Color Theory

Race trouble in the avant-garde

Olia Mishchenko, untitled, from Remote University (detail). 2011, pen and ink on paper. 44 × 120". Courtesy of the artist.

In February 1979, the downtown New York gallery Artists Space opened an exhibition featuring a group of young white postmodern artists. Among them was a 23-year-old who chose to use only his first name, Donald—as if, like generations of self-mythologizing young urban newcomers before him and since, he might rush into his American future by casting away his past.

His surname was Newman and he had come to the sooty punk streets of lower Manhattan from the freshly sodded suburban tracts of Southern California. He had been studying at the California Institute of the Arts, a short freeway ride from his family home, where the eucalyptus trees were still taking root in the Valencia soil and teachers like John Baldessari were still overturning received wisdom. Very quickly, Newman was accepted into the prestigious independent study program at the Whitney Museum in New York.

Donald was like a rocket launched at two. He arrived at Penn Station and headed straight to the front desk at Artists Space, where he name-dropped Baldessari and CalArts and asked, “Do you have any place for me? I was told you would take care of me.” That first night, he slept on the floor of the gallery.

He had arrived downtown at a splendid time. In the city, venues for young artists such as the Kitchen, PS1, Franklin Furnace, and White Columns were springing up. Artists Space was a special nexus of fresh energies. When the nonprofit alternative space opened in 1973 on the northern fringe of SoHo with funding from the New York State Council on the Arts, its mission was to allow artists of a new generation to introduce their unknown, unrepresented peers to the world. It would be streetwise, egalitarian; singular in the flood of new galleries, workshops, community centers, artist collectives, and museums surging against an art world, cofounder Trudy Grace said, “locked up and controlled by critics, curators, and dealers.”

Outside the galleries, Donald could hear the first screams of the new in bars, clubs, and galleries from the Bowery through SoHo across to Tribeca. The first punks—as they came to call themselves—intended to defy all the gestures and conceits of the old countercultures. They were opposed to everything, even opposition. “Mass movements are so un-hip,” said Legs McNeil, a cofounder of Punk magazine. Liberation movements were, he said, “the beginning of political correctness, which was just fascism to us. Real fascism. More rules.”

At night Donald began hanging in musty clubs and airy lofts. He wore bondage pants and T-shirts screen-printed with pictures of penises. He dyed his spiky hair blue. He found himself at parties with the Sex Pistols and joined a girlfriend in a band called the Erasers. They practiced in an old bank vault in the basement of the Fine Arts Building at 105 Hudson Street in Tribeca, where Artists Space had moved their gallery. Donald befriended the assistant director, Paul McMahon, a ferociously smart and witty artist, musician, and curator who bridged the art and punk crowds. McMahon agreed to visit him at his Whitney program studio.

Donald had been creating seven large triptychs, five feet high by seven feet long, combining black-and-white photography with charcoal drawings. He rendered these works in gray, black, and tan tones, and flush mounted the center sections with plexiglass, a trick that mirrored back the viewer as much as it revealed the art underneath.

The images were indistinct—a nighttime flash of brownstone windows, a forest and a creek starkly rendered in black and white, a fragile Ad Reinhardt shadow; aspens and abstractions in a bank of snow, a chimney blowing smoke into a dusk sky, thin lines arcing into an eclipse. Their large Rauschenbergian fields of light, dark, and reflection were alluring and distancing at once. They hoarded meaning.

McMahon and his boss, Artists Space director Helene Winer, scheduled a show of the young man’s still unnamed works for the winter of 1979. What they liked about his works was exactly what they wanted Artists Space to be about. They were engaging and rough around the edges, fresh and inscrutable.

On the night of February 16, 1979, when Artists Space opened the doors to the young artists, there was a massive blizzard. From then to the end of the month nothing of note happened, not even any reviews. But what happened next became an odd augury for the coming decade, as if a small cast of close friends and colleagues at the outer edge of the New York art world were in a dress rehearsal for the national opening of the culture wars.

