BENTONVILLE, Arkansas – A few weeks ago, while I was in the city of Bentonville in the red state of Arkansas, walking through the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, I turned the corner in what I later learned was Gallery 6 and saw five works – four paintings on adjacent walls and a freestanding sculpture – all of which surprised, delighted, and thrilled me.
Before I write about “what” I saw, I want to explain the “why,” having already stated exactly “where” this revelatory experience happened.
The five works were not part of a group show. They were in close proximity but not isolated from the other works. Rather, my reaction sprung from turning the corner and catching sight of these works simultaneously.
It was an encounter that led me to think once again about the meaning of “diversity,” and how the principle has been framed.
What gets included when the word pertains to works in a museum? Also, what gets left out, overlooked, dissipated, distorted, misapplied, or twisted?
I thought of what Rujeko Hockley, co-curator of the 2019 Whitney Biennial, said about an artist she gave a solo show to in the museum, Toyin Ojih Odutola, an artist who was born in Nigeria and emigrated to America when she was five:
She encapsulates all of these categories: immigrant, citizen, native-born, foreign-born, native speaker, ESL learner, African-American, but not African-American in the way that we generally mean it here […]. Her work really pushes us to think about what we mean when we say American, and what we mean when we say American art.
Without spelling it out, Rujeko raises the issue of diversity almost as a synonym for “American.” In my review of the Biennial, I brought up Rujeko’s description of Odutola, responding, “What we mean when we say ‘American’ is a question I have long felt was central to my life.”
As I pointed out in that review, there were 68 artists or collectives in the Biennial who were largely living and working on either the East Coast or West Coast:
I think it is fair to say that there are no artists in the 2019 Whitney Biennial who live and work in Middle America or what some call the flyover states.
I also pointed out that a large proportion of the artists in the Biennial went to graduate school on the East or West Coast: Yale, Columbia, Bard, UCLA, Hunter, San Francisco Art Institute, and the Rhode Island School of Design. This was not, therefore, a geographically or educationally diverse Biennial. An air of snobbism and insider privilege prevailed — the same sin that museums were accused of when they showed (and still show) exhibitions including a disproportionately large percentage of white males.
The Whitney curators’ choices send a dispiriting message to a grad student attending Kansas City Art Institute, to pick just one art school in a flyover state. And to push the point further, I wonder how many of artists in the Biennial went to a tuition-free school?
This implies that if you don’t go to a tuition-based East Coast college, presumably one with a “reputation,” you have diminished your chances at making it in the art world. What would Felicity Huffman have done if her daughter wanted to go to art school?
When it comes to the word “diversity,” what are we really referring to? Is it the individual’s sexual orientation, race, ability, age, financial resources, geographic location, or some combination?
Thinking about the use of the word “diversity” in the art world, I dug a little deeper and came across something that Jillian Steinhauer wrote in Hyperallergic (November 15, 2013), a little more than five years ago. Okay, I admit that I did not look very far, but maybe I didn’t have to, since the issue has been staring us in the face for years, even if it has hardly been spoken about until the last decade.
Steinhauer was responding to the Whitney Museum of American Art’s press release about the 2014 Biennial, curated by Stuart Comer, Anthony Elms, and Michelle Grabner:
Together, the 103 participants offer one of the broadest and most diverse takes on art in the United States that the Whitney has offered in many years.”
After pointing out that there were 38 women and 9 black artists out of the 103 artists, collectives, and conglomerations selected for the Biennial, Steinhauer concluded:
[…] let me reiterate here: the goal is not tokenism or quotas. It is inclusion, imagination, creativity, and some legwork.
When it comes to imaginative exhibitions, installations, and inclusions, I think the Whitney Museum of American Art has a pretty dismal track record.
This is what I saw at the Crystal Bridges Museum on two adjacent walls and in the space in front of them: one painting each by Kerry James Marshall, Firelei Báez, Roger Shimomura, and Jordan Casteel, and a sculpture by Do Ho Suh.
