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Installation view, ‘Michelle Grabner’ at James Cohan Gallery (image via jamescohan.com)

Two weeks ago, when critic Ken Johnson reviewed Michelle Grabner’s current solo exhibition in the New York Times, he fell into a trap. Johnson didn’t like Grabner’s work, which is fine, but rather than breaking it down to understand why he didn’t like it, he resorted to half-baked biographical stereotyping. Here is his final paragraph:

Nothing in all this is more interesting than the unexamined sociological background of the whole. If the show were a satire of the artist as a comfortably middle-class tenured professor and soccer mom, it would be funny and possibly illuminating, but it’s not.

Grabner may make “bland art” (his words), and she may be a “middle-class tenured professor and soccer mom,” but to establish a cause-and-effect relationship between those two conditions, as Johnson does in the paragraph, is sexist (and classist).

Unfortunately, this isn’t the first time Johnson has waxed philosophical on “the nature of the art that women tend to make.” That previous incident happened almost two years ago, but it’s obvious from the spate of recent reactions that many women (including myself) remain on high alert. Critic Corinna Kirsch responded the next day with a fiery retort on Art F City. Mary Louise Schumacher, art and architecture critic for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, used the occasion to write to two smart responses, one focused on the controversy, the other a must-read piece giving Grabner and her work the context they need. Artist Amy Sillman, meanwhile, penned a piercing letter to the editor of the New York Times that’s been circulating on Facebook. Here’s how it ends:

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.

Johnson has taken it upon himself to respond to Sillman’s letter, also on Facebook, offering a point-by-point rebuttal of her charges. His comments are quite sound, and as I read I found myself nodding along in places, for instance: “I don’t think Grabner’s resume should place her above criticism” and “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.”

In the wake of such seeming reasonableness, I returned to the source, Johnson’s Grabner review, wondering if perhaps I’d made it out to be worse in my head that it really was on paper and screen. At the heart of the piece, and the issues it raises, is a video by artist David Robbins called “A few minutes with…Michelle Grabner.” According to Johnson, the five-minute video plays in the foyer of James Cohan gallery (full disclosure: I have not seen the show), acting as an introduction to Grabner and her work.

Still from David Robbins, “A few minutes with…Michelle Grabner” (screenshot via Vimeo)

By Johnson’s telling, the video shows:

Ms. Grabner picking vegetables from her backyard garden and making a pie in her beautiful kitchen. In her lovely studio in a small house, and also in her backyard, she makes art by weaving strips of colored paper in and out of parallel cuts she’s made in sheets of white paper. She explains that she started doing these “paper weavings” after her son came home with one he’d made in kindergarten, 20 years ago.

Note the emphasis on domesticity here, and the accompanying withering tone with which Johnson writes. Given this recap, you’d think the video was focused on Grabner’s home life, with her art thrown in as a kind of arts-and-crafts-project afterthought.

If you actually watch the video, however, the takeaway is quite different. Thirty seconds on each end are given over to these domestic pursuits; the rest — that is to say, the bulk of it — consists of a conversation between Robbins and Grabner about her work, as we watch her make one of her woven paper pieces. The two discuss German philosopher Friedrich Fröbel, the centrality of math to Grabner’s process, and the importance of repetition — all topics that, if they were being discussed by a man, would surely be taken as indicators of artistic rigor.

What’s more, as Schumacher and Sillman both point out, there’s an obvious cheekiness, a parodic quality, in the parts of the video that show domestic life. Not only that, but I saw in the colors of the tomatoes Grabner roasts and in the latticework of her apple pies clear formal connections to her artwork. Robbins knew what he was doing here — in my reading, he uses explicit visual cues to suggest that Grabner’s art pervades her life, and not the other way around.

Did Johnson watch the video all the way through when he visited the exhibition? I don’t know. Was he writing on deadline, and rather than parse his negative feelings about the show, he pinned them on a video he hadn’t taken the time to understand? I don’t know. I do know that one of the biggest, most consistent problems that women creators face is critics (professional and otherwise) conflating their life and work rather than evaluating the work on its own terms. This is, as I’ve written before, the oldest sexist trick in the book, and it plays into two key cultural cliches: that women’s personal lives are a perpetually permissible subject of discussion and that women cannot make art that’s distinct from their personal lives. Naturally, when an artist of any gender consciously incorporates elements of life into their work, the terrain becomes more slippery. But even then, it is the critic’s job to contemplate the art — the pieces of artifice, the constructions — that’s been made from life and direct their energies there.

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Jillian Steinhauer

Jillian Steinhauer is a former senior editor of Hyperallergic. She writes largely about the intersection of art...

