BOSTON — When art historian Susan Denker died in 2016, Dell artist Marie Hamilton learned not only that her former mentor and close friend had kept her illness and impending death a secret, but also that she had to inherit most of Denker’s estate. packed apartment in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Naturally, it took a few years for Hamilton to begin to process the overwhelming news and deliberate what to do with that legacy.
As one of three recipients of the 2021 James and Audrey Foster Award, given annually to artists working in and around Boston, culminating in an exhibition at ICA Boston, Hamilton used a selection of objects and images to create a media library space. in honor of Denker, ominously titled The end of Susan, the end of everything (2021). Intuitively arranged on shelves along the perimeter of the gallery, books, periodicals, photographs, records, CDs, DVDs and an electric typewriter are accompanied by three rotating slide projectors that project photographs asynchronously onto the wall. Most of the materials relate to African-American culture – for example, a rare book by Charles W. Chesnutt, a VHS documentary on Elizabeth Catlett, an “Obama ’08” baseball cap.
A love of black art and history was the foundation of the friendship between the two women, who held markedly different racial, economic and generational positions. Although Denker, a white professor at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, did not publish much scholarship, her magnum opus was the Database of African American Visual Artists (2006-2015), a resource Invaluable Internet that has preserved the historical and contemporary. contributions from artists of African descent. (Thankfully, the massive database is still accessible in its archived form.) Hamilton, a black artist who met Denker while pursuing an MFA at the Museum School, often uses photography and performance to investigate the relationship between race, power and embodiment.
The installation of the ICA is far from being a simple presentation of the archives of a researcher. Instead, Hamilton embellishes the collection by inserting her own personal effects, such as photographic slides purchased on eBay and notable books published since 2016. For example, she puts Denker’s original vinyl record from The Velvet Underground & Nico, featuring his signature Andy Warhol banana cover image, in dialogue with books and ephemera from his own research into the colonial history of the banana industry in Honduras, where his family has its roots. But Hamilton’s most important archive activations are three new videos inspired by Denker’s notes for lectures on Pablo Picasso, Jackson Pollock and Robert Colescott. Playing as teacher, artist and muse all at once, she extends the art historian‘s critiques of modernism by vividly injecting them with a black feminist perspective.
Hamilton conceives the installation as a collaboration with Denker. “I definitely felt like she was guiding me through the process,” the artist told me in an interview. “I remember thinking that even though she’s not here, that must be why she left all these things for me.” As well as elucidating the precious, mysterious, and enduring nature of friendship, Hamilton’s poignant installation suggests that creating art can be a way to grieve in our time of heightened loss.
the James and Audrey Foster Award 2021 continues at ICA Boston (25 Harbor Shore Drive, Boston, Massachusetts) through January 30.