Photo Studio

Charmaine Branch

Betty Blayton-Taylor
Untitled, 1968
The Studio Museum in Harlem; gift of anonymous donor  1975.3
Courtesy the estate of Betty Blayton-Taylor

In summer 2017, the Museum's galleries were converted into a photography studio through the joint efforts of the curatorial and exhibitions departments. Visitors were able to observe as staff worked collaboratively to create high-resolution images of permanent collection works, some of which had rarely been on view. The following works were featured during Photo Studio, and each of the artists have unique connections to the history of the Museum and Harlem.

Betty Blayton-Taylor

The Studio Museum came into being through the efforts of artist Betty Blayton-Taylor, who took on many roles as an arts educator and community organizer in Harlem. Blayton-Taylor moved to New York in 1960 after graduating from Syracuse University with a degree in fine arts, and briefly teaching in Saint Thomas. In Harlem, she began taking art classes with the Art Students League with painter Charles Alston. She focused on painting and printmaking, and created compositions such as Untitled (1968), in which abstraction provides space for the viewer to insert oneself into the self-reflective and meditative aspects central to Blayton-Taylor’s practice. An excerpt from her artist statement reads:

I am deeply interested in metaphysical principles, all aspects of religion, mythology and the science of mind. The act of creating, as in painting and print-making, allows the exploration of techniques for the creation of mood and mind set changes much as in sound and music.

Not long after her move to New York, Blayton-Taylor became part of the Association Community Team of Harlem Youth Opportunities Unlimited, a program that provided classes in art and other skills to teenagers. Blayton-Taylor encouraged her students to travel to the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) to further their art education, but upon arrival they were not allowed inside the institution. She reached out to her contacts at MoMA to make sure the students weren’t turned away again, and also began conversations with Frank Donnelly, a member of the MoMA Junior Council, about the potential of creating a museum for her students in their own community.Thus began the initial stages of the Studio Museum. Blayton-Taylor went on to serve as the secretary of the Museum Board from 1965 to 1977. Her voice and insight remain present in the curatorial and educational programming at the Museum today.

Xaviera Simmons

Chains, a vintage photograph, locks of hair, a bandana, and a bearded figurine. These are a few of the objects present in Xaviera Simmons’s Index Three, Composition Four (2012). As a whole, the image can be read as a person raising their skirt to reveal a collection of objects underneath. Some of the objects seem arbitrary, while others could hold cultural or personal significance for the suggested person. There are no visible physical attributes to make assumptions about their character, and the figure is abstracted by the two-dimensionality of the photograph. Index Three, Composition Four interrogates the relationship between one’s persona and the objects collected or connected with throughout a lifetime. Simmons has created multiple compositions of figures in similar positions, but with different compilations of objects alluding to unknown but relatable subjects. Each person is an individual made up of multiple parts, influenced by cultures, histories, consumerism, and more.

The Studio Museum in Harlem has two photographs by Simmons in the permanent collection, the other being Landscape: Two Women (2005). They were both acquired at the end of her residency, which took place in 2011 and 2012, alongside Njideka Akunyili Crosby and Meleko Mokgosi. Over the years, the Museum has made an effort to obtain works by participants in the Artist-in-Residence program, and form a collection with a strong institutional history. The program is fundamental to the history of the Studio Museum. Cofounder Betty Blayton-Taylor described the initial concept of the Museum, in part, as a place that provides studio space for artists that was lacking in Harlem during the 1960s. Index Three, Composition Four is a testament not only to Simmons’s multifaceted artistic practice, but also to the program’s continuing support of emerging artists.

— Charmaine Marie Branch

1. Susan Cahan, Mounting Frustration: The Art Museum in the Age of Black Power (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016) 17–19.
Photo Studio was made possible through funding by the Institute of Museum and Library Services