Karsten Moran for The New York Times
But it was how she sang that clinched it: with all of herself, out of her life, with an ache. It wasn’t a pretty sound; there were scratches and shrieks. But you’d sit there hearing her wrestle her voice — her heart — to the ground, and suddenly out came the most beautiful note in the world, like a soul set free. That was the blues for me. Struggle, loss, joy, art that said: all of me.
You won’t hear Callas’s voice in the ambient music that nudges and pulls you through the exhibition “Blues for Smoke” at the Whitney Museum of American Art, though the show’s playlist is much more eclectic than any I ever knew. Smith and Holiday are here, along with classic Coltrane, Monk and Mingus. But so are Erykah Badu, Olivier Messiaen, Richard Pryor and Red Krayola.
As a musical category blues is hard to pin down, and this show makes the job harder, which seems to be its point.
It’s saying: Blues isn’t a thing; it’s a set of feelings, a state of mind, maybe a state of grace. In origin it’s African-American, developing with gospel and jazz, and folding into R&B, funk and hip-hop. But it has long since become a transethnic phenomenon bigger than music, an enveloping aesthetic that includes art.
You get a sense of all this in the David Hammons installation “Chasing the Blue Train” that opens the show. Its parameters are set by a half-circle of six turned-on-their-sides baby grands. A pile of bluish coal sits on the floor; an electric toy train, tinted cobalt, tunnels through it and circles the room. Several recordings play — Coltrane, Monk, James Brown’s “Night Train” — simultaneously, loud.
On an obvious level this is a playful homage to Coltrane’s 1957 “Blue Train” album. But it’s also an essay on the ceaseless, questing movement of blacks, often by night, through American history: on the underground railroad, on the freedom train, on the A train to Harlem. The installation had its debut at Exit Art in SoHo in 1989, but has been in Europe ever since. It’s great to see it, and hear it, in New York again.
Europe — Paris — was the adopted home of the painter Beauford Delaney, who has a wonderful little 1968 portrait here of Charlie Parker, dressed like an African chief in a citrus-yellow robe. And in another welcome visit Renée Green’s 1992-93 installation “Import/Export Funk Office” takes a cool look at 1960s African-American culture as viewed (distortedly) through European, and specifically German, eyes.
After that we’re mostly on American turf, with one detour. In a big 1960 painting called “Garden of Music,” Bob Thompson takes us to heaven, or Eden, where three nude musicians, each a different color — Coltrane (black), Ornette Coleman (brown), Sonny Rollins (blue) — jam away as the artist listens.
In this tenor-sax-serenaded version of “Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe,” the blues has no dark or complicated side, though we get a different story in other art. Rodney McMillian reminds us of the music’s complex roots, sacred and profane, in the church and in the street, in a soft-sculpture chapel he designed for the show. It’s righteously plain and neat, but made of tacky vinyl and colored hellfire red.
Despite a dimension of sizzle and sass, blues has always been a music of mourning. This is the message in the large painting by Kerry James Marshall, “Souvenir IV,” from 1998. Done mostly in low-volume white and gray, it depicts a middle-class living room with a black, grandmotherly figure on a couch. The setting is ordinary, but nothing else is. The woman has wings, and the ghosts of dead singers — Dinah Washington, Wes Montgomery, Nat King Cole — float overhead like seraphim.
Seen in the same gallery as Mr. Marshall’s tour-de-force picture a shelf-size installation by Zoe Leonard barely registers at first, though it’s just as moving. It’s an excerpt or spinoff from a 1994 project called “Strange Fruit” that Ms. Leonard worked on when AIDS was raging in New York, homophobia was sparking culture wars and friends were dying.