March 15, 2022
Salon 94 Honors Black Cinematic, Sonic, and Visual Art
The exhibition, titled, Caldonia: Concert and Film Posters from the Collection of Ralph DeLuca, lines the walls with dozens of printed ephemera documenting Black art, music, and cinema from the 1920s through the 1960s. Some are triumphs of Modernism–a 1930 ad for Fats Waller and His Orchestra Bluebird Records and a 1964 ad for a series of Thelonious Monk gigs, both ink on paper, capture the clean-lined confidence and charisma of their subjects. Others, like the Louis Jordan musical poster that gives the show its title, positively vibrate with proto-Afro-futurism. A series of collages made by Louis Armstrong in the late 1960s prove Satchmo could Dada as well as he could blow the trumpet. Indeed, an entire history of 20th century visual culture can be traced through these objects. “The forms of abstraction canonized as jazz, blues, swing, bebop, and rock ‘n’ roll are essential to the history of the United States and visual art,” says Salon 94 managing director Andrew Blackley, “We’re so glad to work on a lush and vibrant context for it.”
The context is inherently as political as it is aesthetic. An art advisor and movie poster collector, DeLuca, spent some two decades waving paddles at auctions and searching out promoters, printers, and estates to build this private archive. For the first time in decades, the public can thrill at the graphic control of explosive work like the 1948 poster for the King Cole Trio vehicle Killer Diller, swoon at the star-power exanimating in tiny portraits of Butterfly McQueen and Jackie Mabley, and ache to see the film itself. But one also wonders who benefits when these examples of pop culture ephemera are reframed as fine art and priced accordingly.
An all-star band of critics and artists, including Daphne A. Brooks and Stanley Whitney, tease out other political complexities in the fine and ample catalog. A 1938 poster for Chick Webb might be the first to mention Ella Fitzgerald by name. As the jazz pianist Yoko Suzuki notes, the poster shows the handsome face, but only the face, of Webb. He “was called ‘Chick’ because of his diminutive hunchback appearance,” Suzuki writes, as a result of tuberculosis of the spine. Chick “first opposed hiring [Fitzergerald] because she was not pretty enough.” Multi-color, mass-market posters were a medium only a few decades old, but the old message that sex sells comes through loud and clear.
Nonetheless, the show is a vibrant testimony to what might be lost when material culture disappears. The writer and academic, Shaka McGlotten, builds a bridge between the fragility of the objects and the tenuous nature of success for Black artists: “I am seeing that these events could have been forgotten,” they write. “I am not saying that the genius of Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder was in dispute; but rather that their achievements and immense success were not guaranteed.” The appearance of these objects resecures that guarantee and returns lesser idols to a rightful prominence. The politics of memory are as fraught as they’ve ever been, but these objects prove legacies unbroken. After all, McGlotten writes, “I use online platforms that still use the grammar of this design area. That design language is still there.”
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