An anonymous petition expressing concern about recent New York Times reviews of women and African-American artists has hit a nerve, sparking a wave of support from some serious bold-faced names. Artists Glenn Ligon and Coco Fusco confirmed to ARTINFO this morning that they had signed the letter, while other (currently unconfirmed) signatories include artists Paul Ramirez Jonas, Janine Antoni, Louise Lawler, Julie Mehretu, Kara Walker, and Martha Rosler as well as art historians Rosalyn Deutsche, Miwon Kw0n, and Robert Storr. As of this writing, the petition bears 312 signatures and is growing by the minute.
The letter calls out two articles by Times scribe Ken Johnson: his October 25th review of “Now Dig This! Art & Black Los Angeles 1960-1980″ at MoMA PS1 and his November 8th preview of “The Female Gaze: Women Artists Making Their World” at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. Both articles use “irresponsible generalities” and compare women and African-American artists to white male artists, “only to find them lacking.” The problem, the letter’s authors state, is that “Mr. Johnson organizes his review around an oversimplified opposition between the apolitical, ‘deracinated’ work of white artists and the political, ‘parochial’ work of black artists.”
It is worth mentioning that the vast majority of well-known signatories — who are, by almost anyone’s standards, at the top of their field — are women and people of color. The speed with which many added their names to the list (Paul Ramirez Jonas was the 16th signature, Glenn Ligon the 24th) is also a testament to the strong feelings these articles provoked, even in the highest reaches of the art world.
The letter continues: “In both pieces, Mr. Johnson suggests that a marginalized groups’ lack of success is due to their own failures and not those of the ‘predominantly white high-end art world.’ In doing so, his texts read as validations of stubborn inequities. Johnson replays stereotypes of inscrutable blackness and inadequate femininity in the guise of serious inquiry, but that inquiry never happens.”
A generally well-liked art writer, Johnson is usually the one doing the scrutinizing, not the one under scrutiny. The letter encourages the Times to address the broader issues raised by these texts. (If you ask us, this seems like perfect fodder for newly-appointed public editor Margaret Sullivan.) The whole debacle also encourages us to consider whose art historical standards we are using to judge the increasingly diverse art we see.
Read the full text (which, full disclosure, contains the signature of this writer) here.
— Julia Halperin
(Image: Detail from Phong Bui’s “Portrait of Ken Johnson,” 2011. Via The Brooklyn Rail.)