In the fall of 2018, I was invited to be an artist-in-residence at the Jacob Lawrence Gallery at the University of Washington in Seattle. I was excited to revisit the work of the radical formalist and visionary painter, and when I received the invitation to travel to Seattle for a residency that would coincide with Black History Month, I considered the long shadow cast by Lawrence’s work and influence as a teacher. Lawrence, whose paintings are central to the American story of art, still looms in Seattle, where he taught and mentored students at the University of Washington from 1970 to 1985. Lawrence’s work rendered the triumphs and banalities of black being, straddling abstraction and representation to explore the tension between life and the painted image. Despite the many barriers to entry for black artists in his time, Lawrence’s work left its mark on the canon of American art history and the lives of many aspiring artists. Considering the life and work of Jacob Lawrence gave me a context to think through my arrival in a place I knew little about and prompted me to consider how my own practice as an artist and educator and my experiences as a black American might strike up a trans-historical conversation with Lawrence and provide fodder for what I would do. He would be my unofficial ghost advisor.
By the time I arrived in Seattle in the winter of 2019, I was also thinking a lot about whiteness. Over the past few years, I have noticed a shift in how students are engaging (or not) with identity. Particularly since the election of Donald Trump, and as white supremacy and neo-fascism creep back into public awareness, many white-identifying artists feel the imperative to engage with their racial identities. As has been the case since before the term “identity politics”1 was coined, people of color continue to carry the burden to critique systemic oppression through the retelling of our traumas as our primary recourse to violence and exclusion. However, I have recently been present in several conversations with young artists when whiteness has been called into question. Often when some permutation of the question, “how should white artists account for, critique, or disrupt whiteness in their work?” was posed, a kind of thick mental and emotional fog would set in. The eyes of some students would glaze over (perhaps with tears of guilt, regret, or just numbing disinterest and intellectual disorientation). There might be heated exchanges or long silences; a student of color would step in to fill the space, sharing their experiences or a book suggestion. And yet the question would still remain.
Notable recent attempts by white artists to address race in their work are now cautionary tales to young white artists. The 2014 and 2017 Whitney Biennials both featured controversies in which white artists were accused of appropriating blackness or reanimating old racist tropes. Dana Schutz’s Open Casket (2016), in which she re-imagined the death portrait of Emmett Till through her trademark gestural painting style, and Joe Scanlan’s black alter-ego, Donelle Woolford, each drew massive criticism for appropriating black pain for professional gain. The 2014 Biennial also saw the YAMS collective withdraw their participation in protest of Scanlan’s inclusion and the institutional racism and curatorial neglect they experienced.2 These controversies played out amidst growing activism and public pressure on institutions like the Whitney Museum and others to diversify and decolonize their practices. Students have noted these ill-fated projects and, repelled by any possible mention of cultural appropriation or unconscious racism that could be provoked by acknowledging race, in large part do not tend to address racial identity in their work. This is not an unreasonable response, and more white artists would probably do well to internalize these historical lessons.
This is not to say that there have not been noble attempts on the part of contemporary white artists to address their own whiteness. Artist Mores McWreath has produced a large body of short video “spots” in which he takes his whiteness to task to comical and bizarre effect, playing with the affect and signifiers of whiteness, maleness, and Americanness through performative actions and quirky editing tricks. But it is telling that some of the most rigorous work addressing whiteness has been made by black artists of the past several decades. This list includes Arthur Jafa’s The White Album (2019), Howardeena Pindell’s Free White and 21 (1980), and Adrian Piper’s Cornered (1988), as well as some of her other many meditations on being and subjectivity.
But what is really in it for white artists to contend with whiteness? Where historically people of color have responded to a much more obvious need to make explicit the pain, oppression, and exclusion they experience, white people have historically always had it in their self-interest to move toward whiteness as the primary vehicle of social passage, power, and privilege. Whiteness is a silent pact of complicity and a central structuring event of society. It is the background for dark subjects to appear as other. It is rare to find a white person who is willing to critique the very system that empowers them (or even to acknowledge it in the first place), let alone one able or willing to convey critique through art successfully. To do so might entail risks of professional failure, social alienation and perhaps even identity crisis.
I am willing to admit that this entire line of questioning may be irrelevant. Who should say what anyone should make art about or in response to? Of course, all artists should be able to make their work free from racial and historical imperatives, and a sudden rise of racially-conscious “white art” makes me queasy if I think about it for too long. We should also be deeply suspicious of approaching identity as something one’s work is “about,” a way of constructing language around artists of difference that can make “art about identity” a trapdoor of essentialization and a valuable asset to museums and collectors. The idea that white artists would suddenly begin to profit from the thematization of their whiteness is a scary thought. However, the growing awareness of Whiteness Studies3 in academia does present especially compelling implications for the fields of art and visual studies which a growing cadre of artists and academics are beginning to consider. There is no simple answer for the earnest white art student as to how they should proceed, but we can all look around ourselves and actively notice the doing of race in readings of art and visual culture. I arrived to Seattle in early 2019 with these conversations in my head after a semester of teaching in Chicago. I wondered what kinds of conversations Jacob Lawrence would have had with his students at UW in the 70s when the school was even more overwhelmingly white.
