Remembering Maurice
by Dominique Clayton · April 06, 2020
Maurice Berger photographed by Seher for UNDO Magazine, 2019.
Maurice Berger photographed by Seher for UNDO Magazine, 2019.

Maurice Berger, noted art critic, curator, and long-time AICA-USA member passed away of COVID-19 related complications on March 23, 2020. While his contributions to the field of art writing are many, he is well-remembered for his work on racial justice, equity, and inclusion in the arts. Among his numerous significant works are White Lies: Race and the Myth of Whiteness (Farrar Straus Giroux, 1999), For All the World to See: Visual Culture and the Struggle for Civil Rights (Yale University Press, 2010), and his 1990 essay "Are Art Museums Racist?", recently republished by Art in America. Maurice was a valued friend and colleague to so many of us. His voice will be sorely missed. In honor of his memory, AICA-USA has invited art writer and gallery founder Dominique Clayton to write about her experience working with Maurice as part of AICA's Art Writing Workshop. Her remarks are below. - AICA-USA co-presidents Norman L. Kleeblatt and Judith Stein

Last fall, I learned of my acceptance to the Art Writing Workshop. The program’s director, Amei Wallach and I spoke at length about my writing, my passions, and my goals. She mentioned that one of the mentors was particularly interested in my writing and that I’d be connected with him soon. A month later, she formally introduced me via email to Maurice Berger. The whole process was quite intimidating to say the least. As someone who is more comfortable with in-person connections, the idea of talking about my work in depth and sharing ideas over email and phone generated a bit of anxiety. Maurice was very matter of fact in our email exchanges. Polite, but concise and to the point. I had read his pieces in The New York Times, which offered some assurance, but I wondered if, as a younger black woman, I would be understood and successfully coached considering he was an older white man. One of the first things he told me on our initial call was that he loved my voice as a writer. He said it was strong, clear, and impassioned. I’m not good at taking compliments so I mumbled a thank you and quickly tried to change the subject. We dug into my writing samples and talked about my goals as a writer. Although accomplished and widely published, Maurice spoke to me as if I was one of his peers. I don’t know what the young Maurice was like or how his life experiences informed his writing. The work spoke for itself. He was an observer, a listener, and someone with a worldview that gave him the access to speak about Blackness in a way that other white writers, to my knowledge, have not. Perhaps this was because of his own otherness growing up as a working class New York Jew. Or Perhaps because the artists that he wrote about like Dawoud Bey and Kara Walker present blackness in their work so unapologetically and so clear. Maurice opened that lens so that others might understand and appreciate artworks in the ways that he did—the ways they ought to be seen. He made me feel I could do this through my own writing.

My last conversation with Maurice was on the afternoon of March 6th. I had submitted a review of a work I'd seen during Frieze Week LA in February, the painting, Guardian (2020) by Calida Rawles. I recorded that conversation so I could refer back to it for future assignments. During the call, Maurice gave thorough feedback, commenting “This is a beautiful piece of writing, and I felt absolute exhilaration when I got to the end of the second paragraph. You know that feeling when you read about something and you’re like ‘damn, I’m like 3000 miles away and I really want to see that show’ made me want to go see that show.” These words of encouragement were perfectly timed because I was suffering from burnout after a month of busy work at The Broad Museum, art fairs in Los Angeles, and managing the day to day operations of my household with three kids. I thought to myself, if my words are enough to make someone do or see something then that's a gift I should cultivate. Maurice and I also talked about race and identity. I shared with him my own hesitation about focusing solely on black artists in my writing and he assured me that it’s what the art world needs more of. I keep going back to his comment, “In the end, that exhilaration was so much about the fact that these were black subjects. It was for you and for me. When I read the last sentences, I felt such a sense of joy because I knew exactly what you were saying. And you didn’t need to say it explicitly. That’s important for us.”

Maurice and I agreed on a due date for my next assignment: March 27. He passed three days before the deadline. I’m a few days late, but I will write it just for him.

Dominique Clayton is an Los Angeles based arts manager, writer, and the founder of Dominique Gallery, an artist collective and pop-up exhibition program highlighting emerging artists of color and women. Her writing has been featured in Cultured Magazine, LALA Magazine, Sugarcane Magazine, Blavity, and her own Black Arts Diary.

Calida Rawles, Guardian, acrylic on canvas, 2020.
Calida Rawles, Guardian, acrylic on canvas, 2020.

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AICA supports arts writers around the world through public programs and membership that offers free access to museums across the globe. AICA-USA represents the largest national section of AICA International with over 450 distinguished critics, curators, scholars, and art historians working throughout the United States. As part of the international organization, we benefit from a global reach in presence. AICA-USA is intent on international communication, elevating the values of art criticism as a discipline, and acting on behalf of the physical and moral defense of works of art.

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