4.17 / The Fourth Year

Free Your Mind! Improvising Post-Multicultural Art

By The Institute for Diversity in the Arts May 23, 2013

Daniel J. Martinez. Museum Tags: Second Movement (Overture) or Overture con claque—Overture with Hired Audience Members 1993 Whitney Biennial, Whitney Museum of American Art, 1993; metal and enamel on paint, 12 x 15 in. Courtesy of Phaidon.

The following is an abridged excerpt from the panel discussion presented by the Institute for Diversity in the Arts (IDA) at Stanford University on May 6, 2013. The panel included the artists Kori Newkirk and Daniel Joseph Martinez and the curators Elisabeth Sussman and Connie Wolf. Jeff Chang, the executive director of the IDA, gave the introduction and moderated the panel, which frames the notion of post-identity through the lens of the speakers’ experiences of the 1993 Whitney Biennial and its cultural impact.


Jeff Chang: First of all, we can agree that race is not a question of biology; it’s a question of culture. We want to think about how race is a problem of vision and visuality. Race happens in the gap between the appearance and the perception of difference. We all perceive the difference. From our very earliest days of perception, we pick up difference. But, of course, historically in the U.S., things like skin tone or physiognomy have not only been taken to signal difference but also inferiority or superiority. This is the way that racial power works. It goes further than perceiving difference by setting up systems of freedom and slavery, of commitment and neglect, of investment and abandonment, and of mobility and containment. It remains a fact that artists of color and curators of color are underrepresented in American art and the art world. In a sense, for most of the history of American art, they’ve been present but unseen. Have artists of color been excluded historically because of their formal lack of ability and novelty, or have they been historically excluded for other reasons? What kinds of freedom have artists of color been able to press for, to aspire to, and to express? What kinds of restraints have they been under and tried to escape?


Cover for the 1993 Whitney Biennial  exhibition. Courtesy of the Whitney Museum, New York.

Here, we’re going to focus on a moment twenty years ago, in which all these questions boiled to the surface. 1993 is the year that multiculturalism as an art movement was turned back and routed; it was crushed. The 1993 Whitney Biennial became the most controversial Biennial in the history of American art. In the intervening decades, however, there’s been a reevalution of the impact of that particular moment in history.

What has it meant over the last two decades to create post-multicultural art? What does it look like? How do artists think about improvised visual art and identity at this particular moment?

Multiculturalism as a movement could be said to have begun after the fall of legal segregation. Where the civil rights movement was concerned with getting rid of legal barriers to integration, the multicultural movement was concerned with getting rid of the cultural barriers to integration. It was about trying to imagine a post-segregated world. Multiculturalism came out of an avant-garde uprising in the Bay Area among a group of writers, central to whom was Ishmael Reed, who wrote the book Mumbo Jumbo in 1975. In the alternative magazine, Berkeley Barb, he announced the coming of multiculturalism by insisting that it wasn’t a form of American writing but that it was American writing. In 1990, Cornel West said the distinctive features of the new cultural politics of difference were to trash the monolithic and homogenous in the name of diversity, multiplicity, and heterogeneity: the rejection of the abstract, general, and universal in light of the concrete, specific, and particular—as well as the historicized, contextualized and pluralized—by highlighting what was contingent, provisional, variable, tentative, shifting, and changing. Demographic shifts were supporting this multicultural revolution, and it created openings on campuses where these demographic shifts began to show up. They gave public intellectuals fuel and ambition to theorize broadly about diversity and representation.

In 1992, the conservative political commentator Pat Buchanan declared multiculturalism was an across-the-board assault on our Anglo-American heritage and that America had begun a culture war for the very future of American civilization. The cultural right targeted the National Endowment for the Arts for funding artists of color and queer artists. They were successful in all but ending an era of public funding for arts and culture.

On March 3, 1991, George Holiday captured the beating of a black motorist, Rodney King, by a group of Los Angeles police officers. This video would later be selected for inclusion in the 1993 Whitney Biennial, as it catalyzed intense discussions about race, identity, and the state.

In her essay in the Biennial catalog, the performance artist and public intellectual Coco Fusco noted that we had entered an era in which the debate over identity and culture seemed interminable and inescapable. “Behind each debate lingers fears and hopes about the image this country projects of itself to its people and to the world,” she wrote. “Culture in this country is a critical, if not the most crucial, area of political struggle for identity.” And she said that the main questions at that particular moment were these: Who are we? Whose values? Whose museums? Whose aesthetics? Whose icons and whose image?

