"Concerto in Black and Blue" for the Colorblind
by Tirza True Latimer
A windowless gallery with all the lights extinguished. The perfect place to see a work of art in total darkness. Darby English begins his influential book How to See a Work of Art in Total Darkness, which critiques race determinacy in the interpretation of artworks by people of color, by conjuring up this setting: David Hammons’s installation of Concerto in Black and Blue in 2002 at Ace Gallery on Hudson Street, the largest private contemporary art gallery in Manhattan. This was the artist’s first exhibition in nearly ten years, after a Duchampian interlude of apparent withdrawal from the commercial art world.

At the door of the gallery, visitors were provided with miniature, pressure-activated flashlights emitting narrow beams of blue light. Thus equipped, they entered 25 thousand square feet of darkness with nothing more than these light beams and the silhouettes of those who entered the space before them to guide their way. Clumping together and drifting apart, these explorers created a lightshow of shifting blue dots, partially illuminating themselves and each other, casting strange shadows. They shuffled and bumped along. Most whispered, as if the near absence of light also called for the near absence of sound. A misstep, or moment of distress, caused a sudden uptick in the decibel level. Sounds echoed, accentuating the vast emptiness of the gallery.

David Hammons. "Concerto in Black and Blue," 2002.
David Hammons. "Concerto in Black and Blue," 2002.

Some searched for the show’s content (not realizing they were the show’s content). Others, more familiar with canons of contemporary art, sought the reassurance of historical precedent. The blue light may have called to mind Yves Klein’s patented International Klein Blue, a color signifying vast, open space, while the lack of objects may have recalled The Void, Klein’s famous 1958 exhibition for which he completely emptied Galerie Clert in Paris. The scene may also have summoned up Light and Space movement initiatives of the 1960s, such as James Turrell’s high-intensity projections onto the walls and corners of empty rooms. Contra Klein’s The Void, Hammons’s Concerto in Black and Blue filled the gallery’s white emptiness with blackness. It inverted the logic of Turrell’s sublime environments; darkness, not colored light, immersed the viewer.

Inevitably, under the circumstances orchestrated by Hammons, darkness (and to a lesser extent, light) assumed metaphorical significance. These are capacious metaphors, yet, as Darby English rightly points out, the critical responses to Hammons’s piece fixated almost exclusively on racial identity (for better or for worse).

In English’s estimation, Geoffrey Jacques is one of the most reprehensible of the critics. His review for the web publication A Gathering of Tribes concludes, “Black and blue are highly charged colors in the cosmology of African American culture and historical experience. Night’s blackness holds a unique suggestion of terror in black American history. One is also reminded that the ancestors of many families escaped slavery under the cover of darkness, in the blue-black night. There is a sense in which the entire history of Africans in North America can be told through reference to these two colors [black and blue].” (1) Jan Avgikos, writing for Artforum, confirms “all the ‘black and blue’ of [Hammons’s] Concerto installation refers to African American culture.” (2) To which, English provocatively rejoins, “But if it does, what other than racism can secure these identifications?” (3) Whether or not critics and scholars associate “black and blue” with racial trauma, or with broader histories African American culture (including such art forms as Jazz and Blues), this question remains pertinent. (4)

Why didn’t the effect of colorblindness created by Ace Gallery’s darkened environment provoke a fuller range of responses to Concerto in Black and Blue? Imagine if the blackout conditions, rather than naturalizing African American culture as key, had instead prevented viewers from seeing racial identity as the dominant theme?

There are, after all, many equally compelling interpretative options. Points of reference can be found in histories of conceptual art, relational aesthetics, installation, institutional critique, performance, and contemporary music, among other contexts. One could begin with the title, placing emphasis on the first word. A concerto is a large-scale work composed for a solo instrument or instruments accompanied by and orchestra. We could think of the darkness itself as the soloist’s instrument and the blue flashlights as those of the orchestra. Hammons (à la John Cage) sets the parameters: the composition consists of anything that occurs within the designated space and time frame.

What alternative symbolic meanings might Concerto in Black and Blue generate if we reject the racialized default and restore to darkness a broader spectrum of associations: impenetrability, obscurity, despair, mourning. Keep in mind that this exhibition opened not far from Ground Zero only months after the September 11 attacks in a city still reeling from collective trauma. For Kenneth Baker, and doubtless others, the visitors staggering forward equipped with lights that failed to fully illuminate “honored the sadness of everyone who finds the present moment of American life an especially dark passage.” (5)

We might then consider the forms of sensibility and sociability the piece proposes. Hammons, by compromising sight, heightens other senses. Visitors must navigate, interdependently, as much by touch and hearing. Indeed, a concerto is an aural experience, not a visual one. In a society where seeing and understanding are synonyms, Concerto in Black and Blue prompts reflection on the limitations of sight-reliance and alternatives to it. How do we see/understand a social environment in which our visual conditioning (the socially constituted archive of visual codes and cues) is rendered more or less useless? What catch phrases would appear in the critical literature surrounding Concerto in Black and Blue if sensory perception (not African American history and experience) were acknowledged as a primary line of artistic investigation?

Approaching Concerto in Black and Blue colorblind reveals meanings obscured by the recourse to race as an overarching explanatory framework. Yet the racial metanarratives generated by Hammons’s piece, and its critical reception, also undeniably take part in how the work makes meaning. It is imperative to think critically about the impossibility of eliminating race from the interpretive equation. Because we are not colorblind. Hammons taunts (and haunts) us with this paradox.

Tirza True Latimer publishes work from a queer feminist perspective on a range of topics in the fields of visual culture, sexual culture, and criticism. Her new book, “Eccentric Modernisms: Making Differences in the History of American Art” is under production at UC Press and scheduled for release in 2016. She is Chair and Associate Professor of Visual and Critical Studies at CCA.

(1) Geoffrey Jacques, “‘Concerto in Black and Blue’ by David Hammons,” in A Gathering of Tribes. Accessed June 2016. Darby English quotes the last sentence of this passage in How to See a Work of Art in Total Darkness (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2007), 4.

(2) Jan Avigikos, “David Hammons, Ace Gallery,” Artforum (February 2003): 137-138.

(3) Darby English, How to See a Work of Art in Total Darkness, 4.

(4) For a deep investigation of the installation’s cultural resonances, see Claire Tancons, “David Hammons, Concerto in Black and Blue,” in NKA: Journal of Contemporary African Art (Spring/Summer 2001), 94-95.

(5) Kenneth Baker, “Is an Empty Room Art? These Days It Could Be,” SFGate (February 9, 2003). Accessed May 25, 2016.