51 replies on “On Ken Johnson and the Question of Sexism”

  1. I did see the show and watch the video. The intro music lends a clear satirical tone, but it then shifts into a fairly generic texted dialogue about patterns, repetition, simple means leading to surprises. But then there are no surprises, IMO, in the resulting, rather ordinary looking, paper weaving. The lattice-work apple pies that follow seem almost trite, even desperate, to prove how meaningful and connected everything is, life/art/nature. That’s a totally valid message and can be, as you say, “slippery terrain”, and so the work has to have the power to contain and carry it, not just use it as a shingle. It seemed to me that Ken Johnson’s write-up reacted to that sense of entitlement, that the artist could just posture without delivering. I do know Ken for many years, and I think he feels free to say things in uncensored, less than PC terms because he knows he’s not a sexist or a racist. I think he has an average amount of mixed messages in his head, and we get to hear some of them in plain language, whereas others may tweak their words to impress.

    1. Thanks for commenting, Judith. FWIW, I don’t think Ken *meant* to devolve into a sexist trope, but he did. And I think part of my disappointment/desire for the piece to be better is that the work does seem in need of actual, thoughtful critique. That review would have been so good.

      1. Jillian, I think you are right that Ken didn’t intentionally make a sexist dig, for it’s own sake, but I think he did intentionally dare to use words that could force what irritated him to the surface. Ken has written about the delicacy of religion, and children, and other spiritual subjects that are difficult for the art world to embrace…so I would never imagine him being against domesticity as an underlying theme. It sounded like he was put off by the presentation, both that it was bland and cavalier…(my word)…and that what he wrote was, in fact, his “actual, thoughtful critique,” because I don’t think he writes his reviews casually.

        1. I don’t imagine he’s against domesticity in any way, but I think pinning the blandness of someone’s art on not their domesticity but their alleged socioeconomic status and gender (rolled into one) is highly problematic.

          1. Jillian, I see/hear your’s and other’s points respectfully in that regard, but I’m gonna step back now because I know one thing leads to another as we phrase and rephrase our points, and I get, well, exhausted. That’s why I’m not a blogger!! Thanks for the healthy discussion.

  2. Now that we have a Republican Senate, perhaps the art world will turn it’s attention to sexism that really matters

    1. Which is, of course, only what sexism matters to YOU. Nevermind that sexism in the art world might actually matter to the women who make their living in the art world.

      1. Geez is the secret to art-critical success to state the obvious but still miss the point? I’m saying that things like abortion rights and wage-parity just might be more important than whether women get 50% of the market for luxury doodads. Reasoning from this apparently outrageous notion, I would respectfully submit that success in the art market is actually a BAD thing, and that parity there just means that you have as many women as men who are BIG DICKS! Furthermore, it seems obv to me that these conclusions flow au naturalment from suppositions embedded in the everyday rhetoric of art writing.

        1. I have to say that is pretty funny. I don’t mean I agree with your paragraph…just that success is actually a BAD thing. There certainly is a weird paradox about all of us blind slaves to the market.

  3. Maybe the problem of sexism in the arts actually belongs to the issue that you assumed to be a given in your final paragraph. Why should art be separate from life? If a woman or a man’s life contains children, a home, a garden, why are these ‘domestic’ subjects inappropriate material, why does the terrain become slippery? The inheritance of Modernism is an essentially sexist one that set ‘art’ into a special heroic category, and critics who can’t move beyond this frame of reference are inclined to dismiss out of hand any work that does not have sufficient ironic distance from the ordinary.

    1. I don’t think this was the issue for Ken. His point is that none of that matters if the art is bad. And he is right about that. Grabner is smart and well respected but her artwork does not measure up to her stature.

      1. The discussion about sexism, and there may be some here of the lazy but not malicious variety IMHO, seems secondary to the immediacy and power of this and most art produced by both women and men in similar settings. That is, very low in real communication and cultural relevancy. It’s great if art and life intersect, but it’s all so academic and polite here. Someone touched on the mythic problems of modernism here and that seems on point. We need to bypass the baggage of art history more and go straight to the audience in clear and meaningful ways. Social practice art is starting to do this but even that is generally rooted in the concrete shoes of modernism and the institution.

        1. Why is it so bad to be an artist-as-hero? Postmodernism is the aesthetic of giving up. I think we can use more artist-as-heroes in this world, and I do not think for one second that to create heroic art means, necessarily, that you have to be male and (thus) sexist.

    2. Thank you for this—it’s a great comment. I guess what I mean (I think) is that regardless of life and art intertwining, there’s still a line: I’ll critique your film that grows out of your life, but it’s not my job to critique the actual conditions of your life.

