PRINT March 2004




To the Editor:
Those who have read Howard Singerman’s article on the Whitney Independent Study Program [“In Theory & Practice,” February 2004] might have come away with the impression that I found the program unsupportive or even stifling. That’s not at all the case, and it should have been clear to the author. I want to point out that, in my e-mail correspondence with him, I described the ISP as “incredibly free and open-ended” and concluded that “when I look back, I think I learned more than I’d ever expected to.”

—John Miller, New York

Howard Singerman responds:
I’d like to offer my sincere thanks to John Miller for correcting an impression I did not wish to leave. And to offer him an apology, as well as something by way of an explanation. All the people I spoke with about the program were generous and open with their recollections and assessments; John was particularly so. Each quote I used had to do something like triple duty: to represent the specific speaker and his or her moment, to speak for their current assessment, and to help me to construct a history for the program as I came to see it. Throughout the essay I tried to balance those very different demands, and even in the passage I think John is reacting to (“Although they made very different work and feel quite differently today about their experiences in the program, both Miller and Jon Kessler [1979] felt that there was, in Miller’s words, ‘a dogma that dominated the program at that time.’ Miller characterizes it this way: ‘Representation was OK in film and video but prohibited in painting. I always disagreed with that.’ Kessler, now chair of studio art at Columbia University, is much harsher . . . ”), I tried to at least signal that Miller’s involvement in the program then and his opinion of it now are quite different than Kessler’s. Clearly, in this instance, I didn’t do it very well.


To the Editor:
I’m writing in praise of Carol Armstrong’s beautiful article on Craigie Horsfield and her defense of aesthetics in contemporary art [“The Dilation of Attention,” January 2004].

Armstrong attributes a “yearning” to be “singular, original, canon-enshrined and museum-dignified” to the work of Jeff Wall and other “big picture” makers; I thought that applied equally to Horsfield’s unique prints but after reading the article it occurs to me perhaps I was wrong. I do take issue with the way Armstrong seems to differentiate photography from other new media by basing her discussion on the physicality of the photographic surface (physical scale and surface need not be the issue when the meditative space can be infinitely small). But mainly I want to thank her for cutting to the heart of the matter. Armed with honesty, clarity of argument, and the beloved OED, she has sliced through a century of stratified photographic discourse to look carefully at Horsfield’s work.

I admit to being emotionally moved by the beauty and the meaning of Armstrong’s prose—definitely a first for me while reading Artforum. Horsfield is indeed fortunate to have his work be the object of Armstrong’s attention.

—Bill Jones, New York


To the Editor:
As an addendum to Bruce Hainley’s article on my video work [“Teen Angle,” January 2004], I’d like to note that the beautiful texts quoted from Hans und Grete, 2002–2003, were written by the great Alissa Bennett. I commissioned Bennett to write for the project after reading sections of And Distance Shifts, her novel in progress, which, like the texts she contributed to Hans und Grete, masterfully balances authentic teen vernacular with more abstract themes of time and memory.

—Sue de Beer, New York


To the Editor:
I am writing to respond to Thelma Golden on behalf of the fifty-four quilters of Gee’s Bend, Alabama. When describing her feelings about the exhibition “The Quilts of Gee’s Bend” at the Whitney Museum of American Art [Top Ten, December 2003], she seems to say she had made up her mind before even seeing the show to be against it. She writes with what appears to be a lot of negative personal emotion about what she believes is our way of life and our place in the world. It is her right to feel any way she chooses, but it is too bad she has not taken a little time to learn the truth about us, our quilts, and Gee’s Bend.

The “Quilts of Gee’s Bend” exhibition project has transformed our community. It has brought hope and renewal to dozens of African-American women artists here. We have been treated with dignity and respect for the first time in our lives. Thanks to the exhibition, we now have a stake in our future as artists. Earlier this year, the women quilters of Gee’s Bend—every able-bodied quilter in the exhibition—founded the Gee’s Bend Quilters Collective. We own the Collective, which establishes prices, creates inventories, and handles sales, marketing, and accounting. Individual quilters receive half the proceeds from the sale of their quilts, and above that, we pay dividends to all our members. Things are off to a good start.

When Golden writes about the exhibition, she says, “I like the old black ladies.” Maybe she intends that phrase to be a kind of strange compliment, or maybe she can’t bring herself to call us “artists,” but her statement definitely shows she hasn’t bothered to get her facts straight about the exhibition or the quilts. Most of the quilts in the exhibition were actually made by young black ladies, who were between their teens and their forties at the time. They just had to wait fifty years to be appreciated by the art world, and it looks like they will have to wait forever for Thelma Golden.

