PRINT Summer 2016


“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 with Catherine Lord for the Fine Arts Gallery of the University of California, Irvine, “Theater” was perhaps overlooked in the media circus surrounding the Whitney. But the exhibition, which was revisited by Gaines and Fred Moten at LAX ART this spring, proved to be equally significant.

The project, originally conceived in 1989 as an exhibition examining black artists’ relationships to postmodernism, featured the work of Jean-Michel Basquiat, Renée Green, David Hammons, Ben Patterson, Adrian Piper, Sandra Rowe, Gary Simmons, Lorna Simpson, Carrie Mae Weems, Pat Ward Williams, and Fred Wilson (several of whom were also included in the Whitney Biennial). Its curatorial innovation was to display work by the artists alongside previously published texts discussing these artists, allowing viewers to see both together in the gallery. The juxtaposition exposed assumptions and mental patterns informing critical writing that normally remained invisible, starkly revealing how ingrained attitudes had maintained the marginality of a diverse, multigenerational group of artists who also happened to be African American. In his catalogue essay, Gaines lays out the premises for the exhibition, pointing to the ways that both negative racist stereotypes and positive affirmations of a certain strand of identity politics had the effect of putting artists of color in their place. Drawing on Deleuze and Guattari, he instead proposes deterritorialization as an alternative to this binary, so that artists could leave behind the category of the marginal without necessarily reinforcing the mainstream.

In the years that followed, the art world seemed to move in the direction of Gaines’s ideas, signaling the apparent demise of identity politics. Thelma Golden, several years after her participation in both the 1993 Biennial and a roundtable published in the “Theater” catalogue, would propose the concept of “post-black,” which she described as characterizing artists “who were adamant about not being labeled as ‘black’ artists, though their work was steeped, in fact deeply interested, in redefining complex notions of blackness.” And the 2000s seemed to confirm the era of postidentity, culminating in 2008 with the election of Barack Obama as the first African American president of the United States. In this way, twenty-one years after the 1993 Biennial, the curators of its 2014 edition saw fit to include Donelle Woolford, a fictitious black female Conceptual artist created by the white male artist Joe Scanlan, as one of the only two entries by female African American artists, the other being taisha paggett. But history has a funny way of repeating itself. Just as the 1992 LA uprising informed the following year’s Biennial, so Scanlan’s ruse, taking place concurrently with the Black Lives Matter movement, resulted in a welter of accusations of cultural appropriation and institutional racism, especially once the HowDoYouSayYaminAfrican collective withdrew from the Biennial in protest.

Yet perhaps more damning evidence of the persistence of the problems around race was provided that same year by Kara Walker’s A Subtlety, installed in a shuttered Domino sugar refinery in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Commissioned by Creative Time, Walker’s large-scale public project presented a thirty-five-foot-tall sugar-coated sphinx sporting a mammy’s head and a hypersexualized body, surrounded by several smaller, syrupy sculptures of black boys bearing baskets. Walker’s grotesque evocation of racial caricature may appear diametrically opposed to Gaines’s call to refuse the stereotyping of African Americans. However, A Subtlety consisted of more than just the bittersweet tableau staged in the gutted sugar factory. From the start, it also comprised Digital Sugar Baby, a sticky social media double that elicited more than twenty thousand hash-tagged selfies, a disturbing number of which showed visitors in embarrassing poses with the mammy-sphinx’s breasts and vulva. In other words, A Subtlety, spectacular though it may have been, was designed to serve as a backdrop for the less subtle drama of race enacted by the audience, and captured by the online tar baby.

Walker discussed the interactive aspect of the installation at a conversation at the Broad museum in LA in 2014 and, in a follow-up exhibition at Sikkema Jenkins & Co. later that fall, showed a video piece, simply titled An Audience, 2014, made up of footage of viewers on A Subtlety’s last day. Like Gaines, Walker deflects our attention away from the affirmation of identity and instead trains our sights on the ceaseless reappearance of entrenched attitudes. But whereas Gaines’s “Theater” was meant to serve as a clarifying stage, from which the viewer would emerge more enlightened, Walker’s A Subtlety was more akin to a fun-house scene, reminding us that, though we may have moved toward a subtler politics of identification, race has been, and continues to be, a spectacle.

John Tain is a curator of modern and contemporary collections at the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles.