Up Against the Real: Black Mask from Art to Action

Image of Up Against the Real: Black Mask from Art to Action
Release Date: 
March 7, 2023
University of Chicago Press
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“Like the Dadaist project upon which its members originally drew, Black Mask proposed the complete ruination of bourgeois culture.”

In the afternoon of October 10, 1966, six members of a radical anti-arts arts group marched in front of New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) handing out leaflets while two members unraveled a large canvas sign announcing, “MUSEUM CLOSED.”  

The leaflet read, in part, “A new spirit is rising.  Like the streets of Watts we burn with revolution. We assault your Gods—We sing of your death. DESTROY THE MUSEUMS— our struggle cannot be hung on walls.”

The demonstrators were with the Black Mask and were offended by MoMA’s exhibition, “Dada, Surrealism and Their Heritage,” which they felt violated the Dadaist and Surrealists very creative visions. Museum executives, having been notified about the planned action, informed the police who put up sidewalk blockades and closed the facility.

In her exhaustively researched study, Up Against the Real: Black Mask from Art to Action, Nadja Millner-Larsen brilliantly tells the story of this now nearly all-but-forgotten group and how they pushed art beyond representation into activist demonstrations, foreshadowing the eclipse of the 1960s counterculture.

The 1960s was a tumultuous decade driven by a slowly emerging subculture that challenged post-WWII and Cold War “old world” traditionalist values. It championed sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll; race equality and mixing; the end of the Vietnam war; and new, more equal and egalitarian social relations. It helped redefine popular culture and American politics. It fueled the emergence of second-wave feminism and the gay liberation movement as well as fermented the rise of consumer activists and the early ecology movement. It was a tumultuous decade.

In the post-WWII era, New York replaced Paris as the world center of the arts and culture. And all aspects of popular culture—be it music, theatre, dance, fashion or art— were shaken. In the post-WWII era, “Abstract Expressionism” celebrated nontraditional and usually nonrepresentational forms of artistic expression, and included Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Jasper Johns, and Roy Lichtenstein.

By the ’60s, “Pop Art” emerged with artists incorporated common objects in their works, and included Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein, and Andy Warhol. And by the mid-60s, the city sported 246 galleries; sadly, many were very short lived.

At the heart of Millner-Larsen’s book is the creative evolution of the painter and activist, Ben Morea. She follows his career from the early-60s when he studied with Aldo Tambellini, a painter, sculptor and poet who pioneered electronic intermedia. He championed a belief that art had to break free from the confines of white-walled galleries.

Morea exhibited at East Village sites, public spaces, and traditional galleries, along with Tambellini, Ad Rinehardt, and Ron Hahne. However, by 1966, Morea sought out new ways to realize his artistic vision, most notably through direct interventions and the publication of a radical broadside, Black Mask.

The author makes clear that Black Mask was not the only radical artist group of the era. She identifies the Art Workers Coalition as well as the Guerrilla Art Action Group (GAAG), Women Artists in Revolution (WAR), Black Emergency Cultural Coalition Inc. (BECC) and, most important, the Black Arts Movement.

Millner-Larsen differentiates Black Mask from the other groups due to the theoretical influences that shaped the group’s artistic creativity and political interventions. Among the most important influences were the Frankfurt School Marxism articulated by Herbert Marcuse and Wilhelm Reich as well as the works of the U.S. anarchist/ecologist Murry Bookchin (i.e., post-scarcity) and the French Situationist International, particularly Guy Debord (i.e., the spectacle).

These theoretical perspectives shaped Black Mask to understand how the commodification of art helps obfuscate the oppressive nature of capitalism. 

It led them to abandon traditional artistic expression and seek expression through direct intervention. Such creative expression was exemplified by the “closing” of MoMA but also other actions—in a protest march down lower Broadway with a sign reading, “WALL ST. IS WAR STREET”; disrupting public gatherings at the Fillmore East theatre and Columbia University; and—during the city’s garbage strike—dumping Lower East Side garbage into the fountains of Lincoln Center.

She carefully analyzes the role of Tambellini, Morea, and others in the development of two early-60s creative efforts. Black Zero was developed by Group Center, established in 1962, as a live, mixed-media audiovisual collage that included contribution from jazz musicians (e.g., Bill Dixon), dancers (Judith Dunn), and writers (Ismael Reed), among others. And, in 1968, the 16-mm black-and-white film, Garbage, produced by Newsreel, a radical filmmaking collective, that chronicled the political action that brought garbage from the Lower East Side to Lincoln Center.

In the wake of the Paris uprising of May ’68, Black Mask morphed into Up Against the Wall Motherfucker (aka UAW/MF), a name appropriated from Amiri Baraka’s (aka LeRoy Jones) poem, Black People, which intern refers to a repeatedly shouted command by the Newark, NJ, police at Black residents. In addition to dumping garbage at Lincoln Center’s fountain, the UAM/MF threw refuse at Sec. of State Dean Rusk while he attended a New York event and even forced Bill Graham to temporarily offer free concerns at his Fillmore East theater. Like the Dadaist project upon which its members originally drew, Black Mask proposed the complete ruination of bourgeois culture.

Valarie Solanas was the author of SCUM Manifesto and the play, Up Your Ass. On June 3, 1968, she walked into Warhol’s Union Square offices and shot him three times; she also shot Mario Amaya, a visiting London gallery owner. After fleeing the building, she turned herself into the police.  

Millner-Larsen discusses how the shooting caused great controversy and split the emerging second-wave feminists. Where often dismissed as an act of a crazed street-person, she considers how the UAW/MF’s notion of “ARMED LOVE” was applied to not simply defend Solanas, a women Morea personally knew and liked, but how her act invoked the earlier Dadaists. As Millner-Larsen reflects, “To the Motherfucker’s, the shooting was symptomatic, not of a mental break, but of a desperation borne from the restricted economy of a patriarchal art world that systematically denied access to the ‘wretched of the earth.’”