Perhaps an artist’s greatest fear is to have his work go ignored. And perhaps, in the era of punk upheaval, the act of simply hanging these works in a downtown gallery and inviting visitors to contemplate their useless beauty seemed too easy. So Donald—a handsome young white man with a bright future—chose to call the seven pieces in his first exhibition The Nigger Drawings.

In 1964, the comedian and activist Dick Gregory had written that he and his fellow civil rights marchers were trying “to change a system where a white man can destroy a Black man with one word. ‘Nigger.’” But Southern segregationists weren’t the only ones with a fondness for the word. Northern antiracists and avant-gardists—from Harlem Renaissance patrons to the beatniks to the White Panthers, from Carl Van Vechten to Allen Ginsberg, Norman Mailer to John Sinclair—had used “nigger” to define their own identity politics. Were they doing this in poetic solidarity, a joining of arms for the battle? Was it racial innocence, a mask of cool bought at discount?

By the early ’70s, following civil rights activist and teacher Jerry Farber’s galvanizing essay “The Student as Nigger,” the underground papers were buzzing with manifestos for the “Hippie as Nigger” or the “Artist as Nigger.” As feminism spread, John Lennon and Yoko Ono wrote the song “Woman Is the Nigger of the World.” Downtown artists and Artists Space board members Vito Acconci and Dennis Oppenheim appropriated black talk for the “authentic” soundscapes in their installation art meant to bring the street into the gallery. When punk laureate Lester Bangs left the Motown of Berry Gordy and the MC5 for the Bowery of Richard Hell and the Ramones, he appeared in a black leather jacket and a black T-shirt with white iron-on letters that read, Last of the white niggers.

All this was part of a very old process dating back to when a scrum of rebel colonists stormed three ships in Boston Harbor, some costumed as Indians, some masked by lampblack, and proceeded to toss the cargo overboard. The Boston Tea Party was, the historian Philip J. Deloria wrote, “a generative moment of American political and cultural identity.” This righteous uprising, this spectacle of misrule, this first minstrel show was less a love poem to the Other than a romance of the self—destroying, creating, breaking things open.

Two hundred and five years later, working-class heroine Patti Smith brought the romance to stomping, ecstatic heights. “In heart I am an American artist and I have no guilt,” she howled on her 1978 album, Easter, as if in an amphetamine rush. The band then tore into their biggest anthem and as they squalled to a climax, she growled, “Jimi Hendrix was a nigger, Jesus Christ and Grandma, too. Jackson Pollock was a nigger! Nigger niggerniggerniggerniggernigger nigger!”

“Rock N Roll Nigger” was the name of this song, burning on the righteous confusion of rebellion with rejection that had powered so much 20th-century American art. For the white avant-garde, “Nigger” was the darkness at the edge of town, the last sign out of civilization on the highway to freedom. “Outside of society,” she sang, “they’re waiting for me!”

Donald loved the song. Perhaps it consecrated his newfound circle of punk heretics, sacralized his rebellion, his own freedom run. “Patti Smith talks about ‘rock-and-roll niggers’ and people call each other ‘nigger’ all the time,” he said. “I was just using the word as poetry.”

Two and a half weeks after the opening of The Nigger Drawings, on Monday, March 5, 1979, a letter arrived at Artists Space addressed to Helene Winer and signed by a cross section of black and white artists. It read:


A white artist exhibiting abstractions at Artists’ Space from February 16 to March 10 has titled his show “The Nigger Drawings.” We assume this was chosen as some sort of puerile bid for notoriety, but we are amazed that the staff of Artists’ Space has lent itself to such a racist gesture. Surely it must have occurred to you, if not to him, that this was an incredible slap in the face of Black and other artists, of Black audiences and of everyone connected in any way with one of our leading alternative spaces. Did anyone object to these antics, or is social awareness at such a low ebb in the art world that nobody noticed? The appalling title is an abuse of the esthetic freedom artists allegedly enjoy in this society. We hope some sort of explanation from you is forthcoming.

At the bottom of the letter, Lucy Lippard had scribbled a note: “Helene—Sorry about this but how could it have gotten by?”