    3. Why must we assume that domesticity in art is feminine and Modernist “heroic” art is masculine and thus “sexist.” It is absolutely tiresome to read this Modernism equals Sexism trope over and over again. You do, however, make a great point when you question about “why should art be separate from life?”

    4. I think the “slippery terrain” is the slippage is between maintaining the Art on 1% more ground then the domestic trope.

  4. I imagine what annoyed Johson had more to do with class and entitlement ,That the artist appeared to be rich rather than a woman. The phrase soccer mom is redolent with privellage, of rich housewives in Connecticut with stockbroker husbands . This was an unfourtunate choice of words on Johnson’s part, critics often fail when they try to be hip, Jerry Saltz is the number one offender ,he often trys to write like a teen age girl trapped in a middle age man’s body ( no sexism intented , just a reflection of Mr Salt’s dellusions). Back to Johson, I think he was far more irrated attitudes of privilege and entitlement that permeated the show . His conudrum is that he is afraid to criticize the rich directly for varrious reasons, unlike Hyperallergic and their open criticism of “the Connoisseur Class”

    1. The term soccer mom is redolent of sexism. Also, I somehow doubt Johnson can’t be considered middle class himself.

  5. Hard for me to comment on whether calling an artist a “soccer mom” is sexist or not especially when we have tons of macho male artists, or homosexual artists (male and female) making art in that specific sexual-social context for political reasons. Why not the same here? But I didn’t see the exhibition, I was drawn to this article by the accusation of “sexism” in criticism. My view is Johnson’s texts don’t often get edited for content these days – the by NYT or anyone else – but probably only for grammar, typos, length. From the point of view of the artist, I’m fairly certain she’s pleased to have this attention, regardless of the crime of “domesticity.” Seriously, who is being hurt here?

    1. Its hard for you to comment on whether or not a dismissive term for which there is no male equivalent is sexist?

          1. I think you and the author of this piece on the author of the piece in question are taking this a bit too personally. My mom actually was a soccer mom, just a fraction of her serious work raising children and running a house and teaching us to appreciate the world.

      1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soccer_mom

        There’s nothing inherently dismissive or sexist about the phrase Soccer Mom and the only pejorative connotation it conjures up is of an overprotective and highly involved mother – i.e. Helicopter parenting. The male equivalent would be a Stay at Home Dad. People are reading it as sexist or dismissive because of the context not the phrase itself and most people seem to ignore that as a descriptive term, based on the biographical details provided about Grabner it is 100% accurate.

        1. I disagree. Stay at Home Dad and Stay at Home Mom are equivalent. Not Soccer Mom. Stay at Home (parent) implies doing many of the required domestic chores for a home to function. Soccer Mom is taken out of that context of doing real work and is put more in a context of being responsible for what amounts to a diversion.

          1. If you’d read the Wiki article (which admittedly wikipedia is not the final authority on anything) you’d see that what defines a soccer mom (based on referenced articles and some sort of consensus) is her involvement (over-involvement?) in her children’s lives. Someone who handles all responsibilities of parenting a child INCLUDING driving them to soccer games. The diversion (i.e. soccer) is just the descriptor – the idea is that she cares so much about her children’s happiness and well-being that she devotes as much time and energy to supporting them in their diversionary interests as she does to all other aspects of their lives. It’s not pejorative but in the context of an art-review and as a way of dismissing Grabner’s art it becomes problematic because as I said elsewhere, living a quotidian life doesn’t make an artist’s work boring.

          2. Soccer is only played in private schools or in rich public high schools. Every where else in the world it’s called football.

          3. So Den Hickey, now that you are scrutinizing Ken Johnson’s art texts/critiques on The NYT, what do you make of the language he used for Marina Abramovic’s “Generator”? What do you think? Does he take her down for being a woman? GIve it a good once, twice over. I’m keen to know your take. TIA.

  6. but of course personal life entering the work is not an issue when its matthew barney playing football or jeff koons fucking pornstars.

    1. You could seriously write an encyclopedia of male artists who have done just this with nary a word said about it.

  7. One reason why domesticity/leading a privileged suburban lifestyle might provoke criticism or condescension is that for many people that lifestyle is the adult default. It’s just what people of a certain class do when they become adults – they get married and move back to the suburbs and reproduce. In other words, it’s boring (and common).

    Most people don’t want their art or their artists to be boring and common. I think what’s especially unfortunate about Grabner’s show is that her work is also boring and common (in that it looks like patterning on high-end textiles and expensive wallpaper) seeming to confirm or reinforce the biographical details presented in the video.

