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Art Kane
A Great Day in Harlem

David Hammons
at Phillips, de Pury & Luxembourg
May 14, 2001

Martin Puryear
at McKee, New York

Ilona Brown's Japanese-style screen in the window of Kravets/Wehby Gallery on West 21st Street

Works (from left) by Kehinde Wiley, Sanford Biggers and William Cordova in "New Wave," curated by Franklin Sirmans, at Kravets/Wehby

Robert Mapplethorpe
Ken Moody
More Racist than Trent Lott
by Charlie Finch

Walk around and through the 200 galleries in Chelsea tomorrow, and you will find the following: one African American art dealer, one African American gallery director, one gallery currently exhibiting a show with a preponderance of African American artists, and, as far as we've been able to observe, no African American gallery employees.

And yet, last month, over 100 prominent African American commercial and fine arts photographers journeyed uptown to pose for a group portrait reminiscent of Art Kane's legendary 1958 snap of the great jazz geniuses, Mingus, Diz, Basie, etc.

The only two prominent African American curators, Lowery Sims and Thelma Golden, decamped to the Studio Museum in Harlem to fight what is almost a rear-guard defense of the culture that has long driven America, black culture, Sims leaving the deeply moribund contemporary program at the Met; Golden jettisoned from the Whitney by museum director Maxwell Anderson, after curating the best contemporary group show of the '90s, "Black Male."

Exactly two African-American artists, David Hammons and Kara Walker, do anything on the auction market. Lorna Simpson, for all her grace and style, is a bit too obscurely uptown for the auctionites, and Martin Puryear, arguably the finest sculptor working in the U.S. today, would be a superstar if he were white. How do we explain, in 2003, such apartheid?

Firstly, the New York art world is as insular and conformist as any Wall Street brokerage house, and, almost anthropologically, it likes its blacks one at a time, as a way to keep control.

Contrast two recent openings: At Participant, a cantilevered space on Rivington Street, part of the way-overhyped Lower East Side art scene, the same dressed-in-black hipsters we've endured for years dully mingled in front of Laura Parnes' disappointingly shrill video Hollywood Inferno, in the dark.

Conversely, two weeks ago, at Kravets/Wehby's new Chelsea space, a show curated by African American critic Franklin Sirmans featuring a great floor piece by Sanford Biggers and an exotic screen by Iona Brown attracted a dazzlingly frocked, rapturous crowd of the black, brown and beige, filled to the brim with animated conversation, hugs, kisses, confetti and a marching band.

We experience the latter type of opening no more than once or twice a season -- do it 20 times and the art school crowd would be swept into the river.

Secondly, it is no secret that the black male has been reified, and thus dehumanized, by the gay establishment within the New York art world, in much the same way that Marilyn Monroe or Raquel Welch were jerked over by white hetero males in their eras. If you don't believe it, read Patricia Morrisroe's thorough biography of Robert Mapplethorpe, in which the artist's conflicting lusts and racist urges literally turned to coprophagia, or the Andy Warhol Diaries, filled with Warhol's speculations about Jean-Michel Basquiat's "smell," and other bon mots worthy of Strom Thurmond.

Thirdly, there's the class issue -- the art world exists for the rich, of the rich and by the rich, specifically without the mass-market opportunities of other cultural products such as music, sports and the movies. Every art student, gallery assistant, curator and, yes, critic is a byproduct of the favors, the "noblesse oblige," of wealthy collectors and institutions. And, because making art is a far more expensive proposition in terms of materials than writing a book or playing the trumpet even, African Americans are shut out before they start, economically.

As the Studio Museum gets set to open another show about the Harlem Renaissance, the art world should ask itself whether Carrie Mae Weems, Ellen Gallagher and Nari Ward have advanced further than Augusta Savage, Gwendolyn Knight and Ad Bates.

The answer is "No"!

CHARLIE FINCH is coauthor of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).

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