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The Theater of Refusal: Black Art and Mainstream Criticism

Diallo Simon-Ponte

Reframed reexamines significant exhibitions in Black art history—at the Studio Museum in Harlem or elsewhere. For its debut, Diallo Simon-Ponte revisits Charles Gaines’s 1993 exhibition The Theater of Refusal: Black Art and Mainstream Criticism.

I vividly remember my first genuine interaction with the work of Charles Gaines—it was October 25, 2023, some moments after five pm. Throughout the day, in the deep quiet of my being, I could sense several Black forces propelling me toward the encounter. So, under a fading sun that drew with it a thousand blues and in the hands of an unseasonably gentle wind, I stood in the presence of Moving Chains, Gaines’s 110-foot-long sculpture of the hull of a transatlantic slave ship on Governors Island. Within the structure, the spiritual whispers and wishes of my ancestors grew louder, and expansive ideas around the possibilities of the word “vessel” flowered in the verdant soil of my hours spent inside the ship. This was my introduction to his conceptual spatial choreography as an artist. I met the grandeur of Gaines’s mind once more this time as a curator as I revisited his 1993 exhibition The Theater of Refusal: Black Art and Mainstream Criticism.

Held at the Fine Arts Gallery of the University of California, Irvine, The Theater of Refusal: Black Art and Mainstream Criticism included artists Jean-Michel Basquiat, Renée Green, David Hammons, Ben Patterson, Adrian Piper, Sandra Rowe, Gary Simmons, Lorna Simpson, Carrie Mae Weems, Pat Ward Williams, and Fred Wilson. The presentation brought together not only the works of these artists but, in a subversive curatorial stroke of brilliance, also exhibited text panels of critical discourse written about each of them. This decision expressed how the art press had written Black artists into the margins. Here was both a venerative display of the prowess of these artists and an illustration of a lack of critical language that would support their practices in the mainstream media. Gaines identified the problem in 1993 at first as a deficiency in engagement, a dearth that “had been replaced by excess, silence by chatter,” as Catherine Lord writes in the introduction of the exhibition catalogue.

Taking The Theater of Refusal’s framework of interpretation and applying it to the contemporary state of critical discourse around Black artistic production, Gaines revisited his show with fresh eyes in a panel discussion hosted by Printed Matter four years ago, and more recently for RETROaction, an exhibition at Hauser & Wirth in fall 2023. In that discussion, he asks “How do you know if you’ve emancipated yourself into your space of freedom?”1 The power of the original exhibition is that it still operates as an ideological point of departure for the reality we have inherited today. The early 1990s saw the beating of Rodney King and the ensuing LA protests, the 1993 Whitney Biennial, and the theatrical release of Daughters of the Dust (1991), a film by Julie Dash. For me, all three of these happenings are intrinsically linked by both a chronological bond and a shared demand that identity discourse drastically take shape around them. This was the temperature that The Theater of Refusal was baked in. However, about thirty years later we sit in the wake of the murder of George Floyd and countless others, as well as the Black Lives Matter Movement, which catalyzed a widespread global reckoning for museums and the art world on how it would correctly historicize artists of color and deterritorialize the center or the mainstream. It is clear that the discourse remains inadequate and critically unstable. It would appear that we are once again students of Gaines’s teachings. A revisitation of The Theater of Refusal en masse feels incredibly vital for posterity’s sake. Once again it behooves us to spend more time in the vessel Gaines has built.

1. The Theater of Refusal in the Age of Liberalism, with Charles Gaines, Rhea Anastas, Naima Keith, David Platzker, and Cauleen Smith, introduced by David Senior, Hauser & Wirth Publishers & Printed Matter, Youtube, July 15, 2020,

RETROaction (Installation view), Hauser & Wirth New York 69th Street, 2023. Courtesy Hauser & Wirth. Photo: Sarah Muehlbauer 

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