    However, living the default suburban dream doesn’t preclude you from making great art. In fact, because it’s so ubiquitous of a lifestyle it may give an artist insight to make art that is both uniquely her own and supremely populist. I always think of Plath or Wallace Stevens who was a suburban family man and actuary/insurance accountant for most of his life and wrote some of the greatest poetry of the 20th century. Living a conventional suburban lifestyle doesn’t cause you to make boring art or make you a bad artist. Making tedious art that’s over-reliant on a kind of academic modernism (or maybe art-school modernism is a better label, the same seminar approved ideas, the same process based art churned out over and over ad nauseam) does make your work pretty awful. Hopefully her next body of work will be better.

  8. I connect the work to weaving and design work of Annie Albers, and also to some of the concepts that materialized in the later 70’s and early 80’s as Pattern and Decoration. This article prompted me to look at this artist’s work online.The inkjet print pieces seem to achieve an uncanny density while remaining luminous and ‘light’ filled.

    1. That’s quite a feat, as ink jet prints usually look dull and flat in person but perhaps back-lit by everyone’s lcds can appear luminous and light filled. . As for weaving Annie Albers did it by hand.

  9. I was discussing this review with a major museum curator here in Chicago. A woman. We both LOVED how the critic dismissed this politically positioned, insipidly bland work without ceremony. How appropriate it is. Having witnessed and experienced the throttlehold Michelle (OPERATOR) and a small group of her fellow hackademics have had on the Chicago scene for many years, all I can say is its been a long time coming. Ken Johnson succinctly gave voice to what a lot of people think and are afraid to say. He didn’t buy into the ‘conditional boredom’ affectation of a methodology , did not find her to be ‘delightfully witty’, but was ironically and obviously, ‘conditionally bored’. Bottom line Ken cut to the chase and stated the obvious. Specifically, when it comes to the actual presence of the work, inciting indignant howls of rage from the sycophants -whatever. Go watch Grabner’s (to paraphrase London critic Matthew Collings; ‘remarkably unpleasant, hateful) talk at the Walker Painter Painter exhibition -ridiculing some painter named ‘WILLIAM” de Kooning……playing a speeded up version of Painters Painting heaping shovelfuls of ‘tortured hipster’ invective, derision upon the artists portrayed…..I mean c’mon -can’t stand the heat, stay outa the kitchen -pun intended…… I dont think he’s off one iota -the work is a snooze. A hackademic exercise in bland ambition. And I am all too familiar with it -as are many others who are completely gratified to see this work get the perfunctory drubbing it so richly deserves.. Good for Ken Johnson -he did a big favor for the Chicago art world -women and men, may the hegemony of Queen Mediocre (-to quote Mat Gleason,) and accompanying cronies, end. Ever wonder how Michelle became curator for that dud of a Whitney Biennial -or failed artist, failed writer, supposed punk rock drummer, ENTRY LEVEL CURATORIAL ASSISTANT Anthony Elms? Just how did that happen? What we are really witnessing here is how local politics don’t travel all that well: Michelle and her crowd have used their positions in educational institutions to run roughshod over the scene in Chicago for several decades -always with thin, academic work, politically positioned via art world politics /institutionalized corruption. Embellished by and best seen, (made for the particular purpose) of being viewed from afar constructs/props such as ‘Suburban’ ‘Poor Farm’ thrown up as window dressing. Here, we are seeing the work shown out of its corrupted ecology -seen thru the fresh/ politically uninfluenced eyes of a critic at the New York Times. What criticism is. Ken Johnson is doing his job.

    1. It’s sad to see a city like Chicago which once produced the Hairy Who get dominated by mediocre academics. Wondering how it happened. Chicago has rigorous and demanding academics through schools such has School of the Art Institute of Chicago and University of Chicago among others a well as Cranbrook (Nick Cave, Alumni) not too far away. The consortium of mediocrity does perhaps account for how this show arrived at a theoretically substantial gallery. Yes I can see how Matthew Collings in threatened by de Kooning, as Mathews painting’s that he does in as part of an artistic teaam with his wife certainly don’t hold up and retaliates by being snide,petty and vituperative. I have aslo read nauseatingly obsequious reviews that he has written,. Such are the hazzads of being one quarter of a painter( re: dou) and half a critic though most people in the U. K know him as a Television Pressenter a la Kenneth Clark with t. v. specials about Turner on the B. B. C

      1. huh? Matthew Collings is not threatened by dK -he was pointing out that Michelle was trashing a painter -who’s name she can’t even get right. Its Willem de Kooning…I think Collings maintains perhaps the most rigorous straight-forward halfway serious blog on visual arts with an emphasis on painting to be found on the internet.