These are the questions that occupy the artists and curators during the early 1990s, and we want to recover and think through the legacy of this era, as well as how we think about visual art and the improvisation of identity. It’s undeniable that artists of color today enjoy more access and representation than artists of color in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s. But there’s been much debate over the term post-black. This debate has in turn popped up for Chicano artists, for Asian American artists, for Latino artists, and for Native American artists. We want to pick up this notion of post-identity, which tries to capture the conditions and expressions of young artists of color who appear not to be burdened in the same way as previous generations about issues of race. How has identify changed? How has representation changed? How can one appear now? What are the new frontiers of perceptions of difference to test? Or are there even new frontiers to test?


Chang: What do you remember about the early ’90s and how it was shaping the kind of work that you have come to do ever since?

Kori Newkirk: I graduated from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in the spring of 1993, and that year, prior to the Biennial opening, I had just transitioned from making art about art and to making art about my identity. That was a massive shift in my understanding about how I wanted to run my practice, and everything changed after that. Luckily, the Biennial occurred, and I was able to see those ideas put into action, or at least the beginning of those ideas put into action. To actually see work that was interested in speaking about things beyond just art was incredibly important to me at that time. The multicultural discussions had never been brought to the forefront as it was in that year. I was elated. Not only myself but a whole slew of my friends went to New York to see that show because we didn’t want to miss it, whether we would like it or not. We just felt that it was incredibly important for us to be there to witness this moment.

Elisabeth Sussman: I had come to the Whitney in 1991 from Boston, and there was no doubt that this movement—multiculturalism was one name, post-colonialism and hybridity were others—was just jumping all over the place. So we knew, as anybody would have known, that there was a lot going on, and Connie and I were definitely allied in our thinking. When you come to a new museum, you think, “What can I do better in this museum than what they’ve done before? Why was I hired? What are we here to do?” We knew there was something going on in the world that this museum of American art had not addressed yet. We had a very white-bread staff at the time, and lucky for us, the director, David Ross, hired a black curator, Thelma Golden. I was given the responsibility to head up the Biennial, and I decided early in the game that I wanted Thelma to be on this Biennial team. I knew I had a tremendous amount to learn from her.

We had to do something different. At that moment in the art world, there was a lot of theory and backstory generated for late post-conceptual art. The work was interesting, but it always seemed to be very burdened by the theory under it. I wanted to be involved in a Biennial where the stories are there right in front of you.

We wanted there to be many voices contributing to the curatorial vision. Connie had been hired as a curator of education, but she had begun to acquire works of art for the museum, and she saw that the education program was antiquated in comparison to how the exhibition was evolving. Similarly, another colleague of mine, John G. Hanhardt, who was a marvelous film and video curator, had always done a very serious program, often addressing multiculturalism, but he was siloed in media studies. All of that was brought into one place. What we didn’t know, what we were a little naïve about, is that Robert Hughes was about to come out with a major attack against multiculturalism’s attack on culture, and we were going to be used as the media sounding board by the Right. And we really weren’t prepared for the Left to join in as well.

Connie Wolf: The curators would gather weekly or biweekly to review what they’d seen from traveling around the country and from looking at images. What needed to happen felt so obvious. There was a sense of urgency to do this, and at the same time, we weren’t aware of how it would be received. Everyone was saying, “Yes, this has to happen. This is the pulse of what artists are seeing and experiencing around the country.” So it didn’t feel unique or different; it just felt very present.


Connie Wolf. Courtesy of the Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Center for Visual Arts, Stanford University.

Daniel Joseph Martinez: It’s always fascinating to listen to people who are in the same place with you. Everybody’s in a different position and sees the same circumstances a little bit differently. A lot of artists in the exhibition would actually tell you the time was euphoric, that there was an imminent potential that existed in the air. A lot of us who understood what was happening politically around Buchanan and Jessie Helms and the alignment of the political Right with the religious Right saw that this was a desperate act against something that had been building up through the ’80s and had been given a place to live by these curators. That’s why I say there was optimism. All of a sudden, you wanted to blow the citadel up. Something was able to happen that’s never happened before. There’s never been an exhibition like the 1993 Whitney Biennial, and there will never be another one like it. Nothing has compared to it.

