Hammer Projects: David Hartt
David Hartt’s The Histories (Old Black Joe) (2020) centers on two jacquard-woven tapestries and a quadraphonic soundtrack arranged by the legendary musician Van Dyke Parks. The installation brings together three disparate figures from the nineteenth century: the self-taught American landscape painter Robert S. Duncanson (1821–1872), the only Black member of the Hudson River school; Michel-Jean Cazabon (1813–1888), the first internationally recognized painter from Trinidad; and Stephen Foster (1826–1864), a white American composer whose song “Old Black Joe” has endured as a dying slave’s lament even though the bulk of Foster’s musical output was written for blackface minstrel shows. The shared space of Hartt’s installation offers an opportunity to study and listen to cultural pasts once removed, reflecting on the history of empire, postcolonial identity formation, and the roles of painting and music at the intersections of race and geography.
Hartt’s tapestries are based on the location depicted in Duncanson’s famed painting Blue Hole on the Little Miami River (1851) and the Maracas Falls in Trinidad, a site represented in several of Cazabon’s paintings. Using a similar methodology of translation and reinterpretation, Hartt recruited the producer and arranger Van Dyke Parks (known for his work with Randy Newman, the Beach Boys, and Joanna Newsom, to name a few) to produce a calypso-inspired rendition of Foster’s “Old Black Joe.” Parks has long championed the contributions of Black musicians and performers, producing albums for Mighty Sparrow and the Esso Trinidad Steel Band among countless others. By reimagining one of Foster’s best- known musical works—a song that was praised by no less than the sociologist W. E. B. Du Bois in his seminal text The Souls of Black Folk (1903)—Parks returns “Old Black Joe” to a Black musical idiom rooted in the Caribbean, where much of the story of colonial expansion took shape. Hartt’s installation questions the underlying myths of modernism in the Americas, examining the lasting effects of colonial empire and the complex interplay between geography and culture in the shaping of these narratives.
The Histories (Old Black Joe) is the second chapter of Hartt’s three-part cycle begun in 2019. The first part, The Histories (Le Mancenillier), was commissioned by the Beth Sholom Preservation Foundation and initially installed in the historic Frank Lloyd Wright–designed Beth Sholom Synagogue in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania. The third chapter, The Histories (Crépuscule), was commissioned by the Philadelphia Museum of Art and opened there in spring 2021.
David Hartt (b. 1967, Montreal) lives and works in Philadelphia, where he is associate professor in the Department of Fine Arts at the University of Pennsylvania. Hartt's recent solo exhibitions include My Building, Your Design: Seven Portraits by David Hartt, Art Institute of Chicago (2018); in the forest, Graham Foundation; Chicago (2017); and Interval, LAXART, Los Angeles (2015). His work has been included in such group exhibitions as Ocean of Images: New Photography 2015, Museum of Modern Art, New York; America Is Hard to See, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (2015); and Shine a Light: Canadian Biennial 2014, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Hartt is the recipient of a 2015 Foundation for Contemporary Arts Grant. In 2012 he was named a United States Artists Cruz Fellow, and in 2011 he received a Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation Award.