Cutting a figure fashioning black portraiture
With the recent ushering in of the second decade of the twenty-first century and the Era of Obama, the study of the black body has fully entered the field of art-historical and visual culture studies, along with being one of the most popular sites of social, cultural, and political contestation. In fact it has long been a particularly fertile field for academic rumination and semiotic dissection as well as the subject of numerous art collections and archival projects, including Dominique de Menil’s singular Archive of the Image of the Black in Western Art, now in the care of the W. E. B. DuBois Institute for African American Research at Harvard University. In the past decade, the challenge of making sense of the various ideologies and geographical constellations that one might interrogate when researching this topic has been taken up by a number of scholars in the fields of art history and cultural studies, critics who have produced an increasingly expansive discourse on photographs, paintings, sculpture, film, and other media, including including Kellie Jones, Deborah Willis, and Charmaine Nelson. Richard J. Powell now offers readers a conceptual intervention into this field by attempting to characterize and define a particular genre of portraiture and its relationship to the representation of black bodies. With the idea of “cutting a figure” signaled in the book’s title, Powell argues for the recognition of an “active visuality” (7) on the part of the black subjects who inhabit the myriad images upon which he has turned his formidable analytic powers. In assembling these images, and introducing a new classificatory term for them, Powell offers a novel way to understand many of the physically and sartorially arresting portraits of black peoples that have been produced within the conditions of modernity.
The success of Powell’s approach hinges on his ability to convince the reader that there is indeed such a thing as “cutting a figure,” which he defines in part as a sense of “sharpness” that is a specifically “black American-informed artistic strategy of modern style” (7). Powell claims that “cutting a figure” is about pride and exhibitionism, and that it is often found in “anatomical distortion, emblematic posturing, and a contrastive decorative scheme.” In his estimation, such a presentation can be found in any number of works that carry “conceptual implications of spirit, insolence, and physical singularity” (10). As Powell himself notes with his brief read of the Anglo-American painter John Singer Sargent’s double portrait of Mr. and Mrs. Isaac Newton Phelps Stokes (1897), which features the unnaturally elongated bodies of a pair of white socialites, “cutting a figure”—as a signified—is not solely fixed within the black body. But this artistic strategy, one that he argues can be employed by both artists and their subjects (particularly in the case of photography), is only partially persuasive as there seem to be few portraits of emboldened, anachronistic, or dynamic bodies that might be exempt from this characterization. Rather it can be found in any kind of figural representation that addresses itself to the viewer using the specific set of physical and sartorial visual codes that Powell has ascribed to it.
Powell begins his investigation with a heterogeneous group of images that are chosen for their ability to function as “interlocutors” of self-expression. Powell briefly returns to work he published previously by including a compressed discussion of Nathaniel Jocelyn’s 1839 portrait of Cinqué (Sengbe Pieh, 1813–1879), the hero of the rebellion earlier that year on the slave ship Amistad (Richard J. Powell, “Cinqué: Antislavery Portraiture and Patronage in Jacksonian America,” American Art 11 [Fall 1997]: 48–73), before moving on to an elucidating examination of the possible subversive elements found in German-born painter Christian Mayr’s 1838 genre scene Kitchen Ball at White Sulpher Springs, Virginia. He transitions into an iconologic explication of the connections of nineteenth-century diasporic African women’s head coverings, focusing on the importance to both abolitionist aesthetics and the minstrelsy tradition of scarves for actively visual subjects, such as the abolitionist and women’s rights activist Sojourner Truth. He then turns to the question of whether the adaptations of Western fashion by free black men of that era constituted a type of dandified costuming or a bold mode of subversive resistance. He briefly analyzes the self-styling of image-conscious men like abolitionist Frederick Douglass and his political successors Marcus Garvey and New Negro philosopher Alain Locke. The latter discussion yields some interesting points about the impact of prejudice and preconception on the veristic status of certain garments and the bodies they adorn. However, the former discussion, which argues convincingly for the visual ubiquity and the personal importance of the head scarf in maintaining the dignity of black women sitters in the nineteenth-century, suffers in its unsupported conclusion that this particular sartorial statement was a real weapon for the subject to wield within representation itself. Further evidential support is needed to affirm that the head scarf did in fact enable the images of these women to “cut the figure” in a personally transformative or politically radical way. Comparing the images of these kerchief-wearing women to those of black women whose hair was unbound might have highlighted the period associations of uncovered hair with sexual promiscuity or low-class origins.
In concluding this section of the book, Powell asserts that these representations all share in the common “conceptual challenge of self-awareness and self-agency, especially as it impacts (and functions within the portraiture of) peoples of African descent, who have struggled with this challenge under the real-life constraints of vilification, dependency, and an all-consuming desire for freedom.” In this way Powell confers upon his subjects a hard-won ability to “critically discern the notion of a race on display” that elevates their self-fashioning from mockery to a “cutting of the proverbial figure” (77; emphasis in original).
A significant portion of the book discusses images produced by two lesser-known African American artistic figures whom Powell finds irresistibly interesting. First, Powell makes it his mission to rescue the career of the fashion model Donyale Luna from the dustbin of history. Luna’s meteoric ascent into the pages of international fashion magazines and art films, including Andy Warhol’s Camp (1965) and Federico Fellini’s Fellini Satyricon (1969), during the late 1960s and early 1970s was cut short by her (dare I say, tragic) early death in what Powell implies was the voguish world of Rome’s artistic (and heroin-addicted) avant-garde counter-culture. At the start of the chapter Powell states that his attraction to Luna’s visuality has its roots in a childhood encounter with her mesmerizing visage on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show. The Fanonesque “primal scene,” which Powell recalls with the sub-heading “Look, Momma, a Negro on TV,” goes a long way in explaining both his attraction to Luna as a research topic and the social importance of her emergence at the peak of the Civil Rights Era for re-forming standards of beauty that African American subjects (like Powell) partook of in their daily consumption of mass media images (86). Her iconic “look,” a highlighting of her almond-shaped eyes through the strategic placement of her hands, was a pose that provided an arresting visual punctum for the young Powell as he sat enraptured by the mysterious and beautiful “Negro” on his parent’s TV set (101).