The ’93 Biennial was probably one of the most successful biennial exhibitions in the history of this country, and as large as its success was, it is only dwarfed by its failure. And its failure is that, simply, the ethics and the morals and the aesthetics that were given an opportunity in the ’93 Biennial were not carried out throughout this country. So a model was held up that something new was possible, but it wasn’t able to sustain itself in a discourse larger than the Whitney Museum.

It is fascinating to me that [Elisabeth and Connie] didn’t know [what the reaction to the Biennial would be], but at the same time, maybe not knowing made the opportunity so exceptional.

Chang: Daniel, you created the museum tags, which were the first piece of art that people encounted in the Biennial. How did this fit into the kinds of questions that you were thinking about at that particular moment?

Martinez: [The Whitney doesn’t] use them anymore, but [at that time] they had these little metal tags that you would wear to show you paid admission. Each day has a different color. I proposed to Elisabeth that we break up the sentence, “I can’t imagine ever wanting to be white,” into a number of different phrases and print those on the tags. It’s structurally based on Ferdinand de Saussure’s theory about the organization of language and how you can change meaning in language by changing the organization of language. It is an organization of an idea that is passive-aggressive. Visitors to the museum became part of the work because they had to wear one portion of the phrase. Identity is a construction, right? The same way gender is a construction or sexuality is a construction. So here, identity is in motion; it’s constantly shifting and moving based on that particular set of words and based on the individual. Everyone who visited the museum got to perform in this construction that was changing depending on who they were with or what phrase they were wearing. But the phrase does test the limits of a civil society. [Many] didn’t like the fact that I was changing the mechanism of the gaze or identity and race. A number of people just didn’t appreciate it.

Sussman: I think Daniel is reading it right. It’s amazing that we didn’t know. All these conservative, right-wing people had been on the attack, so that was not a surprise to me. What was a surprise to me was the response of the middle-ground critic. The chief art critic of the New York Times started his review with, “I hate it.” That was what was surprising to me: the people who claimed that visuality was something that belonged to them. They expected a certain kind of visuality or formal beauty or lack of message or quality. The chief art critic of the New York Times had gone to school to learn, to think; he had an eye that could recognize all those things and he saw none of it.


Daniel Joseph Martinez. Courtesy of Whitehot magazine.

Wolf: From my experience of touring people through the show all the time, they just didn’t see the work in the exhibition as being art. None of it looked like art to them.

Chang: Does that make them scared? Is that part of the reaction? I tend to think that such reactions are about fear.

Sussman: The curators who are acquiring things for the collection now in 2013 ask me, “Why didn’t you buy the Renée Green that was in the Biennial for the Whitney? It’s great work and it went to [the Museum of Contemporary Art].” I could hardly get them to buy anything because it wasn’t “art.” It was such a struggle for audiences because the materials felt completely foreign to them. There was nervousness, but it was also the lack of exposure to it. They were challenged. So, maybe fearful, maybe challenged. They were also perhaps afraid that the work they had been told was great couldn’t hold its own against this work. They were sure they were right, and we were wrong.

Chang: Hundreds of articles were were written about the 1993 Biennial and almost all were incredibly negative. What did that do for the artists who are interested in these questions and produce art around them? Kori, your piece in Freestyle, which Golden put together at the Studio Museum in Harlem in 2001, was a helicopter. You were living in Los Angeles and you made a helicopter out of pomade. Were you worried then that you would get read solely as a black artist, working with pomade and talking about helicopters over South Central?

Newkirk: I didn’t think about those things as much. I tended to think about—and how I still operate is—learning to navigate all of these things after the Whitney Biennial in ’93. I saw what happened, so what lessons can I take from that? The most important lesson I learned is that they were banging on the front door, and I saw that doesn’t work. I needed to have another strategy. It’s not necessarily about going in the side door or the back door; it’s just that I had to find another way to enter the house.

Chang: A question that came out in the Freestyle exhibition is, “What is post-black?” The term began as an inside joke between Golden and the artist Glenn Ligon, at least the way Ligon describes it. Was the notion of post-black also a strategic retreat in a way—a way for artists of color to figure out a way to get in by conceding?

