‘Searching for the Magic’: Noel W. Anderson’s Ragged Tapestries Reveal a Physical Quest
Three tapestries on view at Luxembourg gallery Zidoun-Bossuyt’s booth at UNTITLED, ART’s San Francisco edition hold within them a search for nothing less than true enchantment.
Torn and ragged from fingers endlessly picking at them, Noel W. Anderson’s works don’t necessarily immediately reveal the imagery they reproduce. Approach them from different angles, get close, and pull back, and you’ll find that ghostly images emerge from behind the hundreds of dangling threads, whether suddenly or gradually. You’ll find that these works, inspired by what was the most elevated art form in the Middle Ages, contain the most contemporary of imagery: athletes as they are witnessed on a screen. One tapestry shows just the legs of an athlete, cut off at the waist, in front of a staring mob. One is more easily legible, and plainly shows one of the greatest athletes of all time, none other than Michael Jordan, seemingly catching his breath as he waits for play to resume.
A Louisville native, Anderson holds not one but two MFAs, one in printmaking from Indiana University and one in sculpture from Yale. He teaches print media at New York University, and has mounted solo shows at the Contemporary Art Center of Cincinnati in 2017, and at the Hunter Museum of American Art, in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in 2019. You can find his works in collections like the Studio Museum in Harlem, and the International Center of Photography, in New York.
In the age of Colin Kaepernick, who took a knee against racist police brutality and paid a severe price, it might be easy to forget that sports has served as a site for protest at least since the 1968 Olympics, when African American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their black-gloved fists on the winners’ pedestal, signaling their support for the Black Power movement as the Star-Spangled Banner played. Anderson (whose website, funny enough, is NWAstudios.com) mines sporting imagery for its messages about race.
I spoke with Anderson ahead of the fair to learn about the connection between tapestries and television, about his own close relationship with sports, and about a magic in blackness.
A statement from your gallery says that your works on view at the fair “attempt to locate an elusive black essence.” We could talk about that for a whole day, but first off, tell me a little bit about that search.
It started with going to the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Fridays, when it’s open late. Fifteen years ago nobody knew it was open late, and I would go to the medieval wing and stare at tapestries. It was often just me and the gallery attendant. And I realized those works are the origin of photography and of screen culture. Each thread is data that tried to replicate reality. Then I did some research into Joseph Marie Jacquard and his invention of punch-hole registration for weaving, which Charles Babbage picked up after the French Revolution and created the grandfather of the computer. And I realized every time we’re looking at a screen, we’re looking at a weaving.
When I was a boy, we had a television with rabbit ears. The image was wobbling, and I would mess around with the rabbit ears to stabilize the image. Then I realized I could play with it more and re-distort the image. I later paired that to tapestries, which are the invention of screen culture. So realized that every image I see on screen is also a distortion and it’s not real.
So I kept saying that the images I saw were not real. There must be some origin to that image that correlates to black people. So the weavings that I do are trying to locate the real experience behind the image. That aligns with philosophy and theoretical concerns about representation, about reality versus representation.
So when I do the weavings I’m trying to encounter how we understand the history of image-making. It’s part of my concern with trying to find an essence of blackness, even though essentialism is how we get racism. I’m still trying to encounter or approach or arrive at something I know I can’t arrive at, but I keep trying.
There’s a tradition of American artists depicting sport, from George Bellows’ boxers to Paul Pfeiffer’s basketball players, just to name a couple of examples. Is that a tradition you have a relationship with?
Pfeiffer’s use of athletic events is interesting because of the way that he erases signifiers of belonging. He gets rid of names and titles of teams and people get reduced down to beings in the arena, which in a weird way becomes hyper-sexual, which I’m drawing on in the basketball works. They come from an exhibition I did called Get Lifted. I was reading a book called 100 Years of Lynchings. It’s an anthology of newspaper reports by journalists from 1865 to about 1970 here in America, re-telling what it was like to be at the event. I started to realize that the way they talk about lynching is the same way they talk about the spectacle of black people in the arena, specifically basketball. The body is suspended, it sways, the net is a rope, the crowd goes wild, there’s a mob in a frenzy. The work you see at UNTITLED is from that series, and some of those are woven of images of basketball players going up for a slam dunks, cropped from the waist down. Behind them you see the witnesses. So you abstract them in that way, similar to how Pfeiffer might abstract them.
