Ken Johnson Sparks Debates


Two upcoming panel discussions in New York and Philadelphia address questions about racism and sexism in art criticism and the art world in general. Both were inspired by the writings of Ken Johnson, in the New York Times, and a petition calling those reviews substandard.

In case you missed it: in an unsigned preview of “The Female Gaze: Women Artists Making Their World” (at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Philadelphia, through Apr. 7), Johnson wrote,

“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?”

In a signed review of “Now Dig This!: Art and Black Los Angeles 1960-1980” (at MoMA PS1 through Mar. 11), he wrote,

“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. . . . Appropriated by the artists in ‘Now Dig This!,’ however, it took on a different complexion.”

A petition signed by over 1,500 people, including artists Glenn Ligon, Louise Lawler and Trenton Doyle Hancock, art historian Miwon Kwon and artist/critic/curator Robert Storr, takes Johnson to task:

“In both pieces, Mr. Johnson suggests that marginalized groups’ lack of success is due to their own failures and not those of the ‘predominantly white high-end art world.’ In doing so, his texts read as validations of stubborn inequities. Johnson replays stereotypes of inscrutable blackness and inadequate femininity in the guise of serious inquiry, but that inquiry never happens.”

Johnson will soon defend himself at two panel discussions in the tri-state area.

This Red Door, a collaborative consisting of artists Jomar Statkun, Jared Friedman and Christopher Stackhouse, is organizing an event Wednesday, Jan. 30 at Brooklyn’s Kunsthalle Galapagos. Johnson will talk with artists Lisa Corinne Davis, Statkun and Joan Waltemath, and possibly surprise guests.

“Johnson’s statements were ostensibly, and I say incidentally, inflammatory because of how casually symptomatic they are of the social and economic imbalance between the art produced by men and women, and between that produced by ‘whites’ and ‘non-whites,'” Stackhouse told A.i.A. via e-mail. “Johnson’s now infamous commentary gets at the heart of the matter–what does our society really value in terms of culture?”

The Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts will host a discussion on Sunday, Feb. 10. Also participating, in addition to Johnson, are Kimberly Brooks, artist and Huffington Post art editor, and others to be determined. The moderator, University of Pennsylvania associate professor of American art Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw, has her work cut out for her.

According to a museum representative, the discussion will ask, What does responsible, accurate and nuanced arts journalism entail? What are the parameters for a 21st-century dialogue about art? What role does cultural bias play in assessing the merits of a work of art?



PHOTO: Cindy Schultz via