When Amy Greenspon decided to kick off the fall season at her New York gallery with a two-person show of work by Boyd Rice and Darja Bajagić, she had no idea she was about to trigger a firestorm. But after Greenspon Gallery sent out a mass email announcing the exhibition, a thread began circulating on artist-resource listserv Invisible Dole. The subject line read: “WARNING: neo-nazi showing in nyc.” Within a week, the exhibition was canceled.
The listserv email was referring to Rice, an artist and experimental noise musician who has been something of a controversial figure, with confirmed ties to white supremacist leaders. (He has denied being a Nazi.)
In 1989, Rice was photographed holding a switchblade wearing the uniform of the white supremacist group American Front, alongside organization founder Bob Heick, for an article about Neo-Nazis in Sassy magazine. Around the same time, he was a guest on Race and Reason, a public access television show hosted by White Aryan Resistance founder and former Ku Klux Klan official Tom Metzger.
The implication behind those appearances—that Rice himself is a white supremacist—has sparked enough outrage to persuade Greenspon that the exhibition should not go forward.
“Due to negative reactions to the exhibition announcement—which came from a broad range of people, and which were extreme—I quickly became aware that the exhibition was more complex and combustible than I had initially realized,” Greenspon wrote in an email to artnet News.
Rice himself appeared unfazed by the news. Following the show’s cancellation, the artist posted a photo on Instagram standing with Bajagić and one of his large-scale canvases. “Sorry to disappoint, but it might look far less controversial than one might expect,” he wrote, describing the works as “not terribly incendiary, just FABULOUS.” He told ARTnews that “something like this is a win-win situation. If the show happens, it draws a lot more attention to it. If it’s cancelled, I look like I’m too dangerous for New York City.”
In an Instagram message, Rice told artnet News that “there’s a lot more behind that Sassy Magazine photo than meets the eye,” citing a cryptic plan to free Charles Manson from prison. “We plan to re-stage the show, offers are coming in from all over the place,” he added. “There has been a lot of interest in me doing a solo show, but I want to do it with Darja exactly the way it was supposed to be presented in New York.”
Regardless of whether or not Rice genuinely embraces Neo-Nazi beliefs or is just a provocateur or troll looking for shock value, the controversy over the exhibition—and its cancellation—is becoming increasingly familiar territory for the art world.
Last year, London gallery LD50 became the subject of protests for hosting talks with right-wing extremists and exhibiting racist memes. (The gallery now appears to be defunct, though it’s unclear whether the controversy spurred the closure.) And just this week, the Nelson Mandela Foundation protested Ayanda Mabulu’s depiction of the former South African leader giving a Nazi salute on a flag emblazoned with a swastika. The artwork, which was being exhibited at South Africa’s FNB Joburg Art Fair, was ultimately removed from view.
The Rice controversy diverges from those examples in one way; his artworks are decidedly devoid of political content. The abstract black and white paintings that were scheduled to go on view at Greenspon Gallery resemble crumpled-up paper, part of a series the artist began as a teenager. (Greenspon’s former business partner, Mitchell Algus, showed similar works by Rice at his New York gallery in 2007.)
Of course, Rice isn’t the first artist to be penalized by the art world for perceived intolerant beliefs. Just last month, Germany’s Galerie Kleindienst moved to stop representing Axel Krause after the painter posted anti-immigrant views and support for the country’s right-wing AfD party on Facebook.
Like Rice, Krause doesn’t make political work, and his views are not reflected in his New Leipzig School paintings. The issue wasn’t the art itself. In both cases, the galleries had to determine whether they were comfortable promoting the artist behind the work.
For Greenspon, the decision was ultimately personal. “My choice [to cancel the exhibition],” she said, “was determined purely by a feeling of responsibility to the gallery, and to the culture and climate in which it exists. I feel a responsibility to listen to my community, and therefore responded in the best way I could. I believe it is important to reiterate that my choice to cancel was personal and—although deeply informed by current political and social realities—singular in its specifics.”
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