Salon 94 pays homage to black film, sound and visual arts

The exhibition, titled Caldonia: Concert and Movie Posters from the Collection of Ralph DeLuca, lines the walls with dozens of ephemera prints documenting black art, music and film from the 1920s to the 1960s. Some are triumphs of modernism – a 1930 advertisement for Fats Waller and his orchestra Bluebird Records and from 1964 for a concert series by Thelonious Monk, both in ink on paper, capture the uncluttered confidence and charisma of their subjects. Others, like the Louis Jordan musical poster that gives the show its title, vibrate positively with proto-Afro-futurism. A series of collages made by Louis Armstrong in the late 1960s prove that Satchmo could be Dada as well as he could blow a trumpet. Indeed, a whole history of 20th century visual culture can be traced through these objects. “Canonized forms of abstraction like jazz, blues, swing, bebop and rock ‘n’ roll are central to the history of the United States and visual art,” says Andrew Blackley, Managing Director of Salon 94, “We are so happy to be working on a lush and vibrant backdrop for this.

Context is inherently as political as it is aesthetic. An art consultant and movie poster collector, DeLuca, has spent about two decades waving paddles at auctions and researching promoters, printers and estates to build this private archive. For the first time in decades, audiences can thrill to the graphic control of explosive works like the 1948 poster for the King Cole Trio vehicle The Diller Killer, swoon over the star power that comes alive in tiny portraits of Butterfly McQueen and Jackie Mabley, and long to see the movie itself. But one also wonders who benefits when these examples of pop culture ephemera are reframed as works of art and priced accordingly.

Installation view, Caldonia: Concert and Film Posters from the Collection of Ralph DeLuca Courtesy of the artist and Salon 94, New York. Photo: Elisabeth Bernstein

A group of critics and star artists, including Daphne A. Brooks and Stanley Whitney, unravel other political complexities in the thin and ample catalog. A 1938 poster for Chick Webb may be the first to mention Ella Fitzgerald by name. As jazz pianist Yoko Suzuki notes, the poster shows the beautiful face, but only the face, of Webb. He “was called ‘Chick’ because of his little hunchbacked appearance,” writes Suzuki, following tuberculosis of the spine. Chick’ first objection to hiring [Fitzergerald] because she wasn’t pretty enough. Multi-colored posters aimed at the mass market were only a few decades old, but the old message that sex sells rings loud and clear.

Nonetheless, the show is a vibrant testament to what could be lost when material culture disappears. Writer and scholar Shaka McGlotten bridges the fragility of objects and the precariousness of success for black artists: “I see these events could have been forgotten,” they write. “I’m not saying the genius of Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder was disputed; but rather that their achievements and immense success were not guaranteed. The appearance of these objects reassures this guarantee and restores less important idols to their rightful place. The politics of memory are more strained than they have ever been, but these objects prove that the legacy is unbroken. After all, writes McGlotten, “I use online platforms that still use the grammar of this design field. That design language is still there.