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“The Theater of Refusal” (1993)

View of “The Theater of Refusal: Black Art and Mainstream Criticism,” 1993, Fine Arts Gallery, University of California, Irvine. From left: David Hammons, African American Flag, 1990; Renée Green, Blue Skies, 1990; Gary Simmons, Us & Them, 1990; Pat Ward Williams, 32 Hours in a Box . . . and Still Counting, 1988. Photo: Catherine Opie.

MENTION THE WORDS identity politics in the art world, and chances are that most people will think of the 1993 Whitney Biennial. The landmark exhibition, which took place a year after the Rodney King verdict and the ensuing Los Angeles riots, is today remembered for its unusually diverse checklist (white men made up only about a third of the artists), and for introducing Janine Antoni, Byron Kim, Glenn Ligon, and Daniel Joseph Martinez to broader audiences. At the time, however, the exhibition’s divergence from the usual survey format in favor of an exploration of issues of identity drew the ire of reviewers for its seeming political correctness. In an uncanny coincidence, “The Theater of Refusal: Black Art and Mainstream Criticism,” an exhibition that opened during the Biennial, presented precisely the critical dilemma faced by artists of color. Curated by the artist Charles Gaines

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