's work does not appear. Perhaps his absence is unsurprising in a publication that was forced to limit the work of more than three thousand artists to 350 inside a portable softcover book.3 But at the Whitney, I could not help reflecting on Cortor and the slow process of transforming the "white spaces" of art museums into welcoming and diverse public spheres.4 Certainly, the enormous new Whitney building designed by Italian architect Renzo Piano aims at inclusion-from the outdoor plaza on the ground floor to the many windows and openair exhibition spaces that overlook the meatpacking district of New York. The nine-story cantilevered building-like a piece of sculpture itself-offers striking vistas of the Hudson River to the west, and in other directions a dense zone of restaurants, boutiques, galleries, and global flâneurs walking the High Line. The museum admirably extends itself into the neighborhood in which it has been built, but this area of Manhattan itself feels like a museum of expensive objects, where the traffic on 10th Avenue is itself an art installation, to be viewed from the High Line's stadium seats.

Perhaps the museums of Chicago will never feel quite so globally self-conscious, even inside the beautiful, light-filled Modern Wing of the Art Institute of Chicago (AIC), opened in 2009 and also designed by Renzo Piano. …

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