In any case, the issue of race also arises in the work of older African-American artists like Norman Lewis and continues through that made in the 1970s by Faith Ringgold, who stated that, “Black art must use its own color black to create its light,”
to Kara Walker, whose art deliberately and clearly takes up the subject of “American Gothic.” And again, this is not something people talk about when they talk about her work, but she’s looking mostly at, not only history, but specifically American traditions of making. Walker is very interested in early American artists, like John Singleton Copley and also in commonplace art like silhouettes. The show that she put together at the Met a while ago was good evidence of that relationship.
As a chapter, “Black and White” also follows the thread of the silhouette and the shadow and its necessary opposite, blinding light.
I think this contrast broadly figures much art of the 1940s and ’50s, the light of revelation revived by the atomic bomb being dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. De Kooning mentions this at his talk at MoMA in the early ’50s; his reference to melting eyeballs comes right out of John Hersey’s famous August 1946 New Yorker essay “Hiroshima,” which was made into a book. They were all aware of it: Rauschenberg, Cage, Newman, and others talked about the flash of white light and black light as being ecstatic, a sort of apocalyptic light that linked to a tradition of Protestant Evangelical ecstasy. So I’m interested in the way that plays out, not only in terms of spiritual, historical, and political content, but also formally in the dominant use of shadows. In fact, I reproduced one of the photographs that everyone was looking at in ’45 and ’46 of the shadows of people in Hiroshima and Nagasaki burned onto walls and sidewalks.
There’s a very strong vein of that play with shadow and visibility, just formally in American art—Ad Reinhardt, Rauschenberg, Robert Ryman, Faith Ringgold, Kerry James Marshall, Kara Walker, Glenn Ligon, and so on. What is reproducible? What is visible? And what is perceivable?
– Katy Siegel, interview with Phong Bui in The Brooklyn Rail