ANDOVER — Every work of art is also a work of history. Created at a specific moment in time, it can’t help but reflect that moment. That’s true even of art removed from any external reality. Among the many virtues of the Museum of Modern Art’s recent “Inventing Abstraction, 1910-1925” was how vividly it evoked those years. These were works shaped by their time even as they helped shape how that time subsequently came to be seen.
Conversely, sometimes artifact or document attains the status of art. Consider Ernest C. Withers’s photograph of striking Memphis sanitation workers, in 1968. A mural-size blowup of it is the first thing that confronts a visitor to “For All the World to See: Visual Culture and the Struggle for Civil Rights.” Confronts is the right word. Nearly 10 feet by 18 feet, it’s at the top of the staircase on the second floor of the Addison Gallery of American Art. A print, 16 inches by 20 inches, is in the show proper.
The show, which was organized by the Center for Art, Design and Visual Culture at the University of Maryland Baltimore County and the National Museum of African American History and Culture, runs through July 31. It seeks to explore, as a wall label puts it, “the role of visual culture — from the late 1940s to the mid-1970s — in shaping and transforming the struggle for racial equality and justice.”
Withers was a talented African-American studio photographer and freelance photojournalist based in Memphis during the civil rights era. The reason Martin Luther King Jr. was in Memphis when he was shot was to support the strikers.
As visual documentation of a newsworthy event, the photograph is expertly done. It’s clear and straightforward — dense with information without ever feeling cluttered. But the longer you look, the richer and deeper the image becomes.
The information conveyed is textual as well as visual. “I AM A MAN” declare the picket signs the workers carry. The message is like a punch, the force tripled by the simplicity of the monosyllables, the sans-serif chunkiness of those black letters on white background, and the sight of the message repeated on all those signs. Every person in the photograph is African-American; and except for the figure in the left foreground, all are male. But race and sex are incidental. The message is as universal as it is profound.
Formally, the image is no less striking. The patch of pavement in the foreground is like a thrust stage — and, along with the sky, forms a frame within the frame. Furthermore, the image is a study in perpendicularity. The vertical (utility poles, trees, the row of windows on the left) intersects with the horizontal (the row of figures bisecting the frame). The most important geometric element, of course, is that small sea of word-bearing rectangles. The juxtaposition of geometry and humanity within the frame mirrors that of individuality and order (the two come together in the tilt of that man’s sign in the middle).
Withers’s photograph is among several in “For All the World to See” by some very notable photographers: Elliott Erwitt, Dan Weiner, Roy DeCarava, Gordon Parks, Carl Van Vechten, Lotte Jacobi. But the show’s 250 items mostly consist of ephemera: magazine covers, film and video clips, toys (the first African-American Barbie, for example, who arrived on the scene in 1979), campaign buttons, comic books, swizzle sticks, baseball cards, ads, record albums, a fan bearing King’s portrait.
Such diversity and abundance make for a lively, informative show, but one that’s scattered and diffuse. “For All the World to See” sprawls. The overlapping sounds from multiple video monitors is symbolic of the show as a whole. It’s a bit of a cacophony. Or there’s the wall featuring photographs of Lorraine Hansberry, Coretta Scott King holding her daughter at her husband’s funeral, Marian Anderson, the Black Panthers Eldridge and Kathleen Cleaver, and DeCarava’s celebrated image of the jazz musicians John Coltrane and Elvin Jones. The overall effect, like that of the show as a whole, approaches incoherence.
Coherence, and then some, is the point of the 69 black-and-white photographs that make up “Richard Avedon: The Family.” In toto, they can be seen as a deadpan coda to “For All the World to See.”
Rolling Stone magazine published these portraits of 73 members of America’s power elite in October 1976. (The numerical discrepancy? The Joint Chiefs of Staff share the same picture.) The portraits are in Avedon’s standard late manner: stark, unadorned, highly stylized in their ostensible lack of stylization. In this case, the simplicity reflects content as well as form: Power needs no adornment.
Some of the juxtapositions are enchanting. The radical journalist I.F. Stone’s portrait hangs next to that of NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle. What’s most noticeable, though, and most notable, is how overwhelmingly white the faces in these black-and-white photographs are.
There are four African-Americans: US Representatives Andrew Young, Shirley Chisholm, Barbara Jordan, and the labor leader A. Philip Randolph. That’s a stronger representation than the one each that Asians and Hispanics get: US Senator Daniel Inouye, the United Farm Workers’ Cesar Chavez. The sitters are almost as overwhelmingly male. There are seven women. Besides Chisholm and Jordan, they are Lady Bird Johnson (a particularly fine portrait), Rose Kennedy, Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham, US Representative Bella Abzug, and Richard Nixon’s secretary Rose Mary Woods.
Looking at this vast preponderance of white guys in charge, one might recall a video clip in “For All the World to See” from 1963. In it, the novelist James Baldwin remarks that “There will be a Negro president in this country.” Obviously, he was right. Baldwin then adds, “It will not be the country we are sitting in now.” These Avedon portraits remind us he was right about that, too.
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.