Winer was stunned. She knew many of the signers very well. She was working with Lippard on a show of British leftist art. Carl Andre was an early Artists Space supporter. Faith Ringgold had shown there. Other black artists had signed the letter, including Black Emergency Cultural Coalition co-chair Cliff Joseph and Howardena Pindell. Winer was most horrified that Pindell’s name was on the list. She had thought of Pindell as a close friend.

The only daughter of a courts administrator and a teacher, Howardena Pindell had grown up in the segregated Germantown and Chestnut Hill neighborhoods of Philadelphia. She won a scholarship to Boston University and became the only black student in the art school. “There was a very clear sense of what you could and couldn’t do,” she said. She could not share a dorm room with a white friend. She could not run for student office. She joined Delta Sigma Theta, a black sorority. But she could not find relief there from her alienation. She became one of the top students in the art program. But a rich parent of a white student attempted to offer the school an endowment if it could persuade her to leave the school.

After receiving her MFA from the Yale School of Art, Pindell began working at the Museum of Modern Art in 1967 and rose to become an assistant curator of prints and illustrated books. Pindell had met Winer when she was in London as a young museum assistant, and the two became fast friends. They were similar—brilliant, decisive, uncompromising. After Winer moved back to New York City to begin working at Artists Space, Pindell had subleased, then eventually passed on, her downtown apartment to Winer. Now Pindell was helping to lead the protest against Artists Space.

Pindell had become aware of Donald’s exhibition through a young black woman named Janet Henry. Slender and tender-eyed, Henry was about a decade younger, born to a family of artists. She worked for Linda Goode Bryant, who had established the Just Above Midtown gallery to show contemporary African-American art. Teaching children to make art was Henry’s greatest joy.

“How I conceive of the world—I realize it’s kind of Polyannaish,” she said. “Why would you do things that are evil and mean to people? I can’t fathom that and I can’t understand people who do.”

In January 1979, Henry received the announcement card for The Nigger Drawings. Staring at Donald’s halftone pine tree, trying to make sense of it, she became curious. “I looked at it and said, ‘I wonder if this is a black person doing something about that word,’” she recalled.

But when she visited Artists Space, Henry took in Donald’s works with increasing anxiety. Here were images of a doorway, a nebula, an inverted upside-down scene of a man playing a trumpet for children on a boat, large dark fields of charcoal. What was Donald trying to say? Did he actually understand what the word meant? She walked over to her friend Cindy Sherman and soon the Artists Space staff had gathered around her. Why, she asked them, are these pieces called The Nigger Drawings?

Someone—she couldn’t remember who—told her that perhaps it was because the artist liked to use charcoal and often got it on his hands and face. Someone else—she couldn’t remember who—showed her pictures of some of Donald’s other works. It was the thing artists might do for other artists in a gallery like this in the middle of a quiet, unbusy afternoon.

But Henry’s head was already loud with noise. She could not process what they were telling her, what all these pretty pictures were for, why this wall in the main gallery of this downtown alternative space had the words the nigger drawings emblazoned across it. She left the studio gasping for air. She found herself in the subway, heading as fast as she could to West 57th Street to the Just Above Midtown gallery. Henry recalled, “I came in there babbling.” Linda Goode Bryant got Henry to calm down and tell her story. Then Goode Bryant began making calls.

Pindell and Lucy Lippard began composing the “Open Letter to Artists’ Space.” Henry and Goode Bryant initiated a letter-writing campaign to James Reinisch, the head of the New York State Council on the Arts. NYSCA still provided over 60 percent of Artists Space’s operating funds. Under the name of the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition, the group that had protested the Met a decade before, they began to lobby NYSCA and the National Endowment for the Arts to cut off Artists Space’s funding.

By the end of the same Monday, March 5, that the open letter had arrived, Helene Winer had also received an urgent telegram from NYSCA:



First there had been the pictures. Then followed words about the pictures, hot with appeal, accusation, and outrage. All week the letters poured in.

