Galleria: Blues for Smoke @ The Whitney

Blues

There are certain American pastimes that inevitably lend themselves to smoking – All-night Poker, arena Boxing, and horsetrack-betting chief among them. You can add the Delta Blues to that short list, as well. Because it is the Blues – from Robert Johnson all the way through dame Adele – that’s always been wrought with a down-and-dirty feeling of modernity. And while The Museum of Contemporary Art’s Blues for Smoke takes it name from a little-known improvisational technique, it is also highly indicative of the tooth-and-nail struggle for equality, if not the unmitigated role of race in this country.

Billed as a interactive installation, Blues for Smoke combines audio and video with the occasional toy train, in an attempt to chart the evolutionary course of mainstream Blues, including all of the unfortunate bumps and bruises that have occurred along the way. There are paintings. There is commentary. There is even an infinite loop featuring Coltrane and Monk, with a brief sampling of James Brown in between.

What’s most intriguing about this exhibition is the way it seamlessly incorporates civil rights into its architecture, most effectively via works like Martin Wong’s painting, La Vida, and Glenn Rigon’s oil, No Room. All in all, it’s a fascinating study in both an era and a feeling, if not the overwhelming genre that brought the two of them together.

(Blues for Smoke runs through 4/28 at the Whitney Museum, $18 general admission, 945 Madison Avenue at 75th Street.)

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