The Ken Johnson Affair Continues: Ken Johnson and Amy Sillman
Because not all readers are registered at Facebook we carry an exchange there between artist Amy Sillman and once-again embattled New York Times art critic Ken Johnson as part of our Ken Johnson Affair section. This controversy arises from Johnson’s Times review of Michelle Grabner‘s recent exhibition at James Cohan Gallery, New York, October 9 to November 15. Sillman’s letter, submitted to the Times, was circulated on Facebook and copied at Johnson’s own page with his response.
Dear Art Editor,
I was shocked to read the review of Michelle Grabner’s exhibition by Ken Johnson in last Friday’s NYT, in which he basically summarizes Grabner’s show as that of a bland and witless mom. Grabner has an extraordinary CV: besides being an artist, and as he noted, a Professor at a major art school, and one of the curators of the last Whitney Biennial, Grabner is also a regularly published critic, co-curator/director of two experimental art spaces, and the subject of a museum survey show last year. Yet the NYT apparently saw no problem in printing a piece of writing about her whose primary criticism is her seeming lifestyle, and in which the characterization of her is not only the somewhat demeaning category “mom,” but the further boiled-down, more dismissive category of “soccer mom.” Johnson doesn’t even get his facts right: for example, he omits entirely the information from the exhibition’s introductory video about Grabner’s study of math, science and philosophy. It’s simply lazy to overlook this, and to mis-state the work’s own terms. Johnson concludes that Grabner has no satire: the two art spaces that Grabner co-runs are called “the Suburban” and “Poor Farm.” Does Johnson really think that Grabner is so naïve that when she portrays herself making a pie, she is doing so without any self-consciousness about her position in the world as a Midwesterner and a mother, as well as artist/curator/professor? (And hasn’t he ever heard of “normcore”?) This kind of condescending writing is a pattern with Johnson. Major complaints of racism and sexism have been lodged before about his writing, most recently two years ago when he was called out widely in public for “irresponsible generalities” regarding women and black artists. Once again, Johnson hangs his so-called criticism on his subject personally, in terms that seem to both diagnose her and reduce her to a cliché of her demographic. That’s textbook sexism. Johnson has the right to say whatever he wants about the work, but the point is how and why. What does it mean that the NYT does not seem to care about the politics of his language? I’m not surprised by Johnson’s writing at this point, but I am surprised that this insulting review could pass muster with the Editor of the New York Times.
Taking Sillman’s points one by one:
1. I don’t think Grabner’s resume should place her above criticism. Sillman doesn’t mention, by the way, that Grabner curated her (Sillman’s) paintings into this year’s Whitney Biennial. She’s not exactly a disinterested observer.
2. I thought that in a short review, simply describing the works in the show would be enough for an informed reader to get the underlying conceptual/feminist dimension of Grabner’s project. Had I spelled it out, it still would not have changed what I felt was an irritating spirit of self-satisfaction and obliviousness to her own privileged social position in the exhibition. Normcore or not, I still think the works in the show are bland and not in an illuminating way. They certainly didn’t make me care about the math and science of paper weaving.
3. I may have underestimated the degree to which Grabner intended the show as self-satire. If so, I’d say the show wasn’t satirical enough. That would only slightly modify my basic criticism. If Grabner did intend self-satire, than why would Sillman object to my idea of satirizing what I characterize as “the comfortably middle-class, tenured professor soccer mom”? This seems to me contradictory on Sillman’s part and humorlessly so. (I once was a soccer dad married to a soccer mom who also was a tenured professor of art. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being a soccer mom.)
4. Sillman’s charges of racism and sexism are slanderous and based on misreadings of two of the thousands of things I’ve written for the Times over the years. You would think that Sillman would be more sensitive about tossing around such accusations after Grabner was much criticized for including in the Whitney Biennial works by Joe Scanlan that were supposed to have been made by the fictional African American artist Donnelle Woolford and for not including more works by real black artists. It’s a serious thing to accuse someone of racism and sexism. If someone claims there’s a pattern of racism and sexism in what I’ve been writing over over the past 30 years, then that person should be obliged to prove it. I don’t think it’s provable in my case. I think it would be easier to prove the opposite.