Emma Sulkowicz, an artist best known for the 2014-2015 Mattress Performance (Carry That Weight), stood in front of a work by Chuck Close at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and a separate Close mural at the 86 Street subway station. Sulkowicz, accompanied by photographer Sangsuk Sylvia Kang, wore only black underwear and asterisks that had been drawn and taped on Sulkowicz’s body.
The performance, Sulkowicz told the New York Times, was prompted by the recent sexual misconduct allegations made against Close by numerous women. Close has characterized the allegations against him as overblown, telling the Times in late December: “Last time I looked, discomfort was not a major offense.” But the allegations against Close has led to a demand that his work, or at least his place in the contemporary canon, be reassessed. “Chuck Close Is Accused of Harassment. Should His Artwork Carry an Asterisk?” a headline at the Times asked. It is that very issue of the asterisk that prompted Sulkowicz’s most recent performance.
The Times’s piece on the asterisk raised questions about what a museum’s responsibility is in the wake of #MeToo. The question isn’t particularly new—feminist art historians and artists, as well as groups like the Guerrilla Girls, have criticized the inherent institutional conservativeness of museums, as well as the sheltered concept of “genius” that drives art’s cultural narrative, for decades—but it does perhaps seem more urgent, if not more public, than it has been in recent years.
Though the National Gallery of Art recently canceled an upcoming solo exhibition dedicated to Close, questions remain of how to contextualize the works of artists whose careers are underlined by abuse, as well as what constitutes a work’s value, and who gets to determine both. Whether or not Close’s work should stay on the walls of the Metropolitan Museum of Art or gather dust with thousands of other objects in storage, is a question that demands a reassessment of the entrenched narratives of “the artist” and the museum’s role in preserving them.
Sulkowicz’s performance, body covered with asterisks and standing in front of two of Close’s works, and later Pablo Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907) at the Museum of Modern Art, recentered those questions from the abstraction of conversation to the physical realities of the bodies of women. Drawn on the body, the asterisks conjure up the fleshy realities of the debate. Sulkowicz did not respond to Jezebel’s request for comment, but told the Times that maintaining the visibility of this work in prominent museums is “privileging a stupid painting over the experiences of survivors, and that to me is really abhorrent.”
“I just wished I could say to each of the museum directors: ‘If it had been your daughter who had been affected by Chuck Close and Picasso, how could you look her in the eye and say, Sorry, we’re keeping the painting and the painting matters more than my relationship to you,’” Sulkowicz added.