BY WILL ATKIN
A quiz in the April 1952 issue of Ebony Magazine faced its readers with a grid of black and white photographic portraits of sixteen American faces. The title of the page almost excitedly posed the affronting question ‘Which is Negro? Which is White?’, as the editors relished in the problem of reading race into these unnamed people. Through the portraits’ contrasting backgrounds – jumping between light and shadow – the image has echoes of the regimented black/white segmentation of a chessboard, yet the neutral faces of the portrait sitters flatten any such distinct black/white pattern within the grid. The portraits sit as so many grey areas within the whole. In this levelling effect, the image stages the phenomenon of ‘passing’ as it existed in the 1950s; whereby African Americans with paler skin tones sought to ‘pass’ for white, and subsequently ‘pass’ through the checks of a racially prejudiced White American society, and live comfortably like an ordinary (white) American.
Levi Prombaum’s paper fleshed out this scenario of passing through a dramatic narration of scenes from Douglas Sirk’s 1959 film, Imitation of Life, which he delivered over several stills to suitably cinematic effect. The film follows the story of Annie Johnson, an African American, and her light-skinned daughter Sarah-Jane. Over the course of the film, Sarah-Jane becomes fixated on the opportunities of social mobility offered in the white middle class world that her and her mother have come into contact with, which eventually leads her to renouncing her black heritage (and yet more tragically, her mother) and adopting all the necessary signifiers of whiteness to ‘pass’ into the society that she craved. At the point at which this kind of ‘passing story’ faded from American popular culture during the 1960s, Levi Prombaum’s research has uncovered a prominent legacy, or scar, of the social phenomenon in the work of certain American artists working at this time.
The main focus of the seminar was the work of Alex Katz, whose brooding self-portrait, Passing, presents a tantalising invitation to consider his investment in the passing narrative. Over a captivating visual sequence, the paper traced how Katz’s grounded, solid profile from his original self-portrait was subtly decentred through its careful replication in different colour ranges and media. The resulting range of slightly varying images was demonstrated to create a kind of field for passing, in which the images fluidly ‘pass’ for one another, for the original, and for Katz himself, whose identity (as the American-born son of Russian-Jewish immigrants) ever eludes us behind the different washes of colour (paintwork which is itself symbolically thin and faintly see-through: bursting the bubble of skin-deep social determinism along racial lines). In these compelling terms, Katz’s paintings were considered as meditations upon superficiality and integrity, opacity and transparency: reverberating within the very frame of racial anxiety that dictated the passing narrative.