All this thinking about whiteness is of course happening in the context of the Trump presidency and a global resurgence in identitarian rhetoric amongst a growing number of nationalist and neo-fascist movements across Europe. In 2018, the white identity extremist group Identity Evropa made an appearance in Seattle4, wheat-pasting posters featuring slogans like “YOU WILL NOT REPLACE US,” “SERVE YOUR PEOPLE,” and “OUR FUTURE BELONGS TO US” juxtaposed with images from Greco-Roman art.5
It is interesting to note this deployment of ethno-nationalist signifiers as well as a rise in awareness of whiteness within white circles as artists of color are practicing modes of aesthetic resistance that push against language and image as over-determining paradigms of identity. For non-white artists, representation can be a perilous terrain, and while important struggles continue for more inclusion, and better understanding and care for “diverse” populations in museums in cultural institutions, a growing number of artists are engaging indeterminacy, abstraction, and refusal to redefine the politics and poetics of representation. This tendency toward refusal decenters visual linguistic systems and repositions identity in (and outside of) the visual field. Invisibility, fugitivity, and abstraction are hallmarks of black radical aesthetics that have served artists in approaching issues of meaning and identity in the wake of identity politics.
As David Joselit writes in his 2015 essay “Material Witness” on the case of Eric Garner who was killed by police for supposedly selling loose cigarettes, visual representation continually fails black and brown subjects, as evidence of assault by police or vigilantes again and again is unable to convince juries and the public to recognize the realities of white violence.6 The brutality visited upon black people’s bodies is routinely and widely broadcast, published, and shared and is by now an omnipresent genre of our media field. Yet these depictions of anti-black violence seem to do little to stem the normalizing tide of black pain or provoke any sustained mass effort to change how our society values black life. Joselit argues that this failure of visual evidence to compel a jury to indict the officer responsible for Garner’s death is indicative of the limits of forensis, and the representational tools also leveraged by post-Conceptual artists who attempt to address social injustices in their work. If a piece of evidence so clear as a video of police choking Eric Garner to death on that Staten Island sidewalk can fail to serve as enough proof of murder, then we must question our reliance upon representations to deliver effective critique.
Invoking the practice of Pope L. and his work Eating the Wall Street Journal, Joselit suggests that a more productive stance might be to occupy the position of the “hole,” or what Fred Moten and Stefano Harney describe as “the undercommons,”7 a place at the threshold of liberal democratic sociality and beneath the groundings of language and the image from which we might consume information rather than be consumed by it.
In his slyly poetic work Concerto in Black and Blue (2002), David Hammons presented an empty and pitch-black gallery space filled only with the bodies of visitors and the blue lights emanating from small flashlights provided to navigate the space. Evoking simultaneously police lights and the many poetic registers of the color blue, this work presented a physical void full of affective potential. An earlier piece, In the Hood (1993), an empty hood removed from its body and pinned to the wall, would later serve as a prophetic icon for the Black Lives Matter Movement in the wake of Trayvon Martin’s murder.
In another gesture of erasure, Ken Gonzales-Day’s Erased Lynching series intervenes within postcards that depict lynchings in the American South and West, absenting the black, latino and indigenous victims of white mob violence from the scenes of their own deaths and drawing our gaze to the lynch mobs themselves as prime subjects of the image. Anna Martine Whitehead created a kind of updated version of Gonzales-Day’s attempt to remove the black body under attack in her untitled work, pulling Eric Garner from the still frame of the video-recording of his murder at the hands of police in 2014. Whitehead, one of the younger generation of artists concerned with the effects of re-picturing traumatic scenes of black pain, spirits away Garner’s body, leaving a ghostly digital trace.
These works, in their own ways, affirm life in the absence of a body. For Hammons, Gonzales-Day, and Whitehead, the removal of the figure is a tactic of historical redress to the ongoing legacies of white supremacist violence. By redacting the object of white violence, these works redirect our attention to the cultural and social systems that police the boundaries of race and class.
The contributors to this volume of MONDAY were asked to produce texts that responded to the intentionally messy thematic of “white pictures,” a term I fashioned through my own research and studio practice to work through these questions of visibility and representation. The term works to mark whiteness as an epistemological field within Western aesthetics and opens a space to consider how racial identities are constructed through modes of representation and abstraction. The term is messy because it accounts for two distinct yet interrelated conceptual trends sketched out above. The first is the questioning of whiteness as a historical phenomenon that is at least partially defined in visuality and in need of aesthetic analysis, putting images to use in the service of deconstructing whiteness as a dominant yet often unarticulated subjectivity. The second definition of a white picture is an image that centers absence and opacity or otherwise engages in acts of refusal, pushing back against the over-determining force of representation and seeking self-determination through the inscrutable.
