After the Renaissance: Art and Harlem in the 1960s


Maya Harakawa


Art History

Project Title:

After the Renaissance: Art and Harlem in the 1960s

Maya Harakawa is an art historian of post-war American Art, focusing on issues of race and urban history. She is a 2019-2020 Luce/ACLS Dissertation Fellow in American Art and a non-residential fellow at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Her work has been supported by the Getty Research Institute, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and the Early Research Initiative at the Graduate Center. Maya holds a MPhil from the Graduate Center and a BA in Art History and Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies from Williams College.


My dissertation reconceptualizes the artistic geography of postwar New York City to include Harlem—a neighborhood deeply rooted in African American and Puerto Rican culture. Art histories of 1960s New York focus almost exclusively on downtown, while histories of Harlem often overemphasize a declension narrative that portrays the neighborhood as the paradigmatic American ghetto. In contrast, this dissertation considers the fundamental role of artistic practice in defining Harlem’s vibrant political and social landscapes in the 1960s. By analyzing exhibitions, abstraction, photography, and collective practice, my dissertation argues that African American and Puerto Rican artists challenged monolithic characterizations of Harlem as a national symbol of dispossession by grappling with the complexities of urban place and racial politics that defined one of the most turbulent decades in postwar American history.

This summer, I worked on my second chapter on the work of Smokehouse Associates, a mixed-race group of artists who made abstract paintings and sculptures in the streets of Harlem at the end of the 1960s.

The art works I am currently studying are no longer extant and are scantily documented, which means that archival research is critical for filling in major gaps in the historical record. But rather than focus on getting more information on the works themselves, I spent the summer trying to understand the larger context in which they were made, to situate them within a history of New York City. This meant finding more information about the city’s attitude towards public space and its approach to planning parks and other spaces for recreation. In my project, I consider Smokehouse’s use of vacant urban spaces in relation to the city’s changing attitudes towards these spaces, particularly the embrace of Vest Pocket Parks as a means of addressing underserved communities of color in places like Harlem. The chapter brings this history of the city together with the art historical discourse on abstraction in order to reconsider them both.

Over the summer, I pored over boxes at the City Municipal Archives, looking at the papers of August Hecksher, a Parks Commissioner during the Lindsay administration. I also conducted research at the Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library at Columbia to learn more about the Park Association, the privately-operated group that planned the first Vest Pocket Park in Harlem. It soon became clear to me that the impulse to bring art and culture to everyday New Yorkers was inextricably linked to the planning of these new public spaces. It was perhaps fortuitous that I was conducting this research during the summer, when the city’s parks are filled with cultural programming. This summer, I saw dance at the Prospect Park bandshell, watched a movie in Brooklyn Bridge Park, and could have (if I had planned ahead) seen Jazz at the General Grant Memorial in Riverside Park. These cultural activities can be traced directly to the period I was studying when dance and jazz were performed in Harlem in Vest Pocket Parks and converted flatbed trucks brought art to the people. These programs were unthinkable without the creation of new types of public spaces, which, in turn, were reconceptualized in response to national and local discourses that perpetuated narratives about black urban spaces as blighted and dangerous. Confronting this history both in the archive and in my own recreational activities made me rethink the role of art and public space in the city both for my project and as a life-long New Yorker.

About the author: Param Ajmera