And with Bellows, you’re witness to this masculine spectacle of violence. With the sight line he creates, you are in the audience. In both scenarios, all three, mine included, it tries to get the audience to realize they are willing participants in the spectacle of black bodies.
If in fact black people are supposed to have economic and social mobility, if the language hasn’t changed, how far have we really come?
You mention the perspective Bellows creates for you. I also thought of Thomas Eakins, who painted rowers and was a rower himself, in terms of perspective. What is your relationship to sports? Are you an athletic person? Do you just watch on screens, or are you there in the stadium?
I have a hard time making anything if I haven’t lived it. I have a hard time when artists make work about something they haven’t experienced, unless it’s about their distance from the authenticity of it. I’ve been both the spectacle and the witness. I’ve played organized sports for many years, so I’ve been a part of the spectacle. I still work out five or six times a week. I’m very competitive, and I run marathons. I also believe that for the work to be important I have to have lived the experience. Though I haven’t experienced a lynching.
I have weavers here and in France that weave for me. I put the tapestries on the wall and I pick at them by hand. I’m trying to find the origin behind the image. Because the works themselves are woven of cotton, I’m literally in the studio picking cotton, so there’s a whole other historical and conceptual leap that I’m trying to get to. So even by the process itself I’m trying to get to an encounter with black labor. Those lynchings are black labor that is placed on the black body.
Let’s jump to a specific work. In M̶J̶, which shows Michael Jordan, his initials are crossed out. The viewer might not see that at first. That might be a later part of the experience. Tell me about how the strikethrough works.
I’m interested in Heidegger’s term “under erasure.” Terms aren’t enough to express the thing. These are the limits of language. Black people themselves are always under erasure because we don’t control the means of production. I’m erasing by picking and brushing the image. That’s what I’m trying to allude to when I’m crossing out the name. It’s not about the person, it’s just about the body. I’m not interested in who the person is right now. I’m really just interested in what it means for the black body to be the spectacle.
Even when I write, and if I get published, when I’m lucky, I’ll put things under erasure because that word’s not good enough although that’s the word we would use. Language just can’t get to where I’m trying to get to.
Jean-Michel Basquiat often crossed out words he had written, and said that the strikethrough makes you want to read the words all the more.
That’s there. Some of my other works use a lot of language, because I’m really into certain writers like Fred Moten or Nathaniel Mackie or even Cecil Taylor, the jazz musician. Those guys are always talking about the limits of language. Black folks are so deep, the things we’ve experienced, you can’t express them through words. And that’s the human experience. The things we experience, language just can’t get to. So we can circle back to the origin of black essence. I’m trying to go where language can’t even approach.
Let’s go back to Michael Jordan. He’s only fifty-six, and he’s worth a couple billion dollars, but he’s been pretty quiet for a while now, no? And yet sneakerheads are still going wild for a recent reissue of the black and red Air Jordan 11. What does that mean to you?
There was a critique of him in the nineties, and it was a good critique that he never really answered. It was the time of the Rodney King video, and race riots, and O.J. Simpson. What he said was, “Republicans buy Nikes too.” So he’s implicated. Far be it from me to call someone out and require them to do things. I can only do what I’m sent here for, my duty. But if you had all that money, which means you had no care in the world financially, maybe you’d be doing a little better for black folks. Once this game is over and you gotta go to the other side and the ancestors are there, I’ll be damned if I go to the other side and they say I didn’t do enough.
I’ve just come to a realization that my job is to push people as far as possible to see that these images that we believe in aren’t real at all. They don’t give you all the angles. I just watched this DVD (it’s weird to say that!) of a documentary made in the nineties during the Rodney King riots. They point out that at that time PCP was a hell of a drug, and when you tried to subdue someone who was on PCP, it was damn near impossible. So they racially profiled this man when he tried to elude the police. When he wouldn’t lie down, they assumed PCP was in him, and they had to go to plan B, which was excessive force.
That also gets us thinking about the essence of black people. Maybe there’s something internal to black people that the white officers see, that we don’t know, that requires them to treat the black body differently. Maybe there’s a magic inside of us that can only be subdued with extreme force. Maybe I’m searching for the magic when I pick the thing apart.