A View of a Landscape
(The Renaissance Society, 2022)
Softcover with double LP
A large, whirring motor, shaking a glass vitrine. Cables and wires, strung throughout, vibrate, sending a harmonic pulse down its course. Then an absence: no sound is heard. An eerie quiet until you move around a dividing wall to a dark, carpeted room. Only then does the sound hit you, perhaps crushingly loud as it moves and swerves to its own rhythms. The sounds of that motor, a rebuilt cotton gin, divided from its source, processed and amplified, are delivered back to us, recontextualized to our present. Kevin Beasley’s new monograph, A View of a Landscape, alludes to this spectacular work, A view of a landscape: A cotton gin motor (2012–18).
The 2018 installation of the work at the Whitney Museum of American Art included threads that connect it to antebellum American slave economies (and more recent ones), Southern landscapes, and sonic histories. The monograph goes further, connecting A view of a landscape to Beasley’s earlier artworks, offering an expansive portrait of the artist’s practice through sound, performance, and sculpture, and displaying how his personal and familial histories are used throughout his oeuvre.
This monograph is a hefty piece, encompassing a double LP with gatefold sleeve and a beautifully produced 12.5 by 12.5 inch, three-hundred-page, full-color book, the same size as the LP sleeve, housed inside a plastic slip case. Filled with essays, photographs, poems, and more, the book amply displays Beasley’s varied artistic output from 2011 to 2020. Reference artworks from a range of sources such as the Hudson River School, Jacob Lawrence, and Kazimir Malevich are also included, creating a constellation of inspirations that place Beasley into a historical continuum. Casual photographs from his family’s farm in Virginia provide the visual grounding for the book (including the double spread inside covers).
The central section of the book, with black pages, details Beasley’s initial trip to pick up the cotton gin motor, driving from New Haven, CT, to Maplesville, AL, near Selma. The story of this motor (which had been in operation from 1940 to 1973) is symbolic in the arc of Beasley’s artistic career. The motor (inoperable at that point) was part of Beasley’s MFA thesis show at Yale in 2012 and had a long gestation, including getting repaired, before being shown at the Whitney. These black pages are purposefully set off in the book, containing photographs of the journey and a letter/essay by Beasley and Leon Finley describing the trip. We spiral down into the genesis and first moments of this work: “The whole day we held it in. We knew that we were making something with Bobby [the seller of the cotton gin motor] and it felt so right. Something that eclipsed our previous notions of what art can be. We knew it was right before we had left New Haven, but we didn’t know what it was yet.” The reader is able to trace the thinking and actions that eventually led to A view of a landscape: A cotton gin motor.
A significant portion of the book details Beasley’s “Slabs”: large, free standing, wall sculptures that utilize a variety of materials. These were featured prominently at the Whitney exhibition. The relationship of the “Slabs” to Assyrian reliefs, as well as the work of abstract artists such as Robert Ryman and Sam Gilliam, illustrate the ways that Beasley moves through art history. But Beasley is also able to arrive at a place where the viewer can access the personal aspects of these sculptures. An insightful essay by curator Adrienne Edwards, included in the book, places these sculptures into Beasley’s overall practice as a tandem duo to the motor. The recent “Slabs” feature the use of cotton, the end product of that motor. As Edwards states, “The Slabs bring to the fore the fact that cotton is already always anthropomorphic.” This is the other side of the landscape: the body in the land, the experience that is inextricably linked to that land and those histories. Beasley writes in the book of seeing for the first time his family’s plot in Virginia (land they purchased in the early twentieth century) planted with cotton, a fraught and emotional moment. This is a point where Beasley begins to grapple with how his family’s story connects with the legacies of cotton production in the South. Both the “Slabs” and A view of landscape: A cotton gin motor have a similar point of genesis, but are formally distinct, showcasing differing approaches to his thematic concerns.
Sound has always factored into Beasley’s art in concrete and abstract ways, through works as varied as I Want My Spot Back (2011–12), which shook the walls of MoMA with the slowed-down, disembodied voices of Tupac and Biggie Smalls, to the sound masks of the performance sculptures of Your face is / is not enough (2016); all the way to the site-specific quotidian sonic intervention of The Sound of Morning (2021), created as part of Performa 2021 (the first two examples are included in the book, the last, unfortunately, is not covered). It is fitting then that this monograph was conceived in two equal parts: as book and double LP. The records contain eleven tracks from artists such as Fred Moten, Jason Moran, Moor Mother, Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe, Jlin, and Beasley himself. Each artist was provided snippets of sonic material (some of the cotton gin itself) as a way to investigate the work and the myriad of themes behind it. The tracks are beat-driven at times, referencing Beasley’s love of Detroit techno (well-articulated by Andy Battaglia in his included essay) as well as the industrial sounds of which the cotton industry was certainly a part (see DeForrest Brown Jr.’s recent book Assembling a Black Counter Culture for a deep reading on this theme). As Beasley ably demonstrates, sonics have the ability to viscerally engage an audience, while also addressing questions of race, labor, and economics.
Taken as a whole, the monograph and LPs create a through line for Beasley’s work: an artist tuned to the rhythms of America. In addressing his own past, he connects to the legacies in this nation as a whole. Whether through a lens of art history, music history, or history history, Beasley’s work presents itself as a reflection of our ongoing American project and what can be revealed through a thorough examination of that story.