Editor’s Note: This letter to the editor was received this week to response to a review published on Sunday, June 5, 2016, and it is presented here (without editing). It is followed by a response by the author, John Yau.
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16 June 2016
To the Editors of Hyperallergic,
I am writing with regard to “A Truly Great Artist,” John Yau’s June 5 review of Nicole Eisenman’s exhibitions at Anton Kern and the New Museum. I have had the honor of writing in these pages myself, so I hope that this letter is understood as a respectful intervention. Hyperallergic remains one of very few publications that actively and unabashedly contends with identity politics in an allegedly “post-identity” climate.
It is for this reason that Mr. Yau’s review is disturbing, since it is something that I would expect to find in a more normative context. Yau suggests that Eisenman’s shift toward more recognizably “art historical” imagery was a positive step for her, “In making these changes, Eisenman moved away from an ‘us – them’ world-view, which was true of much of her work in the nineties, to one that is infinitely more personal and nuanced.” Why have we forgotten about Eisenman’s earlier work? Or are we repressing it because it’s too discernably lesbian? Do ink drawings of girl bars not appeal to us, as paintings that “look like” Impressionist urban scenes might?
Yau goes on, “She is as deeply attuned to the epochal change of our times – from radical individualism, alternative communities, the growing imbalance of power and money, extremist views, and queer politics to the rise of the Internet and social media – as Édouard Manet was to his.” Manet was not an ostracized queer. Individualism is not radical or new, and neither are the communities to which Eisenman points. Individualism is a human right and queerness is not the latest fashion birthed by postmodernity.
Finally, Yau suggests in his analysis of Weeks on the Train, “The figure’s gender is not immediately apparent, another indication of Eisenman’s eye for the choices that people are making today.” Firstly, gender indeterminacy is not a choice. Now, I know that if my parents were to read this, they would say, “John seems like a nice guy! Don’t be a fascist about his word choice!” In one sense, that is true, and I expect that Mr. Yau meant no harm. The fact remains, however, that this is a fundamental misunderstanding of gender and sexuality, as well as Eisenman’s practice. If one wants to get really historical about it, one can turn to Michel Foucault’s History of Sexuality to see that queerness is not a phenomenon of the times. One way in which the oppressor limits the oppressed is by positioning the latter’s achievements as an effect of postmodernity, or a logical societal “progression.” That way, the oppressor feels like he can keep up with the oppressed. Eisenman’s work is not a fad, and it needs to be understood as a means to completely reassemble art history after a revolutionary dissolution, not a rubric by which we can check off identities and dead, straight, white, male painters.
William J. Simmons
Adjunct Lecturer in Art History, City University of New York
Ph.D. Program in Art History and Women’s Studies, The Graduate Center, CUNY
Editor’s note: The author asked that the word “not” be included in this sentence and its omission was an oversight, “If one wants to get really historical about it, one can turn to Michel Foucault’s History of Sexuality to see that queerness is not a phenomenon of the times.”
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Dear William J. Simmons:
Thank you for your letter. I believe you raise some interesting points worth addressing in another review. However, you also make a number of points that I respectfully disagree with. I am not asking you or anyone else to agree with my point of view, but I think you should have at least tried to understand it.
In your letter, you state: “Manet was not an ostracized queer.” This observation suggests that you are framing your criticisms in those terms. As the descendent of a then-illegal interracial marriage, I framed my review differently.
While I was writing the review that you find “disturbing,” one thing that Eisenman said was very much on my mind. This is what she said to David Humphrey in a BOMB interview (Summer 2015):
Painting needs to be seen in real life. I’m never happy with how it photographs because the struggle, the touch of the artist, goes missing. It’s amazing when you go to the Metropolitan Museum and you look at something like Van Gogh’s sunflowers. Isn’t it astonishing, that painting? This is such an obvious, dopey thing to say. But you can look at Van Gogh’s paint marks and almost shake his hand. As a painter, you have this mirror neuron thing that starts ricocheting around; you become Van Gogh standing in front of his painting.
So while you are correct in saying that “Manet was not an ostracized queer,” do you also mean that someone who is queer and/or yellow cannot “have this mirror neuron thing” and become Manet while standing in front of one his paintings? Eisenman posits otherwise. I happen to agree with her and not you.
When I write about Eisenman in relation to Manet, I am asserting that she has done something as powerful and important as he did, hence the title of my review: “A Truly Great Artist.”
In your letter, you conveniently neglect to mention that in my review I also cite John Ashbery, a gay, white male poet, and a term he coined, the “other tradition.” I name six women artists who are hardly household names as figures that may have inspired Eisenman. Ashbery’s term and my citing of these women artists should have further clarified to you that I don’t subscribe to a view of art history that privileges white male artists.
Towards the end of your letter you write:
Yau suggests in his analysis of Weeks on the Train, “The figure’s gender is not immediately apparent, another indication of Eisenman’s eye for the choices that people are making today.” Firstly, gender indeterminacy is not a choice.”
I was writing about the clothes the figure on the train has chosen to wear, or, to put it another way, the garments that Eisenman has depicted. If I should have the chance to reprint this review, I will make it clear to those readers, like yourself, who missed the point that I was making, by adding the word “sartorial,” as in “another indication of Eisenman’s eye for the sartorial choices that people are making today.” I am happy to make this addition in the online edition.
At the same time, I am — to use your word — ‘disturbed” that you think that I believe “gender indeterminancy” is a choice, particularly in light of the condescending tone running throughout your letter:
Now, I know that if my parents were to read this, they would say, “John seems like a nice guy! Don’t be a fascist about his word choice!” In one sense, that is true, and I expect that Mr. Yau meant no harm.
I want to call attention to your use of the word “fascist” and how I read it in light of a statement you make a few sentences later:
One way in which the oppressor limits the oppressed is by positioning the latter’s achievements as an effect of postmodernity, or a logical societal “progression.” That way, the oppressor feels like he can keep up with the oppressed.
By placing me in the category of “oppressor,” you have labeled me as a white male who wants to “keep up with the oppressed,” overlooking a major point in my review:
By painting each individual in a different style and color, Eisenman underscores her belief that we are more different than alike, and that terms such as male and female, straight and gay, don’t reveal much about the individual to whom they are applied.
Did you ever stop and think about what it might be like for an Asian American to see a person who is painted yellow in a painting? Did you ever consider why color separated from racial identity in a painting might be interesting to a non-white person? By dropping me into the category of “oppressor,” as you clearly do, I hope for your parents’ sake that you are not claiming that I am a Twinkie (yellow on the outside and white on the inside). Or am I being too “fascist” in my “word choice” and fail to recognize that you really are “a nice guy” and “meant no harm?” Which I am sure you didn’t.