These writers and artists look to historical narratives, critical discourses on identity, and contemporary artistic practice to challenge our thinking and inspire action. This journal brings together the voices of artists, curators, and scholars whose articulations on art and language challenge how we see ourselves and others.
Exploring how race and gender condition desire and subjecthood, Angeline Morrison offers an analysis of whiteness in the nineteenth century through Whistler’s painting Symphony in White No. 1: The White Girl. Christine Goding unpacks the “doing” of race and the affective dimensions of whiteness through relations between human and non-human bodies. Questioning the very language we use to discuss “the body” in art discourse, Gordon Hall examines the implications of the phrase and thinks through the ethical ramifications of bodily terminology. Latham Zearfoss and Ruby T highlight the role artists can play in deconstructing whiteness through an open survey inviting white artists to exchange reflections on whiteness in their work and personal lives. Risa Puleo and Tomashi Jackson discuss the relationship between Josef Albers’ color theory and racial theories of the twentieth century, troubling concepts of purity and abstraction in the era of segregation and civil rights. Sharmyn Cruz Rivera thinks through relations within the Caribbean and offers reflections on resistance, opacity, and fugitivity in the archipelago and beyond. Nana Adusei-Poku and Sampada Aranke both center the practices of artists including Sadie Barnette, David Hammons, and Glenn Ligon and key thinkers in critical discourse who occupy the edges of visibility. These texts offer us a chance to see familiar things anew and give us language to articulate the pressing conditions of being in and out of identity today.
I want to thank everyone who has contributed to this publication. The writers: Gordon Hall, Angeline Morrison, Nana Adusei-Poku, Sampada Aranke, Christine Goding, Sharmyn Cruz Rivera, Risa Puleo, Tomashi Jackson, Latham Zearfoss, and Ruby T for bringing fresh visions and comradery to the realization of this project; Emily Zimmerman for her inspiring leadership of the Jacob Lawrence Gallery and MONDAY and for leading us all through image rights and line edits; Julia Powers for backing us all up; Willy Smart and Mairead Case for their editing assistance; Kemi Adeyemi and The Black Embodiments Studio who further contextualize and enliven the Jacob Lawrence Legacy Residency; Carole and Evan Fuller for welcoming me to Seattle and supporting the residency; and the faculty and staff of the School of Art + Art History + Design at the University of Washington and the hard working student workers at the Jacob Lawrence Gallery. Thank you all for your dedication and fellowship.
- Barbara Smith and the Combahee River Collective are widely credited with coining the term “identity politics.” See the “Combahee River Collective Statement”: http://circuitous.org/scraps/combahee.html.
- Christa Bell, Sienna Shields, and Andre Springer, “The Yams, on the Whitney and White Supremacy,” interview by Ben Davis, artnet News, May 30, 2014, https://news.artnet.com/exhibitions/the-yams-on-the-whitney-and-white-supremacy-30364.
- Whiteness Studies emerged as a field of study in the ‘80s and ‘90s from the foundations of critical race theory with academics like Noel Ignatiev, Albert Murray, and Shelley Fisher Fishkin, analysing the historical formations of white racial identity and how whiteness is enacted socially and culturally. An oft-cited critique of Whiteness Studies is that it potentially risks re-centering whiteness while trying to critique it. While this may be true in some cases, Whiteness Studies has initiated much-needed conversations around race and authorship, particularly in aesthetic discourse. Toni Morrison did this work for literature in Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (New York: Vintage Books, 1993) and Richard Dyer for visual culture and film in White: Essays on Race and Culture, (New York: Routledge, 2017).
- The following year, Identity Evropa marched in the “Unite the Right” rally in the streets of Charlottesville, VA where Heather Heyer was killed by a white supremacist who drove his car into a group of peaceful protesters. There are too many other similar hate crimes and mass shootings to name here, but it is important to see this attack in a timeline that includes the shooting of parishioners at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in 2015, the Pulse Nightclub attack in 2016, and the Christchurch mosque attack in 2019.
- Greek statuary, ur-signifier of white European civilization, was in fact originally painted in bright, poly-chromatic hues. Greco-Roman sculpture became synonymous with whiteness through the work of Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717-1768), who established the study of ancient art and whose primary points of reference were white marble copies of Greek originals. Winckelmann saw the white male figure as aesthetically supreme and established the dominance of white-male beauty standards in Western art that persist to this day. Winckelmann’s visual hierarchy was clearly influenced by his Western European origins and gay male aesthetic, and his false account of Greek sculpture as pure white continues to serve as the foundation for current tastes and attitudes concerning art from antiquity. For an in-depth look at the origins of the white aesthetic in Western art see Nell Irvin Painter, The History of White People (New York: W.W. Norton Company, 2010).
- David Joselit, “Material Witness: Visual Evidence and the Case of Eric Garner,” Artforum, February, 2015.
- Fred Moten and Stefano Harney, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study (New York: Minor Compositions, 2013).