Letters Editor 27 October 2001
The New York Times
Weekend Section
229 West 43rd St.
New York, NY 10036

To the Editor:

When I first saw Ken Johnson's review of my New Museum retrospective last November 17, 2000 ("Art in Review: Adrian Piper"), the first thing I noticed was how similar in tone and tactics it was to many reviews of my Alternative Museum retrospective in 1987 and exhibitions I had immediately thereafter. That retrospective marked the beginning of my professional rehabilitation, after approximately fifteen years of obscurity following the art world's discovery of my race and gender in the early 1970s. But in 1987 I enraged even more people than I had in 1972, and many of the reviews showed it. They had three features in common: (1) rampant factual misrepresentation of my work and artistic motives, (2) a hostile tone, and (3) the use of these misrepresentations as an excuse for the hostility.

I made the decision at that time to communicate to the community of art critics that I would not tolerate rampant factual misrepresentation of my work. I replied in writing to each such review with a list of factual corrections and/or factual assertions made by the critic for which no factual basis had been supplied. For about three years, I wrote a lot of letters. It was a very depressing and demoralizing task. But I felt it was important to try to set a minimum standard of respectful treatment of the work of African American women artists, below which no critical review would dare to sink. At the time I was the first and only African American woman artist given serious and sustained recognition by the mainstream art world. So I recognized the necessity of this task as part of the price of breaking new ground.

I thought that task had been long since completed. In recent years I have felt relatively secure that critical reviews of my work could be relied upon to get at least most of the facts right, whether the critic liked my work or not. Even when I first saw Johnson's review, I tried to dismiss it as an anomaly. Johnson had reviewed my work twice before (for Art in America), and had demonstrated the ability to write thoroughly and judiciously about it despite his evident personal antipathy toward it. I respected him for that, as a critic and an intellectual. So I tried to explain away his New York Times review as motivated by a bad mood, or perhaps an attempt to impress his new employer, and remained silent.

I now understand that Johnson's review was not an isolated case, but part of an emerging pattern among some mainstream publications – the same pattern I fought against so hard over a decade ago. I now understand how little has changed, and that I will now have to fight this battle all over again. So in the remainder of this letter I am going to list the factual misrepresentations in Johnson's review of my work (I enclose a copy for your recollection), and close with some comments as to their significance.

(1) I do not want to "make people behave better."

(2) I do not work to "force" anyone into anything.

(3) I do not view "the system" as "pervasively racist, xenophobic and unjust."

(4) I do not "more or less tacitly" take the "art-world audience to be white and liberal."

(5) I do not presume the viewers of Cornered to be white.

(6) I do not make "attempts at psychological manipulation."

(7) My Decide series, which includes How to Handle Black People: A Beginner's Manual, is not a response to any work by Barbara Kruger.

All of these factual mistakes purport to report my beliefs, motives, and assumptions. There is enough in print – by me as well as by others – as to my actual beliefs, motives, and assumptions that Johnson has read. So he knows that (1) – (7) are false. What they add up to, however, is nevertheless coherent: a picture of me as trying to pressure and manipulate white viewers into shedding their racism, and of my work as a footnote to Barbara Kruger.

As usual in reviews of this sort, these distortions then serve as the foundation for Johnson's overt antagonism – less toward my work than toward me personally. To Johnson, I am "hectoring;" "bitterly sarcastic;" "nothing if not intelligent;" "have the touch of a sledgehammer;" have "an off-putting, morally bullying tone;" and am "heavy-handed and calculating." These characterizations, too, amount to a coherent and very familiar picture: that of an angry, overbearing, pushy, manipulative black woman.

Now since (1) – (7) are false, they do not provide any foundation for this familiar picture. So what we – or, I should say I – am left with is Johnson's picture of me, and his obvious antagonism toward this picture of me (which I do not take personally because, like all racial stereotypes, it doesn't have much to do with me).

Adrian Piper