Maurice Berger, an art historian and curator whose areas of focus included whiteness in the art world and the political implications of photography, has died at 63. On Twitter, New York magazine art critic Jerry Saltz wrote that Berger died of coronavirus-related causes, which was confirmed in an obituary by New York’s Jewish Museum, for whom he had organized an exhibition about art and television in 2015.
As a curator of incisive photography shows dealing with whiteness and an unforgiving essayist who paid mind to race long before many of his colleagues were willing to do so, Berger has been an influential figure to many. He tore into the mainstream art world’s myopic views, calling out major institutions for not engaging diversity. And in a regular column called “Race Stories” for the New York Times photography blog Lens, he considered how camera-made images can be tied to complex political contexts.
“I’m very interested in writing about the things that would normally not be written about—like the issues of race people have not been comfortable with,” Berger said in a 2018 documentary hosted online by New York’s International Center of Photography.
“Are Art Museums Racist?,” Berger’s most famous essay, first appeared in a 1990 issue of Art in America. The time was that of the so-called culture wars, with right-wing politicians seeking to defund artists and institutions, and many in the art world who had not previously thought much about diversity were beginning to do so. While institutions had made some progress in representing more non-white narratives, for Berger—and many others—it was not enough.
His clear-eyed prose takes institutions such as the New Museum, the Whitney Museum, and others to task for only half-heartedly exhibiting black art, often sans necessary context needed to place it in history. White curators, administrators, and officials at such museums “reflect the interests of the ruling caste of cultural institutions,” he wrote, and therefore museums “can never stray too far from the interests of their white, upper-class patrons or their principally white audience.”
“Is the art world merely mirroring social changes or can art institutions actually play a role in challenging the conditions of institutional racism in America?” Berger wondered. “Sad to say, with regard to race, art museums have for the most part behaved like many other businesses in this country—they have sought to preserve the narrow interests of their upper-class patrons and clientele.”
Written three years before a watershed Whitney Biennial placed a then-unprecedented emphasis on artists of color, Berger’s essay now reads as almost shockingly predictive. He closed with some suggestions for museums going forward—enact greater measures to bring aspiring non-white curators into institutional pipelines, open satellite spaces in historically underrepresented neighborhoods—that are now being instituted in the museum sphere.
For Berger, the arguments in “Are Art Museums Racist?”—as well as many other essays he wrote for publications including Artforum, October, and the Village Voice—were couched in a desire to find a language for racism that he witnessed firsthand when he was young. Born in 1956 and raised in New York’s Lower East Side, Berger grew up in a housing project that was primarily populated with black and Puerto Rican residents. Though he was sometime teased for being poor, he said that, as a child, he did not face much adversity for being Jewish. And yet he began noticing that black children were treated differently from him and his other white schoolmates.
“As a Jew, I have known anti-Semitism. As a gay man, I have known homophobia,” Berger wrote in a 2017 New York Times column titled “Using Photography to Tell Stories About Race.” “But neither has seemed as relentless as the racism I witnessed growing up—a steady drumbeat of slights, thinly-veiled hostility and condescension perpetrated by even the most liberal and well-meaning people.”
He continued noticing such instances of racism at New York’s Hunter College, where he attended school and later became an assistant professor of art. “Even there, I found it interesting that I had only one African-American colleague—and he was an artist, not an art historian,” Berger said in an interview published by the Center for Art, Design and Visual Culture. “I had never heard a black artist discussed in any of my art history classes as an undergraduate or a graduate student, perhaps with the exception of a mention of Jacob Lawrence in passing.”
Many of Berger’s curatorial endeavors also zeroed in on the racism he addressed in his writing. In 2004, for the ICP, he curated “White: Whiteness and Race in Contemporary Art,” an exhibition that considered how whiteness altered one’s perception of photography. The show featured work by artists whose photography had been celebrated for its multilayered analyses of race, including work by Nayland Blake, Nikki S. Lee, and Gary Simmons. It also dredged up problematic works by artists who had been lauded for entirely different subject matter—such as Cindy Sherman, whose early pictures of herself wearing blackface have not been exhibited widely.
In 2018, the ICP gave Berger one of its Infinity Awards for his New York Times “Race Stories” columns. A typical Times column by him focused on photography by the likes of Dawoud Bey, Dorothea Lange, and Gordon Parks, and tied it to current happenings and personal events in Berger’s own life. In one column, he listed some of his favorite photographs and included a famous image of white nationalists bearing tiki torches at a 2017 rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. “They made visible what images of oppression and violence generally do not: the ordinary people who perpetuate white supremacy,” Berger wrote.
It can be difficult to summarize Berger’s many accomplishments because they took so many forms. He curated retrospectives for Adrian Piper and Fred Wilson for the University of Maryland, Baltimore County’s galleries. As part of an artwork by Alicia Hall Moran and Jason Moran, he created a film about movements between two disparate spaces for the 2012 Whitney Biennial. In 1999, he published a book called White Lies: Race and the Myths of Whiteness. He wrote essays for the catalogues of important exhibitions such as “Black Male: Representations of Masculinity, 1968–1994” at the Whitney and “Action/Abstraction: Pollock, de Kooning, and American Art, 1940–1976” at the Jewish Museum. He addressed the defunding of the National Endowment for the Arts for Artforum, and he organized the show “For All The World To See: Visual Culture and the Struggle for Civil Rights” for the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.
Connecting all of his various activities was a curiosity about perspectives different from his own. “Very few white artists venture into black culture—very few white people, for example, read Toni Morrison,” he told New York in 2004. “To me, it’s hipper to love gospel and Toni Morrison than it is to love Miles Davis.”