The text below is excerpted from the MoMA publication Among Others: Blackness at MoMA, edited by Darby English and Charlotte Barat. Chosen by the New York Times as one of the Best Art Books of 2019 and by Artnews as one of the Best Art Books of the Decade, Among Others is the first substantial exploration of a major museum’s uneven historical relationship with Black artists, Black audiences, and the broader subject of racial Blackness. This is the final entry in our series of selected Among Others excerpts on Magazine.
Ellen Gallagher. DeLuxe. 2004–05
Meanwhile, all one has to do to see the abstract minimalism of DeLuxe is to stand back from it and take it in as a whole, so that the areas of wall that separate each of its 60 framed units are seen as spacings integral to the work’s formal unity as well as to its grammar. From this perspective, both the visual and the verbal contents of those 60 units are elided, so that the work’s grid structure is even more pronounced than that of They Could Still Serve. And from this same distant perspective, one takes in the scattershot punctuation of DeLuxe’s formal structure by color as well: predominantly yellows and pinks, some strong blacks, and one red rectangle over to the right. These break up the work’s white-framed black-and-whites and encourage the viewer to come in closer to see what they yield in the way of details.
Up close, one may choose to take in DeLuxe’s rectangular units in a readerly, left-to-right, top-to-bottom fashion or more randomly, in whatever order one chooses, looking back and forth to suss out relationships, repetitions and anomalies, continuities and discontinuities, differences and similarities. From the first, the viewer will note the signature preoccupation with hair, running like a constant thread throughout the whole, and tying it not only to other work by Gallagher but also to work by other African American women artists of her generation, such as Lorna Simpson. The most obvious locus of political commentary at the intertwined levels of race and gender, the thematics of hair in DeLuxe are more than just topical and more than mere iconography; they are a generative topos that is distinctive to Gallagher’s practice-specific engagement in the combination of semiosis and materiality. From the upper-left-most rectangle, with its obviously cut and collaged, gun-toting black man with the extravagant white 17th-century judge’s wig made of Plasticine, and with other, printed wigs floating disembodied against a powder-blue ground, to the lower-right-most rectangle with its black-and-white register, its female head of hair, its floating vowels, and its ads for hair products such as Royal Crown Hair Dressing as well as other items such as false teeth and douche bags, DeLuxe mounts a sustained and prolific demonstration of how materials beget images and images beget materials, not to mention a cohabitation of the chaotic and the structured, the visual and the verbal, the biomorphic and the cultural, each entwined with the other. Interspersed here and there with a black-on-black mimeograph negative, a grid-within-a-grid of black-and-white or yellow Plasticined heads, a cut-up pornographic photograph, themes of female desirability and male power, and at least one apparently unaltered magazine page advertising a skin product that will produce the made-for-kisses “lighter, smoother skin that men adore,” DeLuxe plays on the bodily fragmentation and the image seriality to which the title of They Could Still Serve alludes. At the same time, DeLuxe maintains and ups the ante on the earlier work’s investment in the material substrate of the work of art, and its capacities for inversion and subversion, invention and creation.