PRINT Summer 2000




To the Editor:

Although I am quite flattered by Thad Ziolkowski’s depiction of me as “a bull in the racial china shop” [Reviews, April 2000], he was apparently too busy hallucinating and making up lies about the content of my work to catch the subtlety and irony clearly present.

Tale of the Tragic Mulatto was obviously intended as a satire along the lines of an Evelyn Waugh or Graham Greene novel. The painting as well as the phrase “tragic mulatto” were intended as self-effacing dark humor. This handle has been used in jest since the ’70s. No half-breed in his or her right mind would use the expression in earnest. This idea of tinting a serious subject simultaneously with sadness and humor is also used in the Harriet Hemings piece, and what Ziolkowski fails to notice because he’s ranting on about his pedantic perception of the work is that the painting is in the shape of a penis.

What completely astonishes me is Ziolkowski’s accusation of my disdain for rap. You can’t print lies like that about me. All I listen to twenty-four/seven is rap. The rap artists I’ve portrayed are not well known (with the exception of Juvenile), but they’re amazing and beautiful. Rap is the most vibrant cultural phenomenon existing today. I embrace the sexual antics in rap, and the paintings dearly reflect this. To claim that I believe otherwise is libelous. I don’t think they’re depraved! What kind of stupid fuck could walk into the gallery and think that?

Lezley Saar
Redondo Beach, CA

Thad Ziolkowski replies:

In fact, I took the “tragic” in Tragic Mulatto to be satirical; unfortunately, “tinting a serious subject simultaneously with sadness and humor” is no guarantee that it will make compelling art. If I interpreted the works as being more earnest in their depiction of race than Saar intended them to be, that is my right as viewer. Art must stand on its own two feet—or penis-shaped canvas, as the case may be. I found Saar’s work to be ham-fisted; learning that it was meant above all to be satirical doesn’t change my reaction—unless, of course, Saar is satirizing bad satirical art, in which case I would have to radically reassess my position.

As for Sam’s love of rap, I was careful to base my case on what “Saar seems to say” (emphasis added). But again, even if I were to reverse myself and see the work as a celebration of rap, I would find it, if anything, weaker and more bewildering.

My review was actually mixed, and ends on a positive note, but one would never know it from Saar’s sputtering about “lies” and “stupid fuck”s—which seems mainly the tantrum of someone outraged that her work is suddenly being handled without kid gloves.


To the Editor:

I am an Artforum maniac and have been enjoying your publication for years. Ronald Jones’s recent review of “After the Wall: Art and Culture in Post-Communist Europe” [March 2000] was a decided exception.

I suppose that as readers we should not be interested in whether the writer admires a particular exhibition but rather look to him or her to report on and analyze the art on view. But Jones did neither; he focused almost exclusively on political and ideological questions. One had the impression that he forgot the art altogether. Did he also forget that he himself is first and foremost an artist? As for the political commentary offered: I can only say that Jones has unburdened himself of a plethora of unexamined prejudices about the former Communist countries and regimes too numerous to untangle here.

Art is a rare space of asylum; can we not treat it with more openness and respect?

Sonja Abadzieva
Editor, The Large Glass
Skopje, Republic of Macedonia

Ronald Jones replies:

I had to jog my memory after reading your passionate letter, but the Oxford English Dictionary confirmed that above all else asylum is understood to be a “sanctuary, place of refuge and safety, esp. for criminals.” The dictionary provides a second, less preferred meaning: “institution for shelter and support of afflicted or destitute persons.” I do not want to miss your meaning, but perhaps “asylum” does not precisely convey what your letter implies: that you believe art to be aloof from politics. I have never thought of art as being so disengaged.

I cannot recall a time when art was safe from affairs of state or provided refuge from political culture. Rather, I scroll through the moments when artists participated directly, calling on everyone to change their lives in fundamental ways, and the public responded; Jacques-Louis David, Kazimir Malevich, and Albert Speer are good examples. I am afraid we do not live in one of those moments, a fact justly confirmed by the exhibition “After the Wall: Art and Culture in Post-Communist Europe.” And what I have carried away from that observation are at least two contemporary memos. First, the negotiation between art and politics is, in our time, more complex than “engagement” or “aloofness” will allow. Second, in contrast to, say, David and his moment, the idea of artists attempting to inspire reform by confronting power is like having permission to rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic. Perhaps that will change. I doubt it.

Before I close, a remark about prejudice. I believe deeply that history provides for a prejudice against what political tyranny has done to creativity. Whatever else it may be, “After the Wall” is one record of the fallout of Communist repression. Thank you, at any rate, for your robust attention to my essay.