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4Columns: Confronting Mass Media: A Veteran Black Artist Receives His First Retrospective

Confronting Mass Media: A veteran Black artist receives his first retrospective
By James Hannaham
October 8, 2021

When you’re “young, gifted, and Black,” as Nina Simone famously sang, “there’s a world waiting for you.” But if you’re old, overlooked, and Black, like Los Angeles video artist Ulysses Jenkins, you might have to wait a while for the world to catch up. At the age of seventy-five, Jenkins is receiving his first retrospective, Without Your Interpretation, at the Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania (plus an exquisite monograph). This exhibit demonstrates nearly half a century of his quiet influence on and comradeship with artists—Black and otherwise—who have received a great deal more attention, including fellow ’70s Otis Art Institute (now Otis College of Art and Design) students David Hammons and Kerry James Marshall, both of them now MacArthur fellows. Even Jenkins’s professors at Otis have since become big names—Betye Saar, Chris Burden, and Charles White, painter of dignified Black portraiture, a similarly overlooked Black artist whose retrospective opened at the Museum of Modern Art in 2018, almost forty years after his death.

The notoriety of Jenkins’s circle makes his omission from the limelight confusing, but he has been marginalized in almost as many ways as one can imagine. Primarily as a Black artist during the ’70s, but also as a video artist, a performance artist, a Los Angeles–based artist.

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