Sandro Botticelli’s “Christ as Man of Sorrows with a Halo of Angels” (c. 1500) portrays the Christian figure of Jesus as a light haired man that resembles Renaissance Italians more than anyone hailing from the Roman province of Palestine. While Christian groups around the world have adapted the image of Jesus Christ to reflect local physionomies, this image of a very European looking figure has continues to propagate an image of Jesus as “white.” Is it a mistake? Most definitely, as all evidence points to a figure that was darker haired and darker skinned than the figure illustrated in the paintings of the European Old Masters. (image via Nec Spe, Nec Metu).

My biggest regret is that I tried a little too hard to fit in when I first began writing art reviews for Art in America in 1977, as if I could actually pass as a member of the “model minority.” If I had had the right gyroscope and had known when I should have acted cool and well bred instead of sullen, I might have had a smoother time. Was it because I knew deep down that if I had acted like a polite — or inscrutable — Asian, I would never have been able to pull it off? Why did I keep trying?

Should I have yelled when people mistook me for David Diao, who once told me that the art world wasn’t ready for two Asians?  I later realized he was only half-joking.

After I started writing reviews for Art in America, it became obvious that I would only be assigned exhibitions that none of the other critics wanted to review.  That might have made sense in the beginning, but not after five years, which is why I left and started writing for Arts and later Artforum.

And yet this first taste of editorial rejection convinced me to continue my habit of  frequenting galleries such as Allan Frumkin, Robert Elkon, Cordier & Ekstrom, Robert Schoelkopf, A. M. Sachs, and others whose names I have forgotten, all of which were far from Soho, where it was all happening.

Even after recognizing the context of these professional constraints, however, I still did — or, more precisely, didn’t do — things that I regret. In the mid-1980s, after I first found out about the paintings of Matsumi “Mike” Kanemitsu, an under-known “Second Generation” Abstract Expressionist, why didn’t I take the time to go to the Donnell Library and dig deeper into his work, as I had for so many neglected white artists? After my pitch to write about Susan Rothenberg was rejected, why didn’t I instead investigate the beguiling painter Miyoko Ito, who at the time showed mostly in Chicago, and try to put her work in front of a broader public?

A few years after I left Art in America, I wrote about Wifredo Lam for Arts and Hiroshi Sugimoto for Artforum. By this time, nearly a decade had passed since I first started writing art criticism. In the face of resistance, why didn’t I take an alternative path right from the beginning? Why did it take me so long to embrace my otherness and realize that fitting in had always been a fool’s errand?

John Yau

John Yau has published books of poetry, fiction, and criticism. His latest poetry publications include a book of poems, Further Adventures in Monochrome (Copper Canyon Press, 2012), and the chapbook,...

3 replies on “Being a Critic on the Outside Isn’t Actually a Bad Place to Be”

  1. I think you’re being hard on yourself, in order to get published in 1977 you did have to try to fit in . Art in America is dead and no one foresaw the instrument of it’s destruction the internet. A number of changes have occurred since then, the boom and bust of the 80’s the death of many in the art world from AIDS, the rise of the internet ect. The role of the critic has also radically changed from gatekeeper to observer. Perhaps now the art world is ready for you now in a way that it wasn’t in the past. I think one thing that you are doing and perhaps one of the most important things a critic can do is to make us aware of art that we never have heard of before , l didn’t even know about Miyoko Ito until reading this article now.

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