In her letter to NYSCA’s Reinisch, Janet Henry wrote as if she was responding to Winer, Watkins, and Sherman in the way she could not when she was breathless in the gallery. “Alright, then,” Henry wrote, “why not Black Drawings? Charcoal is black, uncomplicated, straightforward BLACK. The word Nigger is neither.”

Henry wrote that when she had stood in the gallery, she felt that “no matter how good you get, no matter how much you are needed, you ain’t what we are and therefore will never drink from the same fountain we do. You will also put up with anything we choose to sling in your face.”

She concluded, “Seems like somebody’s asking for a fight.”

Donald was unrepentant. He fired off his own broadside to the signers of the open letter, comparing himself to censored artists D. H. Lawrence, Henry Miller, and William Burroughs. He wrote in a roundabout, third-person voice: “It would be presumptuous to consider that the artist’s titling of his work ‘The Nigger Drawings’ was an explicitly racist gesture.”

But Winer removed the title from the gallery wall. Then she closed the gallery for a day. Still, when she returned, the calls continued, the letters piled up. NYSCA and NEA officials were hinting that the organization’s funding would be reduced. Board members were losing patience. The staff was fearful of black protests. Winer had begun fearing for the organization’s survival as well.

On the day the exhibition closed, she sent out a public letter of apology that said, “Artists Space and the artist acknowledge that greater and different consideration should have been given to the title in this case. We made an error in assuming that this word could be legitimately used in an art context.” She then appealed to her allies to send letters of support to NYSCA and the NEA. She asked Donald not to make any more media statements.

But when the Village Voice’s Richard Goldstein came calling, Donald gave an interview, telling Goldstein, “A lot of what fed this controversy is that my art is real. I’m not some punk who sat down and scrawled these things. There’s an intelligence operating here.”

“All you moralists,” Donald said. “It takes an amoral kid like me to make things move.”

Goldstein returned to his desk and pounded out a piece he called “The Romance of Racism”: “The romance is that ‘nigger’ no longer refers to race, that anyone can be a nigger under the right circumstances and that artists—those jaunty explorers on the frontiers of consciousness—are niggers in spades.”

The article hit the stands three weeks after the show had closed, but the controversy was yet to crest. Twenty-four artists signed a letter to the Voice, including most of the original signers of the open letter: Benny Andrews, who had led the protest at the Met in 1969, and prominent artists Leon Golub, David Hammons, and Sol LeWitt. They accused Goldstein of falling for Newman’s “self-promotion stunt.”

“Typical of social practice in the art world, racism appears in chic packages,” they wrote. “Many in the art world lull themselves into believing that in an art context racism isn’t racism: it’s art.”

On April 7, Newman responded with another public letter, all but naming Andre, Lippard, and LeWitt as aggressors on the wrong side of what he called an “artistic generation gap”:

It was these same people who, in the sixties when government support of the arts was being debated, warned against the danger of censorship; particularly with respect to any government programs designed to support and nurture the avant-garde. What happened?

Then he finally gave his explanation for the title. “To the degree that I consider that ‘nigger’ is a prejudicial term, my use of it in the title is a means of locating the viewer within the dichotomy that exists between the titling of the art and the actual content of the drawings.” Newman had intended, he said years later, to “create something beautiful, place it next to something ugly, and stick the viewer in the middle.”

But The Nigger Drawings had succeeded only in dividing the avant-garde along racial lines. Douglas Crimp, the managing editor of the leftist art journal October and the curator of thePictures exhibition, argued that categorically calling any use of the word nigger racist was ridiculous. He circulated his own petition in support of The Nigger Drawings, free expression, and full funding for Artists Space. Laurie Anderson, Rosalind Krauss, and Roberta Smith signed on.

In an Art in America piece, Smith gave the art a favorable review. She wrote that Donald’s critics seemed to have an unsophisticated understanding of aesthetics and artistic freedom. “Certain opponents of the work’s title have objected to its use by a ‘white artist’ in reference to ‘abstractions,’” she wrote, “suggesting that it might have been all right for a black artist to have used it for nonabstract work. It is peculiar to declare a word off-limits and even more peculiar to declare it off-limits to some people and some work and not others. Making something taboo is, among other things, to ask that the taboo be broken.”