Golden also writes that she disliked the exhibition because it reminded her of her days as a black girl in an all-white private school, where she was made to feel uncomfortable by the way her class discussed the black characters in Huckleberry Finn. About the time Thelma Golden was born, women from Gee’s Bend—quilters—were marching in places like Selma and Camden to demand basic human rights. When the white people in our county wanted to make us feel uncomfortable about that, they put us in jail, bulldozed our homes or evicted us, fired our husbands from their jobs, or cut off our ferry service to the outside world.

Art critics from all over have now woken up to our art’s sophistication. We’ve never asked anyone to like our art because of who we are. But our own mothers and grandmothers lived and passed away with no one but themselves to give their work any respect—because no one respected them, their traditions, their culture, or their quilts. We believe that opening people’s minds about both our work and our history may now help bring overdue attention to the artistic achievements of other black Americans, and not simply to those who have the privileges of social class or a certain education. We think our art is probably doing some real good by being seen in museums. As is her right to do, Golden disagrees. She says she loves our quilts—maybe that makes them good enough for her Harlem museum. But she never says what she would have done differently than the organizers at the Whitney, and she never gives any specific examples of what she thinks was truly wrong with the show, just that it was “transparent” and somehow too painful to her. She hopes it will be the last exhibition of its kind.

Should we put our quilts back in the closet now, Ms. Golden?

We wish she had bothered to become informed before stooping to cry her tears for us. She might have learned we don’t require any pity. When she says she wishes we were doing better from our quiltmaking, we say to her that we already are. Golden may want our quilts to leave her world, but no one can take away what the exhibition has done for us and our community.

Golden jokes that she hopes to become an old black lady herself. Her sarcastic, self-important attitude mocks us and our art, as well as her own background. Our struggles as black women have led us to a different point of view about the places we’ve come from. Still, we hope she does eventually become that old black lady. She might look back on her comments with a little more wisdom than she has now. In the meantime, her concerns about “The Quilts of Gee’s Bend” ring hollow.

—Rennie Young Miller, Boykin, AL


To the Editor:
It’s been almost two years since my painting Invisible Man was inset into the cover of Artforum in conjunction with your coverage of “Black Romantic” at the Studio Museum in Harlem [Slant, April 2002]. As an artist based in Madison, Wisconsin, I’d now like to take stock of exhibition possibilities throughout different regions in the US for African Americans, the characteristics of which have been left largely unaddressed even in the wake of an exhibition like this one.

Finding a gallery to work with can be hard for any artist, and it’s even more difficult when the artist and his work are said to be “too black.” If the artist takes a “centrist” approach, using, for example, abstraction or irony in his or her work, the likelihood of gallery representation seems to increase. Such maneuvers, however, threaten the work of African-American artists with dilution or “gentrification.” This is why I insist, in my representational images, on being as black as I am.

Today, the image of black folk in the fine arts often appears owned and maintained by curators, university art departments, and commercial galleries. The same beneficiaries of white privilege create and maintain parameters to define the relative purity of art made by black people. Often, art said to be “too black” has been pushed by the artist to a level of realism that can make whites uncomfortable. Ironically, these parameters are maintained by men who get no darker than a Wisconsin summer tan; they also believe there’s no market for art that’s too black and too representational.

Of all types of art made by African Americans, it can seem that folk, outsider, and what some refer to as primitive receive the widest exposure. But it’s also true that African Americans are making inroads in other ways. Some artists achieve greater involvement in the larger (white) art world by focusing on abstraction. More and more, artists are intentionally using negative stereotypes to make complicated points about black history and culture (this has been called “hyper-black” or “post-black”). These artists are often able to combine humor and irony with formal innovation, sometimes with sublime results. Notwithstanding the word “primitive,” each strategy above is important. Each breaks down boundaries in its own way.

Still, I cannot describe my own work in terms of self-deprecating humor or irony. Nor do I subscribe to the idea of eliminating evidence of ethnicity in exchange for a strict diet of abstraction. However, I am comfortable with the Studio Museum in Harlem’s description of my work as “Black Romantic.” For me, this show was not about traditional romanticism but more about a group of artists who are willing to address the broad span or full palette of African-American culture, in terms of both audience and subject matter.

Now, I would like to see more interest in and support for our art in my own backyard. Why should we have to travel elsewhere to find sustained interest in our work (a question asked by many of the thirty “Black Romantics”)? For those of us who have already come from other places throughout the country, there is no “someplace else.” Support and visibility should be possible in the places we call home, without expectations on anyone’s part that we are folk, primitive, or outsider artists.

—Marlon H. Banks, Madison, WI