        1. I thought it was dk aka Willem de Kooning who was being trashed by Collings, if not than I stand corrected. Who was the painter who was being trashed ? I’ve read both ” Blimey” (London YBA’s ) and. ” It Hurts ” (New York contemporaries of the YBA’s) Perhaps I went to far but my feelings about Collings can be mixed

  10. The high level professional woman is not a caring mother. She orders takeout rather than cooking. She does not have children that we are aware of and if she does we do not hear her talk about them or give any indication that they ever take priority over her career. She is dedicated to one thing. work. She does not participate in “conventional gender roles”, instead she mirrors the equally false stereotype of her male colleagues.

    I imagine that this pressure is familiar to many (most) women working in any profession. I find it probable that Michele Grabner is also familiar with the pressure to prioritize a professional life to the exclusion of the personal – as if they could be separated.

    So her choice to include a biographical video highlighting these abject activities in her show actually becomes a bold and targeted provocation. She knows that she’s not supposed to project her persona as domestic mother, but then she does it first and last. But it is also not the subject of her work. It is part of who she is and contributes to where her work comes from, but she does not produce work about identity politics. She delivers the information as a matter of fact – she is a mother, a baker, an artist – sometimes in that order, sometimes not. These are not the subjects an artist talks about at dinner parties and gallery openings.

    What ken johnston’s review reveals is how apparantly unaware he is of this prejudice. A prejudice deeply rooted in a sexist culture that dismisses women and their labor. He has proved himself the target of her provocation. He goes on further to reveal his assumption that she just must not know. She should know that such activities reveal her as someone uninteresting.

    So he mansplains it to her – domestic life is boring, active parenting is the distracting privilege of the middle class. He reenforces a pressure to limit the lifestyles a woman can feel comfortable displaying in their careers. To deviate is boring and shows us that you must not know what you’re doing.

    It is irrelevant that she has an epic career clearly based on hard work – in this case her career is largely supported through institutions. A fact that for him does not prove her dedication and expertise, but rather allows him to further dismiss her character as blindly indulging the privileged lifestyle of a college professor.

    It is true that she is privileged – Though she’s probably worked much harder than any man to earn that same level of power. Far too few women artists are in a position as privileged as her. Privileged enough to put her real biography out there and still hope to have a career.

    Johnston has put an institutional voice to a pressure that overwhelmingly affects women. He writes about her as if she didn’t have a prolific 20 year career behind her. At best we can hope that he is naively regurgitating ideas he has not yet bothered to fully contemplate. At worst, he willingly champions such misogyny. I wonder if he has ever experienced the pressure to hide an unaccepted lifestyle just to get published. Regardless, we should be commending Michele for opening a little more space for the 25 year old artist mother to talk about her work AND her children without fear of losing career opportunities. And we should continue to publicly shame Johnston and anyone else for trying to close that very same space.

    1. Johnson, and others, found the show boring. Not “because” of its domestic storyline, but because it didn’t deliver anything visually engaging, or freshly thought provoking. The arguing for women’s rights to deal with their lives as subject matter is not really the point…of course they can….the personal is political…we all know that by now. Sophie Calle does it magnificently. Cindy Sherman too. Grabner, not so much.

  11. Michelle Grabner is enjoying her cake and eating it too…as this criticism smells like refried beans in the viral scope of things that have already played out.

  12. If the video truly does effect a ‘parodic’ tone with regards to the artist’s personal life in relation to their art, and as it is clearly to be taken as inseparable from the art by its inclusion in the exhibition and one is not just to consider the art alone, one has to seriously question the depth or vitality of the work (not to mention her commitment to those involved in her life!). I would conjecture that a parodic tone is detrimental to the work as it simply elucidates something crass along the lines of, “Well, my life is pretty banal, repetitive, and boring with some very minuscule flash and, hence, so is my art.” In this manner, its a very short road, if not a cul de sac for consideration. Math and science interest is ultimately minor in the work as I think is clearly obvious in the examples. Its mentioning seems like a thin attempt at bolstering the flippant or lackluster tone of the opening and closing of the video. I won’t go into the repugnant quality of a clearly privileged person parodying their life, if that was indeed the intention. There are many, many that should be so lucky in life. In short, although Ken Johnson may have signaled sexist tones in his review, I believe he called it like it is. A rather uninteresting, trite show masquerading as something else. This something else seemed to be some sort of attempt at critique or social commentary that fell horribly flat. Literally so with that arrangement on the floor.

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