But Donald’s critics insisted that the stakes were not only aesthetic but structural. Less than 4 percent of artists who had shown at Artists Space were black. A survey of forty of the city’s most important galleries found that only 27 percent of the represented artists were women, 3 percent Asian, and 2 percent Hispanic. Less than 1 percent were black.

Artists of color were showing on the periphery of the art world: Linda Goode Bryant’s Just Above Midtown on West 57th Street, Joe Overstreet’s Kenkeleba House on the Lower East Side, Basement Workshop in Chinatown and Jamaica Arts Center in Queens, the Bronx Museum of the Arts, El Museo del Barrio in Spanish Harlem, and the Studio Museum in Harlem. Winer admitted to Goldstein that she felt unqualified to curate a show of artists of color at Artists Space.

Given how deeply so many of the principals on both sides knew one another, the fight had become personal. “He wants intimacy,” Howardena Pindell said of Donald. “I don’t want to give him intimacy.” She might have been feeling the same about Winer.

Here at the far edge of mass consciousness, the dispute unraveled like a family clash—innocence and intimacy lost, small slights and major injustices accumulating unredressed, the staking of ground and the planting of flags, the messy collision of grand histories.

In the handful of black-and-white pictures of the event that remain they appear, black and white, sitting on the floor in a circle—fixed and intent and listening as if they are still connected by their debts to each other. But on the drugstore cassette of the event, their voices can be heard flaring, coarse, and outraged.

The ballpoint scrawl on the tape label reads tape of protest at artists space. It is somehow appropriate that this cassette and these pictures, kept by the black artist and filmmaker Camille Billops, are incomplete, at best impressionistic. Sometimes when Americans talk about race the images and the words refuse to correspond.

The moment is Saturday, April 21, 1979. In three years, downtown will become mythic Downtown, the sounds of hip-hop in strobing, miscegenating dance clubs that kiss the morning. But that point lies beyond the horizon, yet unimaginable.

Two weeks before, the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition had sent Artists Space a telegram announcing their intention to visit the gallery the following Saturday. They planned to conduct an “evaluation tour,” the kind of protest that Faith Ringgold and Tom Lloyd had brought to MoMA in 1969. Winer and the staff panicked. They sought counsel from board members. They sent unanswered telegrams to the coalition begging for explanations. Finally Winer decided to lock the doors and stay home.

On the cold, rainy morning of April 14, the coalition arrived, choked themselves into the small lobby, and realized no one would be answering their door buzz. They moved out to the rain-drizzled street where the media had gathered. Under a banner that read Black Artists Locked Out of Artists Space, Benny Andrews, who had been born to a Georgia sharecropper, told the crowd, “I came from the South, where nigger was burned into the skins of people who were lynched.”

So on the next Saturday, the 21st, a few dozen protesters filed into the Artists Space gallery and arranged themselves in a circle on the floor, this time without advance warning. The staffers, reluctant and discomposed, followed Bob Blackburn, a former Artists Space board member and a black artist who had signed on to the protest, into the gallery. There were graying men and young women, a mother with a baby, a few downtown journalists. Some supporters of Donald had arrived, too.

On the cassette, some voices are identifiable. Many more have been rendered faceless and nameless by time.

Blackburn opens the meeting by addressing Winer. “This is not an attack on Helene,” he begins, in the etiquette of confrontation. He acknowledges that as a former board member, he should have remained more involved with Artists Space. But why, he wants to know, did she lock out the demonstrators the previous week?

Winer replies, “We couldn’t get any answers from members of the coalition as to the nature of the event.”

“Why,” Blackburn asks, “would a gallery like this fear people like us so much that they would think we would do something?”

And then, from the circle: Why wasn’t there an apology? Artists Space is an alternative space. You have a larger responsibility not just to this one artist but to the community. Do you show other Africans’ work? Do you object to our objecting to this?

