Maurice Berger (May 22, 1956 – March 23, 2020) was an American cultural historian, curator, and art critic.
He died on March 23, 2020, from complications related to COVID-19.
Berger was research professor and chief curator at the Center for Art, Design and Visual Culture, University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Berger wrote the monthly Race Stories column, "a continuing exploration of the relationship of race to photographic portrayals of race", for the Lens Section of the New York Times. Berger grew up poor in a predominantly black and Puerto Rican public housing project on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, an experience that shaped his view of race. "As a Jew, I have known anti-Semitism. As a gay man, I have known homophobia," Berger wrote in the New York Times in 2017 about his childhood. "But neither has seemed as relentless as the racism I witnessed growing up — a steady drumbeat of slights, thinly-veiled hostility, and condescension perpetrated by even the most liberal and well-meaning people. It was painful to watch. And, as my friends let me know, considerably more painful to endure."
Berger engaged the issues of racism, whiteness, and contemporary race relations and their connection to visual culture in the United States. In the mid-1980s he was an assistant professor of art and gallery director at Hunter College. His interdisciplinary project "Race and Representation", co-organized with the anthropologist Johnnetta B. Cole at Hunter College in 1987, included a book, art exhibition, and film program. His study on institutional racism, "Are Art Museums Racist?", appeared in Art in America. In the early 1990s, Berger extended his work on visual culture and race to include sustained study of the work of African-American artists, performers, filmmakers, producers, and cultural figures, culminating both in solo exhibitions ("Adrian Piper: A Retrospective" and "Fred Wilson Objects and Installations"), multimedia projects (including compilation videos and elaborate context stations for art exhibitions), and essays (on subjects as diverse as black artists and the limitations of mainstream art criticism, the racial implications of art historical and curatorial efforts to evaluate "outsider" art, the Harlem Document project of New York's Photo League, and the photography, writing, and films of Gordon Parks)."
Berger curated a number of race-related concept-based exhibitions, including For All The World To See: Visual Culture and the Struggle for Civil Rights—a joint venture of the National Museum of African American History and Culture of the Smithsonian Institution and the Center for Art, Design & Visual Culture at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. This exhibition examined the role played by visual images in shaping, influencing, and transforming the modern struggle for racial equality and justice in the United States. The exhibition, "posits the camera—and the proliferation of black images in pop culture—as a crucial weapon in shaping public opinion and motivating change in America before and during the civil-rights era," wrote The New Yorker magazine. "[Its] evidence is rich and varied, including film clips of Paul Robeson, Amos ’n Andy, the March on Washington, Malcolm X, and the Supremes, as well as a wide array of printed matter, from copies of Ebony, Jet, and Sepia to a poster for Shaft."
Berger’s writings have appeared in Artforum, Art in America, New York Times Pen America, Village Voice, October, National Geographic, Brooklyn Rail, Wired, and Los Angeles Times. In addition to his eleven books,which include White Lies: Race and the Myths of Whiteness (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1999) and For All the World to See: Visual Culture and the Struggle for Civil Rights (Yale, 2010), Berger is the author of numerous essays for anthologies and exhibition catalogs. White Lies, an experimental and largely autobiographical book, counterpoises short stories, vignettes, and analytical texts to examine the nature of whiteness as a racial category and to make it visible and comprehensible to the reader. The historian David Roediger has noted of the book, that its passages "gather classic accounts of what whiteness means . . . Berger's collage of provocations from experts on white identity coupled with bursts of poignant autobiography, destabilizes racial certainties.”,
Berger's exhibitions on race and culture include retrospectives of the artists Adrian Piper (1999) and Fred Wilson (2001) both traveling extensively in the United States and Canada. In 2003, he organized White: Whiteness and Race in Contemporary Art, which featured the work of Cindy Sherman, Nayland Blake, William Kentridge, Gary Simmons, Paul McCarthy, Nikki S. Lee, Andrea Robbins and Max Becher, and Mike Kelley, among others. Berger has advocated for more aggressive educational outreach and broader cultural and social context for high art in museums, creating complex, multi-media "context stations" for numerous exhibitions, including Action/Abstraction: Pollock, de Kooning, and American Art, 1940–1976, Jewish Museum (2008) and Black Male: Representations of Masculinity, 1968–1994 (1994) and The American Century: Art & Culture, 1950–2000, (1999), both at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. Additionally, he was the curator of Hands and Minds: The Art and Writing of Young People in 20th-Century America, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. (1998), an exhibition, and a catalog with a preface by First Lady Hillary Clinton, on the importance of arts education that traveled across the United States.
From the mid-1990s on Berger produced cinematic “culture stories,” syncopated compilations of historic clips from American film and television that explore issues of identity and self-representation. His film Threshold was featured in the 2012 Whitney Biennial. The film was inspired by his conversations with Alicia Hall Moran and Jason Moran about their ideas for Bleed, their residency for the biennial. Threshold is a continuum of images from popular culture produced during the period of or about the historic civil rights movement. Critic Ben Ratliff, writing in the New York Times, observed that "Threshold strung together clips from movies and television shows of African-Americans beginning various journeys, passages or challenges: Diana Ross and Michael Jackson on the yellow brick road in “The Wiz”; dancers on “Soul Train”; Denzel Washington as Malcolm X stepping up to a podium. The mood of that film carried through the whole week: moving forward, crossing lines, evolving."
Awards and honors
For his Race Stories column for the Lens Section of the New York Times, Berger was the recipient of the 2018 Infinity Award from the International Center of Photography and the 2014 Arts Writers Grant from Creative Capital | Andy Warhol Foundation. He has received multiple grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, National Endowment for the Arts, Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Peter Norton Family Foundation, Trellis Fund, and J. Patrick Lannon Foundation. For his work on the “For All the World to See” segment of WNET Sunday Arts, Berger received an Emmy Award nomination from the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, New York chapter. His book White Lies: Race and the Myths of Whiteness (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1999) was named as a finalist for the 2000 Horace Mann Bond Book Award of Harvard University and received an honorable mention from the Gustavus Myers Outstanding Book Award from Boston University School of Social Work. His companion book for For All the World to See (Yale, 2010) was named Choice Outstanding Academic Title 2010, Art and Architecture from the American Library Association and was a finalist for the Benjamin L. Hooks National book Award from the University of Memphis (2011).
Berger's curatorial honors include “Exhibition of the Year 2008” (Action/Abstraction) and “Best Exhibition in a University Museum 2010” (For All the World to See) from the Association of Art Museum Curators, and “Best Thematic Exhibition in New York, 2008” (Action/Abstraction) from the International Association of Art Critics, American Section. He has also received the Alumni Achievement Award from the Graduate Center of the City University of New York (1998) and the Award for Excellence and Achievement in German Studies from the German Counsel General, New York (1977).
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