Behind the Controversy: Dana Schutz at the ICA

Late July brought an unexpected amount of controversy in the Boston contemporary art world when the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston opened their second summer exhibition covering a decade of work by painter Dana Schutz. Here’s everything you need to know about the artist, the exhibition, and why it has sparked national attention:


Big Wave  (2016). Courtesy of The Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston

Big Wave (2016). Courtesy of The Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston

Dana Schutz is a prominent American painter whose work combines abstract and figurative styles in vibrant colors. Her paintings are expressive and often uncomfortable. She stretches and twists the emotional content of her work the same way she distorts her depiction of human face and figure, presenting reflections of self, history, and society in a way that disquiets the viewer. Her pieces are packed tight with visual information, denying the eye any moment of respite. She crams complex narratives into her paintings with a technique that makes even the massive scale of her larger canvases feel claustrophobic. Her work is confrontational by nature: violent moments of tension or conflict in paintings such as Fight in an Elevator (2015) and Big Wave (2016); scenes that are physically impossible but emotionally true in work like Swimming, Smoking, Crying (2009) and Building the Boat While Sailing (2012); candid depictions of intimacy, in pieces like Shaking Out the Bed (2015) and Slow Motion Shower (2015) . There is an authentic note of struggle and chaos in every piece, both in its content and style.


Shaking Out the Bed  (2015)

Shaking Out the Bed (2015)

The Dana Schutz exhibition currently on view at the ICA is a retrospective of the past decade of her work. The exhibition showcases the impressive scale of some of her paintings, and her ability to weave intricate stories in a single image. Many of the pieces are accompanied by a short description that reveals and contextualizes the concepts behind it. The exhibition occupies three galleries. Each doorway opens to a massive painting, providing enough space to see the work from a distance. The juxtaposition of the smaller paintings on the walls flanking the opening allows the viewer to easily compare the different sized work, emphasizing the artist’s ability to consistently effect a loaded visual impact regardless of scale.


Schutz’s unflinching insistence on discomforting her audience brought forth controversy during the 2017 Whitney Biennial. The offending painting, Open Casket, was based on a photograph of Emmett Till, an African-American boy lynched in the 1950s for allegedly flirting with a white woman—an accusation which was later admitted to be false. Till was 14 at the time. As implied by the title, the photograph Schutz chose as a basis for her painting was one from his funeral. His mother insisted on an open casket to display the brutality of his murder. The painting was met with immense outrage, especially within the Black community, from those who considered it an appropriation of Black struggle by a white woman who does not have the authority to utilize this ongoing injustice in her work. The issue has been divisive between those who consider the painting exploitative and those who consider its removal to be a censorship. The painting is not included in the ICA’s exhibition.


In response to the ICA’s decision to move forward with an exhibition of Dana Schutz’s work following the Whitney controversy sparked a slew of protests demanding that the ICA cancel the show. In response, the ICA invited open conversation on the issue by scheduling a meeting with community representatives to discuss the implications of the exhibition. After the conclusion of this meeting, the ICA and its Chief Curator, Eva Respini, and Director, Jill Medvedow, decided to move forward with the exhibition while continuing dialogue about the underlying controversy. While grateful to the ICA for extending the meeting, those opposing the exhibition found it an inadequate response to the issues raised, criticizing the ICA for condoning the action on an institutional level by allowing the show to continue.


Supporters of Dana Shutz’s work remaining on view believe that taking down her exhibition would be an act of artistic censorship. In an open letter signed by 78 members of the National Academy, a society of famous artists, they expressed that cancelling the ICA exhibition, which does not include Open Casket, would promote the suppression of diverse artistic perspectives. Respini maintains that Open Casket was never meant to be in the exhibition, which was always meant to focus on her more imaginative scenes.

Regardless of where we stand on the controversy, it is our responsibility as supporters of the arts to remain informed about the conversations incited by the community – the function of compelling contemporary art is to create cultural dialogue.

Dana Schutz is exhibiting at the ICA through November 28, 2017.


Tuesday, August 15, 2017: Puloma Ghosh