On ViewThe Artist’s Institute, Hunter College
November 11, 2021 – February 26, 2022
By sheer coincidence, I visited No Tears: In Conversation with Horace Pippin, which situates Pippin’s John Brown Going to His Hanging (1942) in the context of critical texts and Dean Moss’s video johnbrown (2014), on December 2, the 162nd anniversary of John Brown’s hanging. It was my second encounter with the abolitionist that week, having visited Kara Walker’s exhibition—where Brown made an appearance in the artist’s video Prince McVeigh and the Turner Blasphemies (2021)—at Sikkema Jenkins just a few days earlier. The show at the Artist’s Institute, co-curated by Jenny Jaskey and Madeleine Seidel, is more modest in scale but just as ambitious in its goals, covering the United States’s miserable history of chattel slavery, martyrs to the abolitionist cause and champions of emancipation, and the long-lasting effects of racism in this country which has influenced our reception of artists of color.
The Horace Pippin in question is a loan painting from Philadelphia’s Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, one of three pictures Pippin devoted to Brown’s life. John Brown, the instigator behind a raid on Harpers Ferry’s federal armory in October 1859, was tried for murder and an attempted slave rebellion as crimes against the state. Brown’s was a cause célèbre in pre-Civil War America: Frederick Douglass was an important, though sometimes conflicted, interlocutor, as we can observe in Moss’s video, which depicts Douglass and Brown debating and often humorously calling out each other’s inconsistencies; Brown (Pete Simpson) believably comes across as somewhat bull-headed and defensive about his ephebophilia, as Okwui Okpokwasili’s Douglass puts it, but he does gleefully get to inform Douglass about his second marriage to a white woman, the gift of foresight an apparent advantage of the afterlife. Henry David Thoreau was a vocal supporter of his legal case, publicly giving a speech defending him several times before Brown died. These famous advocates were unsuccessful, though, and Brown became the first American to be convicted of treason. Robert E. Lee was present at his execution.
We cannot know if any of those men makes an appearance in Pippin’s painting: most of the figures face away from the viewer to watch the executioner’s carriage, and those whose faces are legible are not recognizable to us from this late distance. What is more, the men wear dress from the artist’s, not Brown’s, period, a historical compression that reverberates in the composition of Pippin’s remarkable proscenium space—all the elements of the painting force themselves toward the picture plane, echoing the pressure pushing on the upright Brown, sitting on his own coffin. Only a Black woman at the lower right-hand edge, right behind the frame, is painted fully en face, her blue, polka-dot dress a moment of cool against the hot-tempered red scarves of the men. With the round brim of a man’s hat circling her head, and her dress rhyming with the blue sky at the top left, she might be an angelic witness to what is about to transpire.
That woman, who is marked by Pippin’s signature across her hem, is often identified as an elder in the painter’s family. Lore had it that Pippin’s grandmother was present at the hanging, as several of the wall labels tell us. These texts, organized by the editors of
ARTS.BLACK and written by artists, poets, performers, activists, and scholars, guide our thinking-through of Pippin’s work and his career, offering historical, critical, and formal readings of the painting in prose and verse. They also remind us of how often Pippin has been described as “self-taught,” an “outsider,” and a “flat” painter, these terms often deployed as euphemistically racist dismissals of his achievements. Faulting Pippin’s paintings of the 1940s for flatness was particularly petty, as it was heralded for his white contemporaries as one of the essential elements of Modernist painting; these insipid suggestions deny acknowledgment of his pictorial strategies in favor of positing that he might not have intended them.
All of this is teased out in the Artist’s Institute’s small, Upper East Side space, in reading responses to Pippin and Brown, and in looking at Pippin himself. It requires patience to watch and absorb and think and see, but these will surely be moments well-spent. And after that, we know what is called for: “action – action!”