On Ken Johnson and the Question of Sexism

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