Whitney Museum of American Art
945 Madison Ave. at 75th St.
Wednesday - Sunday through April 28, $14-$18 (pay-what-you-wish Fridays, 6:00 - 9:00)
In 1960, jazz pianist and composer Jaki Byard released his solo debut, Blues for Smoke, an improvisatory record that features on its cover a train puffing out dark clouds as it makes its way down the tracks. The album lends its name to an exciting multimedia exhibit at the Whitney that examines the impact of the blues on the arts. The show is highlighted by David Hammons’s extraordinary 1989 installation, “Chasing the Blue Train,” which greets visitors on the third floor. A blue train makes its way across tracks that take it through a tunnel covered in coal and a landscape with upturned piano tops as John Coltrane’s 1957 Blue Train album plays from a boom box, the work riffing on Coltrane’s name (coal, train) while celebrating the blues. Zoe Leonard’s “1961, 2002-Ongoing” consists of a row of suitcases of different shades of blue, evoking impermanence and creating a mystery about what might be inside; nearby, Martin Kipperberger’s “Martin, into the Corner, You Should Be Ashamed of Yourself” is a life-size replica of the artist standing in the corner, suffering from a case of the blues. Specially commissioned for the show, Kori Newkirk’s “Yall” consists of a shopping cart nearly completing a circle of blue on the floor, calling to mind exclusion, homelessness, and failed capitalism. Kira Lynn Harris lines a stairwell and entrance with silver Mylar in “Blues for Breuer,” paying tribute to the architect of the Whitney building, which will be taken over by the Met in 2015 when the Whitney moves downtown.
Curated by Bennett Simpson in consultation with Chrissie Iles, “Blues for Smoke” also features works by Romare Bearden, Carrie Mae Weems, Glenn Ligon, Liz Larner, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Rachel Harrison, Mark Morrisroe, Alma Thomas, Beauford Delaney, Kara Walker, William Eggleston, and Lorraine O’Grady, all contributing to the overall examination of the blues aesthetic. A media room includes viewing stations where people can watch classic performances, while Stan Douglas’s “Hors-champs” plays continuously in its own space on the first floor, offering a unique view of a live recording on the front and back of a screen hanging from the ceiling. In addition, the Whitney is hosting a series of live events that continue through the end of the exhibition, which closes April 28, including “Blues for Smoke: Matana Roberts, Keiji Haino, and Loren Connors” on April 20 at 8:00 (featuring a solo performance by Roberts and a duo guitar improvisation by Haino and Connors), “Through the Lens of the Blues Aesthetic: An Evening of Short Films Selected by Kevin Jerome Everson” on April 25 at 7:00, the live concert “Blues for Smoke: Annette Peacock” on April 26 at 7:00, and the three-day “Blues for Smoke: Thomas Bradshaw,” in which the playwright will be creating a new piece that will be shown April 26-28.