David Hammons' "Chasing the Blue Train" is part of the… (Dirk Pauwels / MOCA )
"Blues for Smoke" is an odd duck. The big new exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art's warehouse space in Little Tokyo is filled with a lot of terrific art from the past half-century, including many works by artists who should be far more widely known than they are. There's much to discover.
Its central theme — that a good chunk of contemporary art evokes the ethos of the blues, the great musical legacy that is arguably America's first distinctive contribution to world culture — is provocative and engaging. Still, the show can be difficult to follow.
Sometimes a painting, sculpture or other work's blues ethos is easy to see, either in obvious subject matter or structural form. Elsewhere the connection is hard to grasp — and occasionally impossible. Head-scratchers are not uncommon. It's the kind of show that is best approached in a loose-limbed and improvisatory way, which may itself be a reflection of its blues theme.
At the entry, five flat-screen televisions display film and video clips that range from 1935 musical numbers by Duke Ellington and Billie Holiday to today's hip-hop performers. The show's title, "Blues for Smoke," comes from a prominent 1960 recording by jazz pianist Jaki (John) Byard, which launched his career. (He then worked with influential composer Charles Mingus.) For the exhibition, the blues spreads like smoke, born in the Civil War era from slave shouts, field hollers and gospel and eventually encompassing bop, free jazz, R&B and more. It's intrinsic to the sociocultural atmosphere in which visual art is made.
Beauford Delaney's portraits of Jean Genet, Charlie "Bird" Parker and an unidentified musician record the artist's own remarkable path through Modernist painting, jazz, bohemian Paris and same-sex explorations. His portrait of James Baldwin, who was a great admirer of Delaney's art, shows the powerful writer enthroned — albeit not in a regal chair. Instead, Baldwin floats serenely in a seated posture, legs crossed and arms raised on absent chair arms, hovering like a latter-day Sun King within an explosive patchwork of blazing color.
Nearby, Bob Thompson's big 1960 canvas, "Garden of Music," is a homage to jazz, its Arcadian landscape populated by Ornette Coleman, Don Cherry, Sonny Rollins and others, recognizable and not. The composition is loosely derived from works such as Matisse's "Joy of Life," which also orbits around a colorful revelry of music and dance. But Thompson's painting deviates from the French painter's more idyllic vision to encompass a detached feeling of alienation.
His figures work as a unified composition, its vertical forms arrayed across the horizontal field almost like notes on a staff. But each man and woman is self-contained, absorbed and isolated in his or her own world.
Works like these begin to inflect perceptions of more familiar art, such as Romare Bearden's great 1960s Cubist collages of urban and rural life. Bearden mixed drawing and painting with angular images scissored from newspapers and magazines, their clipped visual rhythms syncopated and snappy. In this context, frequently pictured guitars reverberate against bebop as much as against Picasso.
Across the way, the scrawled texts cyclically repeated across Jean-Michel Basquiat's five-panel 1983 painting, "Undiscovered Genius of the Mississippi Delta," give up their musical origins in call-and-response vocal schemes. And the searing red-vinyl interior of Rodney McMillian's one-room chapel, commissioned for the show, gradually unfolds in layers: The relentless heat of the Gulf Coast delta where the blues was born, the soulful energy of song, the transformative blood of the Passion and even the fire next time are all illuminated in the stark glare of a bare light bulb suspended from the ceiling.
At the other end of the emotional register is a muted, utterly exquisite 1972 abstraction by Washington Color School painter Alma Thomas. The surface of a chrome-yellow rectangle is covered in short, firm, vertical strokes of dark blue-gray paint. Three marks at the upper right are further layered with lighter blue, and as your eye gets pulled in for a closer view other small inflections of green emerge, sprinkled here and there. The thin streaks of yellow shining forth from between the slate brush strokes fall like steady rain in a Japanese landscape.
Thomas' slow, rich, meditative rhythms flip back and forth between contemplation of reflections on a dark sea and stars glittering in the night sky, picturing neither but embodying nature's mysterious pulse. When you get to Kira Lynn Harris' new Light and Space installation, "Some Blues," set back in the gallery's far corner, Thomas' painting wells up in your memory.