Art & Desgin

Greg Tate Was a Titan in Black Arts Criticism and Visual Culture –

In the days since writer Greg Tate joined the ancestors, much has been said about how he engaged music with unparalleled style and brilliance as a critic, bandleader, activist, and producer. But Tate also transformed the global-n-galactic landscape of visual arts and film. He did so through his groundbreaking scholarship, lectures, performance, and curation, bringing on the exuberance, politics, and poetics of the Black radical tradition.

During his tenure at the Village Voice beginning in the early 1980s, Tate both signaled and catalyzed tidal shifts in cultural criticism toward the interdisciplinary scholarship we read and continue to need today. As an inheritor of the Black Arts movement (1965–75), Tate forced the stuffy–and overwhelmingly white and wealthy–fields of art history and mainstream art media to contend with the insurgency and soulfulness of the emergent fields of Black studies and Ethnic studies, as well as postcolonial, women, gender, and sexuality studies. He code-switched with ease between Black American vernacular language and French structuralist theory with the finesse of a turntablist on the ones and twos. In tune with the emergence of cultural studies overseas in Britain, Tate belonged to a new Black arts intelligentsia that, like hip-hop culture, began flourishing in tight communities only to spread out into global relevance.

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Drawing rhetorical strategies from his avant-garde heroes like Miles Davis, his approach to writing and curating mirrored jazz improvisation, rhythm-centric Black rock, and freestyle in hip hop. In 1992, the year that he published his seminal collection Flyboy in the Buttermilk, he said in an interview with NPR, “I’ve always tried to produce critical writing that had as much vitality and viscerality as the art or the phenomena or the experience that I was trying to describe to someone else. I’m really trying to plug a reader into my central nervous system in its most hot-wired state.”

Tate challenged the tenets of art writing and cultural criticism by centering the lived experience of an artwork, seeing it through the lens of Black genealogies and epistemologies. In doing so, he restituted the work, placing it within its proper cultural, social, and political context. His early writing about Black visual art — notably on Jean-Michel Basquiat (1989, 1992), Rammellzee (1985), David Hammons, Senga Nengudi, Romare Bearden (appearing in his seminal 1986 essay “Cult-Nat Meet Freaky-Deke”) – did not just presage Black art’s acceptance of or by white art institutions, they actively forged an opening through their insistence on Black arts’ sophisticated lineage and futurist projections.

In the titular essay in Flyboy in the Buttermilk, “Flyboy in the Buttermilk: Nobody Loves a Genius Child,” Tate pointed out how and why museums and the art world at large failed to acknowledge the genius of Basquiat in his time: “No area of modern intellectual life has been more resistant to recognizing and authorizing people of color than the world of the ‘serious’ visual arts. To this day, it remains a bastion of white supremacy, a sconce of the wealthy, whose high-walled barricades are matched only by Wall Street and the White House and whose exclusionary practices are enforced 24-7-365. It is easier for a rich white man to enter the kingdom of heaven than for a Black abstract and/or Conceptual artist to get a one-woman show in lower Manhattan or a feature in the pages of Artforum, Art in America, or The Village Voice. The prospect that such an artist could become a bona fide art-world celebrity (and at the beginning of her career no less) was, until the advent of Jean Michel Basquiat, something of a joke.”

“No area of modern intellectual life has been more resistant to recognizing and authorizing people of color than the world of the ‘serious’ visual arts,” Tate wrote in 1989.

Tate waged a war of words and broke down some of those barricades himself. By 1992, he was one of a handful of Black art critics commissioned by a major museum to write for an exhibition catalog, contributing the now seminal essay “Black Like B.” for the Whitney’s Basquiat retrospective publication. Not long after, in the aughts, manifold local newspapers and alt-weeklies collapsed. Journalism as a viable form of putting dinner on the table broke, even as the art market was skyrocketing.  Greg began teaching Black arts, visual culture, and music at Brown, Columbia, and other universities, and contributed to numerous exhibition catalogues, cementing his role as a fixture within the discourse around contemporary art. Self-dubbed “the rogue scholar,” he lectured and wrote for museums, like the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum, the ICA Boston, ICA London, the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, the Tate, and the Studio Museum in Harlem, as well as for galleries, like Gagosian and Deitch Projects.

Tate could discern the urgent missives among the cacophony and compelled us to be present in it. Just as he affirmed that hip-hop was making history when others insisted it was a passing fad, he consistently affirmed that visual artists were defining their moment. He uplifted creators as urgently as they produced work. To quote Basquiat quoting Charlie Parker, “Now’s the time.”

Back in 1989, coming out from under a receding wave of post-graffiti art and Basquiat’s tragic death, Tate had the foresight to link graffiti art to the visual revolution that took over not just New York’s cityscape, but the pop culture and art world that drank from it. He wrote, again in “Flyboy in the Buttermilk”: “Let’s go back to postpunk lower Manhattan, no-wave New York, where loft jazz, white noise, and Black funk commune to momentarily desegregate the Downtown rock scene, and hip-hop’s train-writing graffiti cults pull into the station carrying the return of representation, figuration, expression­ism, Pop-artism, the investment in canvas painting, and the idea of the master­piece. Whether the writers presaged or inspired the market forces to all this art­-commodity fetishism and anti-Conceptu­alist material is a question still up for grabs.”

As museums continued to overlook these groundbreaking artists 40 years later, Tate’s question became the driver of the research behind the 2020–21 exhibition “Writing the Future: Basquiat and the Hip-Hop Generation,” which he co-curated at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Through its transporting exhibition design, multimedia installation, and electric artworks, the show aimed to reach the highest notes in Tate’s writing, plugging you into the nervous system of 1980s New York.

A gallery with an abstract painting on its walls and an abstract sculpture resembling a rectangular form with scrawled lettering on it.