Let’s break down these artists into categories. In terms of gender, three identify as men (Marshall, Shimomura, and Suh) and two as women (Báez and Casteel). Age-wise, they were born between 1939 and 1989, a 50-year spread. The oldest artist is Shimomura. All of the artists, except for Shimomura, show regularly at a name gallery in New York.
Shimomura was born in Seattle, Washington. He spent two years of his childhood in an internment camp in Hunt, Idaho. After serving in the army in Korean War and reaching the rank of captain, he left the military in 1967 and got his MFA from Syracuse University that same year.
His master’s thesis was titled “The Pop Culture and Andy Warhol,” which was part lecture and part performance. From 1969 until he retired in 2004, he taught at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. He has not lived on the East or West Coast, or in Chicago, for his entire painting career. In the book, Masking Identity: The Performance at of Roger Shimomura (2019), the author Krystal Reiko Hauseur states:
His art, in essence, holds up a mirror and returns the Gaze back upon the regime of representation that attempts to define him as exotic, fetishized, yellow peril, rat bastard, perpetual foreigner, emasculated Asian male, model minority, less than human, Other.
I am trying to remember the last time I walked into a New York museum where a display of its permanent collection would feature works by an Asian artist and an Asian-American artist in close proximity, Danh Vo’s presentation of 4,000 objects from Martin Wong’s collection not withstanding. And while the African American painter Ed Clark, whose work I have written about a number of times, is now acknowledged by museums to be part of the Abstract Expressionist movement. Matsumi (“Mike”) Kanemitsu, who lived and worked In New York, has not.
The four paintings and one sculpture I encountered at Crystal Bridges are figurative. They share a preoccupation with the relationship of race, ethnicity, society, and history.
This is from the museum label describing Marshall’s painting, “Our Town” (1995):
Our Town is part of his Garden Project series, in which low-income housing projects are ironically rendered as idyllic places.
This is from the museum label’s description of Baéz’s “Pendant (de Benin Granda y el Cibao)” (2016):
[…] Báez outlines her lineage to three distinct coastal regions, delicately mapping them onto the body of the figure in this drawing.
This is the label describing Shimomura’s painting, “Block Dance Break # 1” (1981):
Only three years old when his family entered Minidoka Relocation Center in Hunt, Idaho, Shimomura used his own memory, public archives, and his grandmother’s diaries to revisit the family’s experience years later in his Minidoka on My Mind series. This portrait recalls one of Shimomura’s brighter memories when each section, or block, would host their own independent social events, including Shimomura’s favorite, the Block Dance.
This is the museum label for Casteel’s painting, “Ourlando” (2018):
The subject […] is a suit shop owner on 125th St. in Harlem. Often depicting Black men, Casteel, strives to humanize her models. The resulting images are not a fabricated story about Black men in this country, but stem from real-life encounters.
Finally, this is the museum label for Suh’s sculpture, “Some/One” (2004):
Appearing as a cross between a robe and body armor, this looming sculpture is composed of thousands of military dog tags. Inspired in part by his two-year service in the South Korean military, Do Ho Suh thought a lot about his individual identity within the masses during his time as a soldier.
Through their chosen medium, these artists explore different ways identity is constructed. All of them agree that identity is never built in a vacuum, and one of the forces is one’s local culture – the South Korean army for Suh and an internment camp for Shimomura.
And yet, what struck me when I turned the corner and saw the works displayed together was this: There were no signs or texts declaring that this selection was focused on identity. Instead, the relationship between them was that they were figurative paintings depicting single individuals or groups of people. It was apparent that the selection favors neither the fictional nor the observed. In other words, the grouping was not didactic.
The other thing that struck me, and really this is what inspired me to write this essay, was the sight of Shimomura’s painting alongside works by Marshall, Baéz, and Casteel and the sculpture by Suh. It is obvious that Shimomura, who is now 80, has been sorely overlooked by New York museums.
Marshall has talked about never having seen paintings of Black people in museums when he was growing up. Need I point out that this is true for many people of other ethnicities? I am not claiming that the grouping I saw at Crystal Bridges is perfect. It is just the kind of gathering of differences that I don’t ever remember seeing in a museum in New York.