Art historian and curator Maurice Berger died last week of coronavirus-related causes at the age of 63. Known for his incisive writings on race and photography, Berger was considered a pioneer in his field for his commitment to calling out forms of prejudice in historically white institutions. To learn more about his legacy, ARTnews turned to two artists and one curator who were close to him.
The powerful thing about Maurice’s work, from the beginning, was that he said that the problem with racism is white people. They have to do the work on it. Otherwise, it is just an extension of the problem to assert that only POC are supposed to do the work of revealing or exorcising racism. I read his Art in America essay [1990’s “Are Art Museums Racist?“] when it came out, which was amazing to see. It was something that nobody was talking about. I was reading from the point of view of someone who was not only making art, but also someone in programming for artist-run nonprofits. The issues that he was pointing to were really part of the art scene in San Francisco, which was highly stratified, not so much around a black-white divide but definitely between the white art elite and Asian and Latinx artists. It’s an ongoing issue.
The thing people are missing in the moment is his advocacy. As Marvin [Heiferman, Berger’s husband] began teaching at the International Center of Photography, Maurice began to come and look at work of students. Maurice was there at thesis group exhibitions and for every slide presentation. When he found an artist he thought was interesting, he would advocate for them. He was strong advocate for Nona Faustine. The curating part [of Berger’s work] is not just about institutional critique but also about talking about where you should be looking—making clear your love for the overlooked. His legacy was reminding people that it’s not just pointing out shortcomings because then you just have the po-faced response of white people. Get out there, and love the work of people who are not like you.
Lowery Stokes Sims
Maurice Berger was really the first person whom I encountered in the art world who was not what the world likes to call us—a person of color—with whom I could have a conversation about race. That he made that the focus of his career was both astonishing and at times disconcerting when one thought that his frontal attacks would alienate the art world and frustrate the work we people of color were doing to effectual diversity and conclusion. But as we see today, the art world caught up with him and through his work here in Baltimore he inspired a number of students to find their own voice in the on-going dialogue about race and gender.
Maurice’s writing was always clear and concise and decisively thought out. I cannot help but think that his experiences on the Lower East Side and in his family clarified his understanding of his position of privilege in terms of color and gender despite the challenges that his culture and sexual orientation may have had on his life. In many ways he predicted the field of “white studies” as seen in his 2003 exhibition “White: Whiteness and Race in Contemporary Art.” It was through this project that I learned about the peculiarly German cultural infatuation with Native Americas that was precipitated by the fantasies of Karl May. The last time we saw each other we discussed the pervasiveness of this in a class I taught at the Institute of Fine Arts in 2018 as we parsed Naomi Harris’s documentation of further American myths enacted in Europe and European ones in this country.
We were graduate students together at the City University of New York Graduate Center, and I did an essay on appropriation in the art world for the catalogue of the 1987 on the exhibition “Race and Representation” he organized at Hunter College. He was indeed a catalytic and confirming presence in my own life.
By the late 1980s, I had begun to grow into my role as volunteer canary in the coal mine, rashly sallying forth, alone and unprotected, into various art world enclaves—exhibitions, panel discussions, performances, lectures, publications—to test the level of toxic racism swirling around in the atmosphere, while interested bystanders hung back to observe its effects on me: Will her work be chewed up and spit out within a couple of seasons, as usual? Will she be dead meat by the time the invertebrate reptiles finish working her over? Or will her survival signal that it is safe to venture, timidly and diplomatically, at least that far into the inferno, at least when surrounded by a protective posse of likeminded lefties?
It took me several decades to understand that this had been my role, because there had never been a protective posse with which to surround myself, and so I had never expected one. Those who hung back to observe my fate were functionally indistinguishable from the invertebrate reptiles themselves, who—as it turned out—were transfixed by the novel spectacle of an apparently white woman betraying her race and defiling the purity of her gender by frontally attacking the racists in the art world audience: calling them out by name; broadcasting their hypocrisy in detail, in images, in sound, and in print; lampooning their futile attempts to evade scrutiny; ridiculing their racist attempts to ridicule my stubbornly professed racial identity. Everyone enjoyed the show, and all could applaud politely and withdraw after the curtain came down.