Martinez: I never saw it as a retreat. It seemed more like a sleight of hand and seemed very smart. You organize an all-black exhibition; you call it Freestyle. You throw in an undefinable intellectual term, post-black, which is exactly what it is, undefinable. No one I’ve heard yet, not even Thelma, can pin down what it actually means. If that’s the case, it’s creating a mirage. It’s a decoy. It seemed like a very smart way for her to move a lot of black artists into a position that allowed them traction. A high percentage of the artists in that show went on to have very successful careers. So what’s really the purpose of the exhibition? What if the exhibition was not about just exhibiting the work? What if the exhibition was actually about repositioning?

Race is only a subset of identity, right? But what if one looks at the subject of race as being malleable and one actually has the ability to reconstruct it in a way that has a new potential? Why operate with the exisiting parameters? Just change the rules. Change the way it functions. Why not?

Chang: As curators, how did you perceive artists working through questions of identity through the ’90s into the turn of the millennium? Did you see shifts and changes?

Wolf: I was always fighting these boundaries. At the Contemporary Jewish Museum, I urgently tried to figure out ways to make the borders permeable, to allow a diversity of voices to be heard and to be seen. It was always a challenge. I find that the notion of what it means to be in an ethnically specific institution to be challenging in this era because it just keeps those boundaries moving forward. Those institutions emerged at a moment in history when it was essential because these voices weren’t being represented. The history of the Studio Museum is a perfect example, or the New Museum, even. These were institutions that were founded because the voices were not heard.

So what becomes our identity as the culture shifts? Are we willing to let go of them? I don’t think we are. That’s part of the challenge. We’re afraid to let go of them because we’re afraid the situation will revert back to what it was before we had these institutions.

Sussman: I agree with what Daniel said about Thelma and her use of the term post-black; it was a very smart thing to do. She is a curator and a person that is very aware of the evolution of the terms that deal with race and art history. When I worked with her on the ’93 Biennial, she was very interested in a group of artists, such as Glenn Ligon and Lorna Simpson, who could be called conceptual black artists. She was working, in a way, against what was then the Studio Museum of Harlem’s view of black art, which was first-generation identity artists such as Faith Ringgold and Betye Saar. People were upset with Thelma’s actions, which broadened the reach to include these conceptual artists. When she moved into this post-black terminology, she moved that evolution along, but she was really thinking through the categories and the ways that black identities, race, and art have been pigeon-holed at different moments.


Elizabeth Sussman. Courtesy of Artinfo.

In terms of the Whitney and the aftermath in the institutional situation, I think that the museum was shaken totally by what went on. It continued to pay attention to the artists that we had supported in the ’93 Biennial as they moved into their mid-career phases. We bought their work; we had mid-career shows of some of them, and so although the museum was shaken, it didn’t reject this work as a foreign organism. Did it change the institution entirely in a revolutionary way from top to bottom? No. But on the other hand, I think about a previous challenge to the institution in the mid-’80s, when the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) did the Primitivism in 20th Century Art show, in which they showed that African art existed only to be absorbed by French modernism. [MoMA was] just trashed in serious critical essays for its single-minded view of what modernism was, but I don’t think that altered the DNA of that museum in any way. The DNA at the Whitney was altered.


The Guerilla Girls. Traditional Values and Quality Return to the Whitey Museum, 1995; poster. Courtesy of the Guerilla Girls.

Martinez: Elisabeth is actually spot on because this is a complicated challenge. It faces minorities across the board. There is a huge break historically between the traditional idea of what a minority artist should be making and then what a contemporary conceptual minority artist should be doing. The idea, as Elisabeth described, is how do you spin the clock forward on the possibilities of the kinds of work that artists can make? Once we get past the issue of identity, we have to move into the next stage, so they don’t say, “Kori Newkirk, African American artist,” they say “Kori Newkirk, American artist in the Biennial.”


Kori Newkirk. Courtesy of Bad at Sports.

There’s a little bit of a schism and schizophrenia that goes on. We hang on so tight because we are afraid to lose what little we have. I’m of the mind now to just cut it loose. Just rebuild it in a different way, using a different set of language, and take the risk. Because if we don’t take the risk, everything continues to move in the direction it’s going, which is toward the conservative. The writing has become more conservative, shows have become more conservative, what artists make has become more conservative—Jesus Christ! Where is the work we’re supposed to be doing? Where is the experimentation? Where is the idea of breaking ground? When are we going to get there?

Chang: How do emerging artists think about how to present identity now? Do they? What are you seeing at this particular moment, twenty years after the most diverse exhibition ever staged in a major American art museum?