The argument that Powell makes for the transformative cultural impact of Luna’s striking features is persuasive. Surely, few other black fashion models (other than perhaps the Somali-born Iman or the Jamaican Grace Jones, both of whom appeared in the wake of Luna’s death) have been able to “cut a figure” with as much singular authority as Luna did at the peak of her career. In the end the reader is impressed by the contribution of the visual construction that was Donyale Luna at the height of her powers. Through Powell’s recuperation of her life and his discussion of the images that were made of her body, he shines a light on the visual space that Luna excavated for the superstars confected of today’s black beauties. Readers are left with little doubt that her blessed and bedeviled life in all its tragedy prepared our collective eyes for the self-assured black visuality of a Tyra Banks or a Beyoncé Knowles. At times the biographically focused approach of chapter 2 reads like the heart-rending demise of a beautiful black queen, at war with her own self-image, driven to disassociative madness and subsequent death. In this way, it is far from providing a harmonious proximity with the preceding medley of close reads that are featured in chapter 1.
As if to counter this imbalance, Powell follows his discussion of Luna by opening a window onto the technically superb artistic practice of the would-be king of the “cutting the figure” genre: the boldly macho and commercially savvy Barkley L. Hendricks. In the 2008–9 season, Hendricks was honored with a sweeping touring retrospective accompanied by an exhibition catalogue to which Powell contributed an important essay (Trevor Schoonmaker, ed., Barkley L. Hendricks: Birth of the Cool, Durham, NC: Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University: 2008). While generally well-known due to his inclusion in landmark shows such as the Whitney Museum of American Art’s 1994 Black Male exhibition, curated by Thelma Golden, Hendricks oeuvre has sustained little academic art-historical engagement beyond the handful of catalogue essays that have been devoted to his work over the past forty years. Powell not only identifies the sources of Hendricks’s exclusion from past studies of late twentieth-century figurative painting, convincingly locating his omission in the undervaluation of his work’s black subjects by art critics and academics alike, he also touches on what separates these images from other figurative projects by artists such as Philip Pearlstein: the painterly implication of each figure’s individual self-awareness of her or his own “objecthood”—a self-aware “cutting of the figure” that functions to lessen the “viewer’s emotional distance” from the image in a profound, phenomenological way (130).
In his narrative of Hendricks’s steady success, Powell acknowledges the artist’s extensive academic training at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and Yale University in the 1960s and 1970s as helping to assure the technical savvy and consistent marketability of these life-size paintings of distinctively clad African American subjects set against briskly contrasting backgrounds. In privileging Hendrick’s paintings of “young urbane blacks whose claims to pictorial posterity resided neither in deeds nor dictates but in their clothes, carriage, and color” (128), Powell seeks to expand the idea of “cutting the figure” by grounding it in these figural representation of the “sly, the slick, and the wicked” that he sites within the subversive self-fetishization that emanates from each canvas (153). While the superficial posing and flossing of Hendricks’s subjects were mildly ostentatious by the standards of the period, their social impact, unlike Luna’s meteoric trajectory, made few cultural ripples beyond the art world of the northeastern United States.
The pervasive impact of the material that Powell tackles in the next section, which focuses on what he calls the “new black portraiture,” is far more extensive. By beginning this section with a remarkably lucid and logical historical overview of the transformative power of hip-hop and the changes that the rise of music videos and cable television brought to broader cultural encounters with black creativity, both positive and prejudicial, Powell is able to brilliantly chart many of the current conflicts surrounding the black body in mass-media-inflected artistic representation. He interrogates works by both black and white artists, including Jeff Koons’s life-size, white-glazed and gilded ceramic Michael Jackson and Bubbles (1988) and the black-face and clown-wigged introspective self-portraits of painter Beverly McIver, as well as Civil Rights-era photography and popular advertising images of Michael Jordan from the 1990s. In the end, Powell gives McIver and her very personal project the last word in a broad discussion of images that he claims reveal the “culpability, mortality, and illusory facades of would-be divas, thugs and other black masqueraders.” In a revealing quote from an interview with the artist, McIver says of her work: “The beauty and the gift from God is that I am able to transfer to canvas those images that are painful and hard for even me to look at. I like to think that they are redemptive” (208). The project of redemption—redemption of the black body from the soul-sucking quicksand of capitalist modernity and postmodern visuality—is one that seems nearly impossible for a mere art historian to accomplish.
In his conclusion to the book, Powell admits that the disparate structure of his manuscript is both “ambitious and unwieldy,” a generous caveat that does not eliminate the fragmented form that such a wide-ranging project presents. In spite of his request for indulgence, and the frequently virtuosic turns of methodology in which he engages, the conclusion’s somewhat expanded reiteration of each chapter’s main points ultimately fails to make all of the myriad lines that Powell’s discussion has drawn meet in a completely harmonious composition. But this small untidiness is forgivable, for Cutting a Figure, both the book and Powell’s newly coined genre, has provided an indisputably valuable new portrait of the black body and its importance to art history and visual culture studies in the current millennium.