But then Maurice Berger entered Stage Left and upped the ante. He conducted the best interview on my work anyone had ever done.1 His grasp of the work, the issues, and the strategies for addressing them was astonishing. I had to wonder where he got it. My curiosity lengthened our dialogue into a decade-long friendship—in itself very brave, given that his dissertation advisor, Rosalind Krauss, had been one of my most reliable punching bags. His responses to the themes that preoccupied me never struck a false note. There was no hypocrisy, no shrinking from the facts, no self-protective pseudo-rationalizations to mar his thinking or his perceptions. He was uncommonly well connected to the realities that inspired both his work and mine.
I was first able to measure the full depth of his commitment to those realities when he invited me to join a panel at the Whitney Museum in late 1990 called “Another Look at the Art Journals.” As usual, I prepared my acid mix of truculent commentary, lowbrow comedy, and biting sarcasm with the presentation I would publish much later under the title, “Notes on the White Man’s Burden: Multiculturalism and Euroethnic Art Criticism at the Millennium.”2 And as usual, the audience’s response was what I had come to expect: a dead, tense silence followed by a labored but decisive change of subject. But then Maurice went off script. He interrupted the subsequent audience discussion, charging vehemently, “You’re changing the subject! You’re trying to suppress her analysis!” He berated the audience at length for its heavy-handed attempt to erase the existence and import of my presentation.
I most certainly had not come to expect that. Up to that moment, support from all quarters had been polite, distant, pincer-like. No self-identified “white” person had ever before endangered his privilege, his connections, and his stature by publicly shaming his colleagues for their dogged attempts to write me out of the picture. By violating that taboo and openly naming the unhealthy subterranean tactics of repression enacted by his mostly very conservative circles of professional support, Maurice could have made them his enemies. He could have lost all of the professional advantages he had worked so hard to achieve. But he did it anyway, and reenacted that risk each time he wrote about my work over the ensuing decade.3 By the time he curated his excellent traveling retrospective of my work in 1999,4 he himself had been largely responsible for clearing the path and engineering the radical change in art world attitudes that ensured its mainstream success. He was a courageous man, an original thinker and an intellectual pioneer whose contribution is lasting and unforgettable.
1Maurice Berger, “The Critique of Pure Racism: An Interview with Adrian Piper,” Afterimage 18, 3 (1990): cover, and 5–9. Reprinted in Grant H. Kester, ed. Art, Activism, and Oppositionality: Essays from After Image (Durham: Duke University Press, 1998); and in Maurice Berger, Adrian Piper: A Retrospective, catalogue to accompany retrospective at the University of Maryland, Baltimore, 1999 (Baltimore: Baltimore County Press, 1999), 76–98.
2In Adrian Piper, Out of Order, Out of Sight. Volume II: Selected Writings in Art Criticism 1967–1992 (Cambridge, Massachusetts: the MIT Press, 1996), 183–87.
3See his “Black Skin, White Masks: Adrian Piper and the Politics of Viewing,” in Maurice Berger, How Art Becomes History (New York: Harper Collins, 1992), cover and frontispiece; “Displacements,” in Maurice Berger, Ciphers of Identity (Catonsville: University of Maryland Baltimore County, Maryland, 1993), 13–41; “Skowhegan Medal for Sculpture/Installation: Adrian Piper,” Skowhegan Forty-Ninth Anniversary Awards (New York: Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, 1995), 6; Minimal Politics: Performativity and Minimalism in Recent American Art (Baltimore: UMBC Press, 1997); and “Cornered,“ in Maurice Berger, White Lies (New York: Farrar, Strauss, Giroux, 1999), 159–63.
4Maurice Berger, ed., Adrian Piper: A Retrospective, catalogue to accompany retrospective at the Fine Arts Gallery, University of Maryland/ Baltimore County (Baltimore: University of Maryland Baltimore County Press, 1999).