Ragland Watkins wedges in a question: “What is the nature of the complaints?”

“It wasn’t so many years ago that they used to lynch niggers and that was considered OK. Would you have done a kike show? How about The Kike Drawings? Is this indicative of the gallery’s attitude toward minority artists?”

As Winer answers, the crowd quiets. “Well, it is indicative of our policy toward censorship and control of an artist’s work and it certainly has nothing whatsoever to do with our exhibition policy in terms of who we show. If there’s a particular show, we treat it the way we treat every exhibition that occurs here.”

Pindell murmurs. Camille Billops is in disbelief. “You’re not free to have a Kike Drawings,” she shouts. “Artists are free to do anything in their studio but you know you can’t do that with public funds because they come down on you. You just try to do that. You’re full of shit. You know it. You know what power is.”

“We did issue an apology,” says Winer. “Apparently we made a mistake in a certain sense which was not anticipating what the response would be or how the feelings were. I’m saying that that is what is ignorance on my part or stupidity or a variety of things that you could call it, not to know what that would mean.”

Her voice now wobbles with doubt, as if she has begun checking out of the conversation. The baby wails. The clamor rises. Finally the noise on the cassette recedes, clarifies into two voices—Winer’s and a man’s, white and black.

“Did you ever ask yourself how Afro Americans would respond to this? Be man enough to say damn it, I did it, this is what I feel, I know about you people, think what you like. And you think we’re childlike.”

“That is clearly not the case!”

“What we’ve gotten so far is a verbal apology—which absolutely means nothing.”

“Well what do you want? What exactly do you want?”

“Because along with that apology the same practices, the same discriminatory practices still exist in this gallery that exist in the whole art system in this country. A truly constructive apology would be one in which you would consciously sit down and figure out ways to make this, truly make this an alternative space it’s supposed to be, to truly address yourself to the question of black artists. Then I might be persuaded that you were genuinely sorry.”

A pause. The low hiss of the tape deck.

She nods. Perhaps she is agreeing, perhaps she is parrying. Maybe it is a reflex, a pulse of empathy or of loathing. It rankles him.

“And this head-shaking nod—‘Oh, I’m so sorry, we’ll try in the future not to do it.’ You will try in the future not to do precisely what you’ve been doing all along—which is excludingblack artists from a dialogue.”

Another woman’s voice, coarse and petulant, issues from the bounds of the circle.

“It’s just a word.”

Someone responds, “If you speak English you know what that word means.”

“It could lose its meaning.”

Someone asks, “What does it mean to you?”

The woman speaks louder, snarling and angry and low.

“It’s just what was lying around the culture.”

The pitch of her voice rising, her words gathering velocity.

“For you to tell me what it means when it’s being used in so many contexts that I can’t say it only means this and therefore it can’t be used again . . .”

“Let me tell you what it means to black people! It means castration. It means hanging. . . .”

“This is not a black community.”

Another pause.

“What? What did she just say?”

She repeats, louder, with an edge.

“This is not a black community.”

The din again. The voices.

“Oh here we go. This is our community! This conversation is over. What are the neutral meanings of nigger? What else can it mean but nigger? This is a multi, this is a multi, this is a multi . . .” The man wants to be heard. “This is a multiracial community, this is a multiracial country here.”

“So what’s the matter with using that term?”

“It’s not our term, it’s your term.”

“No, it’s not my term! I didn’t invent the fucking language.”

“It’s not a black-invented term, it’s a white-invented term.”

“Who cares? WHO CARES?”

“We do! The community.”

I’M NOT trying to take responsibility for ALL THIS.”

A week later, the Artists Space staff released its final public letter on the matter. “We wish to expand our programming to include more artists active in other communities. The way in which we can do this is to see more work or to have it brought to our attention,” it read. “Our concern is a result of an increased awareness that a large community of artists are not approaching us.”

Howardena Pindell, Camille Billops, and Benny Andrews went to Washington to meet with NEA officials to discuss the exclusion of artists of color from artist grants. They left with promises to increase the number of artists of color on peer-selection panels.

