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Prestigious Artist Group Defends ICA Exhibit By Artist Behind Controversial Emmett Till Painting

Dana Schutz's 2009 painting "Swimming, Smoking, Crying," which is featured in her ICA exhibition. (Courtesy the artist and Petzel, New York)
Dana Schutz's 2009 painting "Swimming, Smoking, Crying," which is featured in her ICA exhibition. (Courtesy the artist and Petzel, New York)
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Eighty-three artists and architects affiliated with New York’s National Academy — among them some of the most famous in the country — have issued an open letter supporting painter Dana Schutz and the decision of Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art to present its current exhibition of the New York artist’s work despite a local protest.

“We would like to voice our unequivocal support for Dana Schutz, who has recently been excoriated by a group of Boston artists who are demanding that her current exhibition at the ICA in Boston be canceled, a demand meant to penalize Schutz,” state the authors, who include Marina Abramović, Chuck Close, Ann Hamilton, Alfred Leslie, Catherine Opie, Philip Pearlstein, Ed Ruscha, Carolee Schneemann, Dread Scott, Cindy Sherman and Kara Walker.

The move comes in response to a group of eight Boston artists and activists — Megan Smith, Allison Disher, Stephanie Houten, Pampi, Vonds DuBuisson, Dr. Barbara Lewis, Chrislene DeJean, Mallory Hanora — who distributed an open letter calling on the ICA to “please pull the show” on the day before the exhibition opened July 26.

The Bostonians objected to Schutz’s controversial painting “Open Casket,” which the white artist based on a 1955 photo of the mutilated body of the black 14-year-old Emmett Till after he was tortured and murdered by white men, one of the most infamous racist crimes of the 20th century. The painting, which is not in the Boston exhibition, sparked protests when it was included in the 2017 Biennial exhibition by New York City’s Whitney Museum of American Art, its preeminent roundup of American talent, in March.

“We question whether this exhibition is appropriate or responsible in the context of the sacrifice of Black bodies that is still exerting trauma on urban streets and in urban neighborhoods across the country,” the Boston group wrote.

Dana Schutz's painting "Open Casket" at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York in March 2017. (Alina Heineke/AP)
Dana Schutz's painting "Open Casket" at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York in March 2017. (Alina Heineke/AP)

“As fellow artists and architects, we wholeheartedly support cultural institutions like the ICA Boston who refuse to bow to forces in favor of censorship or quelling dialogue,” the National Academy group responds. “It is also of the utmost importance to us that artists not perpetrate upon each other the same kind of intolerance and tyranny that we criticize in others. We support the ICA-Boston and its decision to exhibit the works of Dana Schutz, and to maintain programming that fosters conversations between people with different points of view, especially given our current political climate of intolerance.”

The National Academy was founded by American artists and architects in 1825. There are more than 400 living Academicians, according to the institution’s website, whose ranks grow via annual election. “The candidate must be proposed, by an Academician who secures letters of recommendation from other members, and then voted on by the entire membership, achieving a two-thirds majority of the vote to be elected,” the institution states.

The ICA has continued with its Schutz exhibition, which is scheduled to remain on view through Nov. 26.

“We welcome the opportunity for debate and reflection on the issues of representation and responsibility, sympathy and empathy, art and social justice,” ICA director Jill Medvedow has said in a prepared statement before the show debuted.

“The ‘Open Casket’ painting was never in our show,” ICA Chief Curator Eva Respini has said. “Our show was about the hypothetical, the imagined. … We chose to focus on the more recent works, of these imagined scenarios — compression, vulnerability and struggle — that resonated most in our curatorial decision making.”

The full text of the letter by members of the National Academy, provided by the institution, is below:

August 3, 2017

As members of the National Academy, we would like to voice our unequivocal support for Dana Schutz, who has recently been excoriated by a group of Boston artists who are demanding that her current exhibition at the ICA in Boston be canceled, a demand meant to penalize Schutz, the artist behind Open Casket, a controversial painting featured at the 2017 Whitney Biennial, which draws on the well-known photograph of Emmett Till lying disfigured in his casket.

This painting is not included in the ICA exhibition.

As fellow artists and architects, we wholeheartedly support cultural institutions like the ICA Boston who refuse to bow to forces in favor of censorship or quelling dialogue.

It is also of the utmost importance to us that artists not perpetrate upon each other the same kind of intolerance and tyranny that we criticize in others.

We support the ICA-Boston and its decision to exhibit the works of Dana Schutz, and to maintain programming that fosters conversations between people with different points of view, especially given our current political climate of intolerance.

Sig Abeles, NA
Marina Abramovic, NA-Elect
Stan Allen, NA
Polly Apfelbaum, NA
Dotty Attie, NA
Judith Bernstein, NA-Elect
Robert Birmelin, NA
Willard Boepple, NA
Richard Bosman, NA
Gregory Botts, NA
Paul Broches, NA-Elect
Henry Casselli, NA
Walter Chatham, NA
Chuck Close, NA
William Clutz, NA
Lisa Corinne Davis, NA-Elect
Donna Dennis, NA
Jane Dickson, NA
Rackstraw Downes, NA
Jackie Ferrara, NA-Elect
Eric Fischl, NA-Elect
Louise Fishman, NA
Andrew Ginzel, NA
Jacqueline Gourevitch, NA
Philip Grausman, NA
Barbara Grossman, NA
27 Richard Haas, NA
Nancy Hagin, NA
Ann Hamilton, NA
Walter Hatke, NA
Julie Heffernan, NA
Nona Hershey, NA
Diana Horowitz, NA
David Humphrey, NA
Valerie Jaudon, NA
Roberto Juarez, NA
Harriet Korman, NA
Joyce Kozloff, NA
Tuck Langland, NA
Pat Lasch, NA
Jonathan Lasker, NA
Mel Leipzig, NA
Alfred Leslie, NA
James McGarrell, NA
Melissa Meyer, NA
Raoul Middleman, NA
John Moore, NA
John Newman, NA
Catherine Opie, NA-Elect
Tom Otterness, NA
Anthony Panzera, NA
Philip Pearlstein, NA
Judy Pfaff, NA-Elect
Ed Ruscha, NA-Elect
Joseph Santore, NA
Peter Saul, NA
Carolee Schneemann, NA-Elect
Dread Scott, NA-Elect
Annabelle Selldorf, NA
Joan Semmel, NA-Elect
Lorraine Shemesh, NA
Arlene Shechet, NA
Laura Shechter, NA
Cindy Sherman, NA-Elect
James Siena, NA
Elena Sisto, NA
Richard Sloat, NA
Kiki Smith, NA-Elect
Joan Snyder, NA
Gary Stephan, NA
Jessica Stockholder, NA
Immi Storrs, NA
Altoon Sultan, NA
Barbara Takenaga, NA
Claire Van Vliet, NA
Don Voisine, NA
Kara Walker, NA-Elect
Susan Jane Walp, NA
Sharon Wandel, NA
Leslie Wayne, NA
Stephen Westfall, NA
Jack Whitten, NA-Elect
Alexi Worth, NA

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Greg Cook was an arts reporter and critic for WBUR's The ARTery.

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