When Formalist Criticism Fails


On October 25, 2012, the New York Times published a review by Ken Johnson of the exhibition “Now Dig This! Art and Black Los Angeles 1960-1980” at New York’s MoMA PS1 (curated by Columbia University professor Kellie Jones and presented at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles a year earlier). Two weeks later, on Nov. 8, came Johnson’s preview of another exhibition, “The Female Gaze: Women Artists Making Their World” at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia. A number of artists and writers reacted to these pieces via Facebook, urging readers to write to the Times “to refute and rebut the racially divisive and art historically inaccurate claims” in Johnson’s work. This digital snowball grew rapidly and resulted in an online petition titled “NY Times: Address/Correct Ken Johnson’s recent articles,” launched on Nov. 23. Written by five young artists—Colleen Asper, Anoka Faruqee, Steve Locke, Dushko Petrovich and William Villalongo—it began, “The recent writing of art critic Ken Johnson troubles us. . . . [The two pieces in question] present ill-informed argu­ments. Using irresponsible generalities, Johnson compares women and African-American artists to white male artists, only to find them lacking.” It ends, “The writing in these articles is below the editorial standards typical of the New York Times. We ask that the Times acknowledge and address this editorial lapse and the broader issues raised by these texts.” By the end of the year, 1,650 people—including myself, many other writers and critics, and artists such as Glenn Ligon, Kara Walker, Julie Mehretu, Dawoud Bey, Janine Antoni, Trenton Doyle Hancock, Paul Pfeiffer and Silvia Kolbowski—had signed the petition.

So, what was in these pieces that caused such a vocifer­ous response, and what does it mean that such a response is happening now? Johnson’s review of “Now Dig This!” begins by saying that “There is a paradox at the heart” of the show that is not addressed by Jones but that “goes some way toward explaining why so few black artists have been embraced by the predominantly white high-end art world. It has to do with the relationship of black artists to Modern­ist tradition and the differences between the lives of blacks and whites in this country.” According to Johnson, “Black artists did not invent assemblage. In its modern form it was developed by white artists like Picasso, Kurt Schwitters, Marcel Duchamp, David Smith and Robert Rauschenberg.” He goes on to assert that “most of the work in ‘Now Dig This!’ promotes solidarity” and that “this poses a problem for its audience,” since “the art of black solidarity gets less trac­tion because the postmodern art world is, at least ostensibly, allergic to overt assertions of any kind of solidarity.”

PHOTO: View of the exhibition “Now Dig This! Art and Black Los Angeles1960-1980,” showing (on wall) two assemblages by Noah Purifoy (left) andtwo by John Outterbridge (right), and, on table, three mixed- mediumsculptures by Outterbridge. Courtesy MoMA PS1, New York. Photo MatthewSeptimus.
The institutions of the art world and the language still used there can slide back all too easily into a pre-1960s de facto racism and sexism.



The short preview of “The Female Gaze” begins: “A young woman embarking on an art career now has a better chance of succeeding than her grandmother did. But the day that any woman earns the big bucks that men like Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst rake in is still a long way off. Sexism is probably a good enough explanation for inequities in the market. But might it also have something to do with the nature of the art that women tend to make [emphasis added]?”

The petition and surrounding commentary in response to these two pieces provided an irresistible subject for my foundation seminar, “Bases of Criticism,” in the graduate art criticism and writing program at the School of Visual Arts. My first-year grad students were exercised about the brief articles, and quite articulate in their responses to them. They didn’t buy the “paradox” presented, and objected to the implication that assemblage is a cultural property owned by white artists. They pointed out that the practice of combin­ing disparate materials and objects to make artworks did not begin when Picasso went to the Trocadéro in 1907 to dig African sculpture. My students thought that making a special claim for a white origin of assemblage now is a kind of perverse reversal that, in the end, comes off as a defensive maneuver, as does the similar claim that discrimination against women artists in the commercial art world is due to “the nature of the art that women tend to make.”

One of my students pointed out that the intensity of the response to the Johnson pieces may reflect the fact that we just re-elected the first black president of the United States after a momentous demographic shift in the voting popula­tion, with an ascendant coalition of African-Americans, Latinos, young people, women and white working-class voters prevailing. It can no longer be taken for granted, in politics or in art in the New America, that the default posi­tions are white and male.

Ultimately, the responses of the 1,650 signers of the petition, and of my students, were not about Johnson, and too many of the comments on Facebook amounted to calls to kill the messenger. The real controversy arose from the frustration of recognizing that the institutions of the art world and the language still used there can slide back all too easily into a pre-1960s de facto racism and sexism, built on the old received assumptions of formalism, and that it is still necessary, in this day and age in America, to make an argu­ment for the social function and effects of art.

Two weeks after our conversation about the Johnson articles, writer and curator Debra Bricker Balken appeared in our lecture series to talk about her forthcoming biography of the critic Harold Rosenberg. In his article “Being Out­side,” published over 35 years ago in the New Yorker (Aug. 22, 1977), Rosenberg addressed the lack of critical response to the traveling exhibition “Two Centuries of Black Ameri­can Art” at the Brooklyn Museum:

Ready-made aesthetic standards—that is, standards that exist apart from insights into particular quali­ties—tend to be expressions of the taste, morals, and prejudices of dominant elements in society. Indeed, a primary motive for the ‘Two Centuries’ show is the conviction that throughout the history of this country blacks have been discriminated against in the application of presumably universal aesthetic standards; the catalogue refers to ‘the narrow inter­pretations of works by black artists given by white critics’ and to ‘the omission of their art from major American exhibitions.’ Apparently, aesthetics can function as a tool of racism [emphasis added].


For Rosenberg, “aesthetics” was code for formalism. He continued: “To the question ‘Why are there no great black [Jewish, women] painters?’ the minority show endeavors to reply ‘Oh, but there are!’ and to supply the evidence.”

There is also abundant evidence in “Now Dig This!” and “The Female Gaze.” “Now Dig This!” especially is an extraordinarily important corrective to the art history of the recent past. What is needed now is a new critical language, beyond that of an unconscious formalist supremacy-a language in tune with the needs and desires (and aesthetic history) of a New America. 

To read Ken Johnson’s response, click here.