Installation view of “Writing the Future: Basquiat and the Hip Hop Generation,” 2020–21, at Museum of Fine Arts Boston, curated by Liz Munsell and Greg Tate.
Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts Boston

Because Tate came to the page with such clarity of purpose and revolutionary politics, Black artists and cutting-edge curators relied upon him to articulate the specific connections for its broad audiences without compromising rigor or verve. A titan of Black cultural criticism and a curator of community, Tate’s handprint is on exhibitions and gatherings generated by his elders, peers, and pay-it-forward devotees.

In the spirit of how Tate etched Black genealogy into the tomes of art history, here is just a sampling from the visual arts community who claim and mourn the loss of their clearest seer and soothsayer. By no means is it exhaustive or definitive, but may it signal to others that legacy of Greg Tate is ongoing: maverick Black curators and cultural producers such as Naomi Beckwith, Linda Goode Bryant, Rashida Bumbray, Nicole Fleetwood, Henry Louis Gates, Thelma Golden, Diedre Harris-Kelley, Sandra Jackson-Dumont, Kellie Jones, Mark Anthony Neal, Richard J. Powell, Franklin Sirmans, and countless others. He leaves behind deep friendships with countless artists and catalogue essays for Dawoud Bey, Julie Dash, Fab 5 Freddy, Futura, Arthur Jafa, Ellen Gallagher, Theaster Gates, Lady Pink, Lee Quiñones, Kamionge Workshop, Deana Lawson, Alan Licht, Kerry James Marshall, Nicole Miller, Wangechi Mutu, Chris Ofili, José Parlá, Cauleen Smith, Carrie Mae Weems, Kehinde Wiley, and more; and there were innumerable reviews that changed people’s careers. This call sheet barely scratches the surface of his contributions to the discourse in film, cinema, and the literary world, as with his writings on AfriCobra, John Akomfrah, Isaac Julien, Spike Lee, Melvin Van Peebles, and more. A selection of Tate’s essays on visual art and culture will be published in the forthcoming book White Cube Fever: Hella Conjure and Writing on the Black Arts (Duke University Press).

A Black man shown from behind before an abstract painting.

Greg Tate.
Photo Peter L’Officiel

As the intrepid maestro for the musical ensemble Burnt Sugar Arkestra Chamber, Tate stomped his cacophony parade through many museums, including the Brooklyn Museum, the Kitchen, the Hammer Museum, Hallways Contemporary Arts Center, Walker Art Center, and more, as well as institutions such as Lincoln Center, and the Apollo Theater. Drawing from the performance strategies of Butch Morris’s conduction, Tate rocked out as Burnt Sugar’s maestro and radio conductor, interpolating his passions from visual arts, pulp film, speculative fiction, and of course, funk.  In addition to Tate’s immediate family, we offer our condolences to all his chosen tribes, particularly the Black Rock Coalition and Burnt Sugar, with whom he shared a lifetime of radical creative collaboration. Although the band’s membership is notoriously ever-evolving, according to the current website, personnel includes: Jeremiah Abiah, Rene Akan, Marc Cary, Honeychild Coleman, Pete Cosey, Morgan Michael Craft, Latasha Nevada Diggs, Justice Dilla-X, Captain Kirk Douglas, Melvin Gibbs, Carl Hancock-Rux, Trevor Holder, Satch Hoyt, Julia Kent, Vijay Iyer, Tia Nicole Leak,  Okkyung Lee, Derrin “D Max” Maxwell, Omega Moon, DJ Mutamassik, Qasim Naqvi, W-Myles Reilly, Matana Roberts, Petre Radu Scafaru, Shariff Simmons, Swiss Chris, Somi, Tamar-kali, Imani Uzuri, Michael Veal, Christina Wheelera and Nioka Workman to name a few. And Sugar Lifers: Jared Michael Nickerson, Lisala Beatty, Lewis “Flip” Barnes, Bruce Mack, Micah Gaugh and Jason DiMatteo with a current crew of righteous rompers Shelley Nicole, Mikel Banks, Abby Dobson, Julie Brown, JS Williams, V. Jeffrey Smith, LaFrae Sci, Avram Fefer, “Moist” Paula Henderson, Dave “Smoota” Smith, Mazz Swift, Leon Gruenbaum, Andre Lassalle, Ben Tyree, Greg Gonzalez, Chris Eddleton and Vernon Reid.

At the time of his death, Tate was completing his magnum opus, a decades-long pursuit, and a continuation of “Cult-Nats Meet Freaky-Deke.” A key articulator of Afrofuturist thought, he could land the Mothership gently on this planet and launch it back to Saturn through his multimedia magic. Such trickery Tate gleaned from being on the front lines with artists like George Clinton and Rammellzee. In 1985, Rammellzee told Tate in an interview, “We’re advanced in terms of science and technology, but the attitude of the population and the control of the population is still Gothic. We still do not know what we’re doing. We still do not know how to leave this planet the right way.”

Tate’s ascension to the stars may not feel right for a very long time, but his writings and recordings remain with us. His raw matter was all of America railing against its self-made terror and the Black genius and creativity that illuminate pathways towards survival and freedom dreams. Matching his rigor with love, Tate connected us cursed compatriots with humanism and the cosmos, reminding us of our commonalities. Tate shared his beautiful mind and tremendous heart with anyone who set their eyes and ears to his page, his stage, and his gallery—not a cube but a circle, still expanding.

Liz Munsell is the Lorraine and Alan Bressler Curator of Contemporary Art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. She co-curated, with Tate, the recent exhibition “Writing the Future: Basquiat and the Hip Hop Generation.” 

J. Faith Almiron, who contributed a catalog essay for that exhibition, is a New York based cultural critic and a leading scholar on Jean-Michel Basquiat.

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