Newkirk: I actually see an almost renewed resistance with my students of all colors to even go in the direction. My black students say, “I don’t want to make black art.” They can’t necessarily define it when I ask them what it means, but they just know that they don’t want to make it, whatever that is. Not very many of my other students of color are interested in exploring those issues.

Chang: Are the issues not alive for them anymore? Or are they worried about how to portray themselves?

Newkirk: It’s more that they are not necessarily comfortable enough with themselves to explore them. They don’t want to talk about it. As soon as the wall of resistance goes up, I tend to want to retreat myself. I can’t force them to go there. I think that they will understand the importance of attempting to deal with the situations on their own time. I would hope that at some point they will look in the mirror or something will happen that will force their hand, but as much as I would want to, I don’t think that is my place to do that. I can only be there to guide them if they are willing to go there. But I do see a lot more resistance than embrace. Some of the resistance or the disinterest is because the conversations are not the same. The world is so fractured at the moment. We all have smart phones and the Internet; everyone can go in their own direction and find their own identity, whatever that is, without being part of a larger discussion.

Audience: Daniel, you mentioned a generational shift or a turn from an older establishment of black artists toward conceptualism, a shift in practice that also ultimately ends up at the Freestyle explosion of blackness as a concept. What happens between those two points? Between ideas from conceptual art in the late ’60s, which largely weren’t concerned with issues of race and identity at all, and work in the ’90s? I find it really ironic that critics who were so well versed in these theoretical issues could not translate them to the work that they were seeing in the Biennial. How does conceptual art impact and help make possible this shift?

Martinez: It’s a good question. From 1900 to 1960, other than during the Harlem Renaissance, you had very few minority artists operating in this country. They could be probably counted on one hand. But this shift occurred, and Kori is an example of it, in two places: in art schools and universities. Minority professors were hired in the art schools and universities, and then there was a wave of students coming in that were all minorities. What they were being taught was all the theory that everybody else had been taught, and this conceptualism was informed by all this theory. So you have a new generation of artists that informed another generation of artists. So now, there is no difference. I can stand anyone up and they can go toe to toe with anyone on conceptual art theory or the history of art, and they’re all really smart. They’re making smart work. That’s the big difference, because they’re educated differently.


Kori Newkirk. All Over, 2001; installation view, Freestyle, the Studio Museum of Harlem, 2001. Courtesy of Artsjournal.

A native of Los Angeles, Daniel Joseph Martinez is famous for his provocative and sometimes controversial work on themes of politics, race, and identity. His work can be found in such collections as the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York and the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, Texas. His monograph published by Hatje Cantz in Germany is titled A Life of Disobedience. He has participated in the Whitney Biennial, the Venice Biennale, the Lima Biennial, the Berlin Biennale, the Istanbul Biennial, and the San Juan Triennial. He is Professor of Art at the University of California, Irvine.

The Los Angeles–based artist Kori Newkirk makes multimedia paintings, sculptural installations, and photographs that explore the formal properties of materials, the politics of identity, and the artist’s personal history. Newkirk has had solo exhibitions at a number of museums, including the Studio Museum in Harlem, New York; the Pasadena Museum of California Art; LA><Art, Los Angeles; The Project, New York; MC, Los Angeles; Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego; and Locust Projects, Miami.

Elisabeth Sussman currently serves as both Curator and Sondra Gilman Curator of Photography at the Whitney Museum of American Art, but she has also held various positions, including Chief Curator and Deputy Director for Programs, at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, and she has taught at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Tufts University. She has organized works for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, acted as a fellow at both the Rockefeller Foundation and the Getty Research Institute, and is the author of multiple publications.

Connie Wolf is the John and Jill Freidenrich Director of the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University. Wolf has served as Director and CEO of the Contemporary Jewish Museum, Associate Director for Public Programs and the Helena Rubinstein Curator of Education at the Whitney Museum of American Art, and she has worked at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Wolf has also curated many exhibitions, has given numerous talks internationally, and has written extensively on art, museums, and education.

Jeff Chang is Executive Director of the Institute for Diversity in the Arts at Stanford University. He is the author of Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation and the editor of Total Chaos: The Art and Aesthetics of Hip-Hop. His new book, Who We Be: The Colorization of America, a cultural history on race and visual culture over the past half-century, will be published in September 2014 by St. Martin’s Press.

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