Winer made amends with the NEA. She promised NYSCA that Artists Space would add more people of color to the board, meet with artists of color to increase representation, and do more exhibitions with other organizations in different communities.

Donald Newman, once the rocket launched at two, saw his career briefly ride higher. All the media hype had made him a minor sensation. By the end of the year, he had followed Julian Schnabel and Ross Bleckner to Mary Boone’s gallery. Charles Saatchi bought three of “The Nigger Drawings.” Bruno Bischofberger exhibited him in Switzerland and bought more of his work. Newman then moved to Annina Nosei, the gallerist whose list included Keith Haring and Jenny Holzer and who once had the young Jean-Michel Basquiat in her basement painting canvases as fast as he could. Some in the Artists Space clique felt Newman was getting attention not for his work, but for his notoriety.

But as Schnabel, Basquiat, and Haring blasted off, Newman did not. Critic and gallerist Mitchell Algus wrote that the downtown art world had been invigorated by Donald’s “reckless punk posture,” a move that temporarily eclipsed “the earnest, mid-century obsessed post-conceptualism” of the Pictures generation artists and challenged “the art world’s newly evolving, ambivalently liberal, ethical order.” But soon enough, when the art was separated from its title, Donald’s work “began to seem thin and worse, mild-mannered.”

Algus wrote, “Perhaps this is the inevitable fate of the precocious sophomore. It was the context after all, not the art, that had changed.” In 1982, the year hip-hop blew onto the downtown scene like a fresh wind, Newman quit the art world to become a computer programmer.

Winer had little occasion to speak to Howardena Pindell again. Not long after The Nigger Drawings Pindell left MoMA. Her time there had been marked with sudden disinvites from the museum’s exclusive social events. Now it ended with loud whispers among staff that she had turned into a black female Jesse Helms. She was a censor, the art world’s version of a snitch.

“Never mind that women and blacks and people of color were censored out of the system,” Pindell said, “the issue was: you’re censoring a white male artist.”

Pindell felt voiceless. Up to that point she had done conceptual pieces constructed meticulously from tiny paper circles she had hand-punched, colored, and sometimes numbered—as if she were fragmenting and reassembling herself into bits of order. She drew and numbered arrows on color photographs she had taken of televised sports contests. The arrows made the blurry images seem like maps of ocean currents. They swirled into impossible, impenetrable systems. They moved against one another.

But in 1979, her art changed. She survived a life-threatening auto accident. Her new art helped her recover her presence, her memory, the very sound of herself. She made a video-art piece entitled Free, White and 21, in which she split herself in two: playing herself earnestly describing her personal experiences with racism, then donning a blond wig to rejoin, “You ungrateful little—after all we have done for you. You know we don’t believe in your symbols, they are not valid unless we validate them. And you really must be paranoid.”

She began making large self-portraits, collaged and sewn canvases whose surfaces rippled with intensity, bristled with weaponized words—Imposter, We Will Not Listen to You, How Dare You Question. In some of the paintings of her Autobiography series from 1987 through 1990, her face and body seem to be carried away by that river of suggestion, that shimmering toxic wash. But the images also suggested a refusal to be submerged.

During the 1980s, Artists Space would remake itself as a major supporter of new artists exploring multiculturalism and identity. By the end of the decade, the organization was under national attack by cultural conservatives who used their exhibition Witnesses: Against Our Vanishing, on the AIDS crisis, to call for the defunding of the NEA. Suddenly the Nigger Drawings protest appeared both as a distant moment and a shuddering portent.

In years to come, after the national language had found the words to describe the fight, some might come to debate whether this moment had marked the birth of “hipster racism” or “political correctness.” “‘Freedom for me, or freedom for him!’ is a current theme which is running throughout this society,” Linda Goode Bryant wrote in her letter from the early days of the Nigger Drawings protests. “Perhaps naively, I still believe in freedom for all.”

Excerpted from Who We Be, reprinted with permission of St. Martin’s Press.

Excerpted from Who We Be, reprinted with permission of St. Martin’s Press.

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