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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.”

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