Last week, New York dealer Amy Greenspon of Greenspon gallery cancelled an exhibition that was to include work by Boyd Rice after allegations surfaced on the artist-resource listserv Invisible Dole that Rice is a neo-Nazi. (Rice denied the claims.) The cancellation of the show—a two-person exhibition also featuring Darja Bajagić—has left a group of New York–based artists and dealers split on whether the show should have been shut down and how the gallery could have dealt with the criticism. At the center of the often-heated debate is a complicated question that various segments of culture are confronting: How should potentially problematic artists and their work be presented and discussed?
“It was a very difficult decision to cancel the show,” Greenspon wrote to ARTnews in an email this weekend. “The aftermath of the show’s announcement—as well as of the cancellation—has been more volatile than I would ever have anticipated. I believe that the conversations and debates that are beginning to form around this are important. Perhaps one positive thing to come out of this is the opening up of discussions about very serious issues.”
Many of those criticizing the planned show cited a 1989 photoshoot that appeared in the teen periodical Sassy Magazine in which Boyd—a musician as well as an artist—appears to be holding a switchblade with Bob Heick, the leader of the white supremacist group American Front. In addition, they pointed to an interview from the mid-’80s between Rice and Tom Metzger, another white supremacist, on public-access television. Others pointed to the misogyny of lyrics in such songs as “Let’s Hear It for Violence Against Women,” which was performed by Jim Goad and featured on a Rice album, and which begins with the line “Women are only good for fucking and beating.” (In at least one interview, Rice has said he is a misogynist.)
However, the works that were to have gone on view at Greenspon include none of the provocations of Rice’s music and interviews—they are black-and-white abstract paintings that resemble crushed fabric. Similar paintings had previously been on view in New York in 2007, when Rice had a solo show at Mitchell Algus Gallery. (The same gallery later included Rice’s work in the 2016 group show “Zombie Formalism.”) In an interview this past weekend, Mitchell Algus, the gallery’s owner and an artist himself, said that Rice’s paintings have no political content except in their use of black, which has commonly been used as an anti-establishment gesture in the punk scene. That similar works by Rice would feature in the Greenspon show was not clear to outside observers, as the gallery’s announcement featured just a single caption-free image of what appeared to be a purple screen dirtied with dust.
Algus said that he called Greenspon, who was previously his business partner, and spoke with her about cancelling the show. “I said, ‘Just cancel it and get things out in the open. It’s not what people are making it out to be,’ ” Algus recalled. He added that, in the 11 years since Rice’s show at his gallery, discourse has shifted. Whereas Rice’s persona and lyrics may have once been viewed as a countercultural shock to the system, Algus said, they now come off as racist, misogynistic, and anti-Semitic in what Algus described as a “hyper-political troll-world.” “In this current political social climate, [Rice] has become a pariah,” the dealer said. “Things have changed.”
The controversy began after a member of the listserv Invisible Dole forwarded the Greenspon announcement to the group last Monday with the subject line “WARNING: neo-nazi showing in nyc.” Members of Invisible Dole, which was started by Josh Kline and Anicka Yi, told me that the listserv is not a political forum, and that the conversation surrounding the Greenspon show was unusual. Typically, the listserv is a network for artists to discuss housing, the fabrication of works, and other related issues. But the initial email set off a charged conversation in which members of the group began to debate the planned exhibition. Soon, the discussion went beyond just the exhibition when some members scrutinized the social media presence of Bajagić, the other artist in the show with Rice, and scoured the accounts she follows and pictures she had posted for signs of any Nazi affiliations on her part.
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THE SHOW YOU WILL NEVER SEE… me and artist Darja Bajagic. Before it was taken down this is what it looked like. Sorry to disappoint but it might look far less controversial than one might expect. We’re posed in front of one of my black and white paintings, six feet tall and 18 feet long. I started doing these at age 17 or 18, and I still love them. Not terribly incendiary just FABULOUS
Bajagić’s work has made use of Nazi-related imagery including swastikas in the past, and sometimes combines those symbols with images of women that the artist has sourced from the internet. The artist said her work for the Greenspon show focused on the use of fascist symbols by far-right groups but also more mainstream corporations, such as the fashion brand Versace, in a consideration of “the banality of evil.”
Last week, Bajagić obtained screenshots of emails from Invisible Dole—including messages from artists such as Kline, Tauba Auerbach, Ajay Kurian, and Jory Rabinovitz—and posted them to her Instagram account. The messages ranged from straightforward comments and questions to more pointed interrogations of Bajagić’s work and its relation to Rice.
In an email this weekend, Bajagić accused the listserv’s members of “Gestapo-style tactics” to shut down the show. “They should be ashamed. They need be held accountable for policing, controlling, and baselessly silencing their ‘colleagues’ who they don’t understand nor care to (this is evident by their ‘research’), and for the greater good of art.”
Some of those involved in the conversation—including Kurian, Kline, Yi, and Margaret Lee—are involved with the New York gallery 47 Canal, which subsequently became the subject of social-media scorn this weekend by artist Mathieu Malouf. In a sarcastic Instagram post, Malouf wrote, alongside an image of Rice holding a koala, “The ny art world is an amazing community with the best art in the world. Every show, especially at 47 Canal, is our collective way of saying ‘NO’ to nazis, which in 2018 are the single most important threat we face as a peoplekind.”
In a statement in response to insinuation of involvement by 47 Canal and its artists, Oliver Newton, who runs the gallery with Lee, said that neither he nor any of the artists had reached out to Amy Greenspon to protest the show. “ARTnews, Artforum, and Frieze have all reported on this story in such a way that overemphasizes the Invisible Dole’s role and influence,” Newton wrote. “Many of my friends and artists engaged in what they believed was a private conversation about what it means to give a platform to an alleged neo-nazi who advocates for the subjugation of women. This conversation was speculative with no explicit objective.”
Newton’s statement, which is available in full on the gallery’s website, suggests that the email exchange was intended to question how to “look beyond representation and work to support anti-fascist and anti-racist efforts in real life, away from social media and other online platforms. I ask myself these questions daily in order to learn how to better serve my community. We cannot ignore the fact that we are witnessing a reemergence and emboldening of neo-Nazi, fascist, white supremacist, anti-Semitic rhetoric—which was on terrifying display in Charlottesville and [is] on the rise. I want to believe that the individuals who did reach out to Amy Greenspon did so out of care and concern.”
Jared Madere, an artist involved in the debate online, said he shared some of Newton’s concerns about the controversy surrounding the show. Madere, who exhibited Bajagić at his Bed-Stuy Love Affair gallery, wrote in an email to ARTnews, “I do not think the show should have been cancelled for the same reason I believe that prisoners and felons should have the right to vote. Count the population of the planet, they are included—who gave who the authority to make decisions on their behalf or strip them of their voice?” (About Bajagić, Madere said he considers her work “an attempt to angle a mirror to reflect back the horror we as a society have collectively created.”)
Rather than “the pubescent wars being waged on Instagram,” Madere continued, “I would like to have seen this unfold as a public face-to-face conversation with the goal of calmly reaching an understanding between all parties, rather than a blame game witch hunt occurring on private listservs, where mysterious shadow-moderators anonymously snuff out speech in the public cultural sphere.”