It is not an understatement to say that, without Maurice Berger, we might not have be having some of the discussions we currently have today in the art world. A tireless advocate for a more diverse museum world, Berger, who died at 63 of coronavirus-related causes on Monday, is considered one of the best thinkers on race, in particular as it relates to photography. To survey his output over the years, below is a guide to five of his most essential works.
“Are Art Museums Racist?” (1990)
First published in Art in America (which is owned by the same parent company as ARTnews), this essay is considered Berger’s most famous piece of writing. Berger begins by discussing a showing of a David Hammons work at New York’s New Museum, which Berger considered one of many gestures by “curators with good intentions to ‘include’ the cultural production of people of color,” and then ties it to a larger trend facing major institutions across the United States, many of which have long had staff and boards that are predominantly white. “Not until white people who now hold power in the art world scrutinize their own motives and attitudes toward people of color will it be possible to unlearn racism,” Berger wrote.
White Lies: Race and the Myths of Whiteness (1999)
Though Berger is best known for his art-historical work, he occasionally ventured into other related fields, and in this book, his subject was whiteness and the way that people of his race had created a society that was oppressive toward people of color. Informed by Berger’s upbringing—his father was a mentally ill worker who believed black Americans deserved rights, his mother a Sephardic Jew who espoused racist beliefs—the book explores how, as Berger put it, “there is no ‘white’ culture—unless you mean Wonder Bread and television game shows.” The book was a critical success, with the New York Times calling it “startlingly original” upon its release.
“White: Whiteness and Race in Contemporary Art” at International Center of Photography, New York (2004)
The themes of Berger’s writings were often reflected by curatorial endeavors such as this one, which looked at a group of artists whose photographic work dealt—in ways both problematic and not—with race. A spread of approaches were surveyed: Nancy Burson showed a 2001 series of pictures for which she had sought out subjects that thought they looked like Jesus (all five were white men) and placed them alongside images of black, Hispanic, and Asian sitters, and Berger included a 1976 series by Cindy Sherman for which the artist posed in blackface.
“Revolution of the Eye: Modern Art and the Birth of American Television,” organized by the Jewish Museum, New York, and the Center for Art, Design, and Visual Culture, University of Maryland, Baltimore County (2015)
Historians have not shied away from pointing out the ways the moving image has influenced art-making in the first half of the 20th century, but such studies have tended to only consider film. Berger’s exhibition was special because it spotlighted the influence of what has long been considered a lesser moving-image medium: television. Drawing a line from the earliest game shows and commercials to the avant-garde strategies of Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray, and others, the show culminated in a gallery devoted entirely to Andy Warhol, who himself briefly had a TV show of his own during the 1980s.
“Using Photography to Tell Stories About Race” (2017)
Berger did not shy away from relying on events he witnessed firsthand to tell stories about art, and in this memorable entry to his “Race Stories” column for the New York Times‘s photography blog, Lens, the art historian spoke mainly in the first person. Using a story about how he chose to sit with his African-American friend on the “Black Side” while at school one day, Berger considered how experiences of racism continued to inform the way he interacted with photography. It was partly a reflection on his career so far. He wrote, “While some things have changed—art history has become more inclusive, for example, and a few artists of color have become superstars—the problem of racism persists.”