Some of the knottiest issues in “Embodied: Black Identities in American Art From the Yale University Art Gallery” don’t reveal themselves at the entrance to the show. Instead, they appear later, like in the “Viewer’s Note” on the wall next to Adrian Piper’sphotographs from the 1971 series “Food for the Spirit.”
Mounted next to three black-and-white photographs of the artist standing before a mirror, the short statement says that Ms. Piper’s “critique of identity politics and desire to distance herself from being categorized as a ‘black artist’ ” led her to refuse reproduction rights for the work to appear in the exhibition catalog. However, the work has been included in the exhibition anyway to “highlight the urgency” of issues around art and racial identity.
Artists are regularly included in exhibitions dedicated to aesthetic movements or curatorial conceits they don’t agree with. It’s just that “Embodied: Black Identities” deals with a category — race — that historically defined one’s status, not just as an artist, but as a human being in this country.
As it is, the exhibition is a small statement rather than a big one. Drawn from Yale’s collection and organized by graduate and undergraduate students from Yale and the University of Maryland, where the show appeared last fall, it comprises mostly modest works: lots of prints and a few photographs, bolstered by the paintings of Kerry James Marshall, Barkley L. Hendricks and others. It feels like a testing ground for young scholars trying on some ideas central to recent art, as well as the critical jargon. Works are grouped into three categories that look at the “performance of race through art and artifice”; the “absent or dematerialized body”; and “displacement” and its effect on “shared histories, cultural geography and national identity.”
Mr. Marshall’s 1997 lithograph “Memento” includes references to the civil rights movement, with little texts citing the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., John F. Kennedy and others. Carrie Mae Weems’s photo triptych titled “Congo, Ibo, Mandingo, Togo,” from the 1993 series “Slave Coast,” documents a fort in West Africa from which slaves were shipped across the Atlantic.
Mr. Hendricks, known for his portraits that celebrate style as a form of black identity (the benchmark for Kehinde Wiley, a younger painter who, like Mr. Hendricks, is a graduate of Yale’s master of fine arts program), turns here to the European diaspora. His canvas “APB’s (Afro-Parisian Brothers)” from 1978, derived from a photograph Mr. Hendricks took in Paris, features two young men — contemporary versions of Baudelaire’s 19th-century Parisian flâneur, or dandy — contrasted visually against a pop-inspired flat pink-lavender background.
Earlier works in the show cite the struggles of African-Americans in the Jim Crow era. Elizabeth Catlett’s linocut print, from her 1947 series, “The Black Woman,” reveals its approach in the title: “My Role Has Been Important in the Struggle to Organize the Unorganized.” The print borrows from the graphic style of Mexican revolutionary art — Ms. Catlett herself has lived in Mexico for many decades — and refers as much to labor organization as racial struggles.