Katherine Sherwood and Lawrence Rinder Debate Create

The following is correspondence between Katherine Sherwood, Professor of Art Practice and Disability Studies, UC Berkeley, and BAM/PFA Director Lawrence Rinder, concerning the exhibition Create, a group show presenting work by twenty artists produced at three Bay Area centers for artists with developmental disabilities: Creative Growth Art Center, Creativity Explored, and NIAD Art Center. On view through September 25, 2011, the exhibition is curated by Rinder, with Matthew Higgs, director of White Columns, New York. Feel free to contribute your own thoughts on the exhibition in the comments section below.

June 11, 2011

Dear Larry,

Congratulations on the Create show. The work looks amazing, which in the end is the most important thing. It was refreshing to see the work on tall walls in open galleries with plenty of space around them. The installation was expertly done and I commend you for your choice of artists in the exhibit. It should be no surprise that I was most impressed by the second floor which did the best job of blurring the lines between these artists and that of contemporary “art world” practitioners. However, I feel compelled to say that I question how the exhibit has been framed particularly in your essay in the catalog. Since it is the only essay, presenting only your view, I feel a certain responsibility to make you aware of the strong reactions of the disability community who have seen the exhibit.

Throughout the essay you conflate mental illness with developmental disabilities and thus flatten the whole enterprise. You explain that in the past the two terms were confused. You provide us with a legal definition of developmental disabilities but don’t further expand it to include the wide span of conditions it encompasses such as autism, down’s syndrome, deafness, etc. None of the Create artists would warrant being in a mental institution or claim mental illness as their disability. Larry, why set up the false comparison between them and the psychiatrically disabled?

To my knowledge, the Art Brut fold doesn’t include any developmentally disabled artists. Dubuffet founded Art Brut in 1945 but art of the mental institutions from Germany, Switzerland and Austria were first brought to the attention of avant-garde art circles in Berlin and Paris in 1923. Dr. Hans Prinzehorn’s, an art historian and psychiatrist, wrote the book The Artistry of the Mentally Ill which was said to be under every artist of the time’s bed. In 1921Walter Morgenthaler published A Psychiatric Patient as Artist about the work of the Swiss artist Adoph Woffli decades before Dubuffet aped the style of “asylum artists”. Many of the institutionalized artists were killed during the Action T4 when the Nazi tried out their killing machines on the disabled population all before Dubuffet made his proclamation in 1945.

Larry, you mention the clichés about disabled artists. What are they? What does art by the disabled look like? Aren’t you implying that to be a disabled artist you must have a developmental disability? Where then do disabled artists such as Joseph Grigely, John Dugdale and Corban Walker belong? These are presumptions that the disabled artists community has been working against for decades. The dualistic label of “insider and outsider” artists has been exhaustively questioned and only serves to reinforce negative stereotypes about these artists.

Your comparison of the Create artists with John Clare is highly problematic. Your questions ” Was Clare “developmentally disabled” or “mentally ill”? Or was he simply a poetic, slightly eccentric man who dared to challenge the social castes and norms of his day?” aren’t the right ones. I would argue his severe drinking and having 7 children with no means of support had something to do with his voluntary commitment to a mental institution.

Furthermore Larry, where are the voices of the Create artists? What other essay in an art catalog doesn’t mention one of the artists, doesn’t discuss work by them? Why list mainstream artists that the Create artists are similar to except in an obvious effort to legitimize them? Why aren’t any artists names listed anywhere in the web site, poster or invitation?

My last question is why didn’t you think to ask me to look at your essay before it went to press? I would have been so glad to come over and discuss these points with you fully before it went to print. I am across the street and I have known you for 23 years. I have spent the last decade researching art & disability. All your staff knows this from the Blind at the Museum and the [James] Castle exhibits. I teach in a Disability Studies Program that has worldwide recognition. The disability community expects more from the Berkeley Art Museum. Sadly, the framing of this exhibit seems to belong to a different time and place.


Katherine Sherwood


Dear Katherine,

Thank you for your kind words about the selection of artists and the installation of the show.

I’d like to respond to the points you raise about the framing, especially in the catalog. To begin with, concerning your point that I conflated mental illness with developmental disabilities, I had actually hoped to bring some clarity to the distinction between mental illness and developmental disability, so I’m sorry to hear that I further confused the issue. In the catalog essay, I introduced the legal definition of developmental disability for this reason, while indicating that prior to the creation of this definition the two categories do seem to have been conflated.

I can see now, though, that a major shortcoming of my essay is that it does not adequately distinguish mental and physical developmental disability. This is obviously a shortcoming. The federal definition of developmental disability clearly states that it can include physical disability (deafness, blindness, etc.).

I would have improved the essay and its clarity had I mentioned the span of conditions encompassed by mental developmental disabilities and indicated how these are represented (or not) among the centers’ artists. Specifically, I should have indicated that while some of the artists have physical developmental disabilities, they all have some form of mental developmental disability (autism, mental retardation, etc.) and it is the latter that is the focus of the centers’ work.

The reason I introduced the phrase “mental illness” is because prior to the creation of the concept and legal category of “developmental disability,” these conditions were often conflated and so in looking back historically it seemed relevant to touch on attitudes toward work made by artists generally categorized as mentally ill. And, in fact, several of the older Create artists lived in mental institutions for decades.

You asked about my mention of Art Brut and asked if any developmentally disabled artists are included in that collection. I believe that Judith Scott is in their collection and both she and Dan Miller have exhibited there. My point in introducing Dubuffet and some predecessors (i.e. Benjamin Rush) was to give examples of the romanticized attitudes towards art by the mentally ill/developmentally disabled during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. I did point out in my text that Dubuffet imitated art that he called “art brut.”

By the way, I came across this interesting statement online. I’m not sure if it is the official view of the art brut collection:

“Art Brut is visual creation at its purest—a spontaneous psychic flow from brain to paper. No works of Art Brut are allowed to be exhibited away from the Collection at Lausanne. Equally, the name ‘Art Brut’ is not permitted to be used except as a description of the works in the Collection. Similarly, the Collection de l’Art Brut insists that it alone can officially designate any newly discovered works as Art Brut.”

Concerning clichés about developmentally disabled artists, I was referring specifically to those with mental conditions, about whom, sadly, I believe clichés do exist, i.e. art that is “obsessive,” emotionally exaggerated, etc. I was not referring to those with solely physical developmental disabilities (i.e. deafness) about whom I do not believe such clichés exist. Again, I should have done a better job of distinguishing between mental and physical developmental disability in my essay.

The focus of the three centers, and therefore the show and catalog is mental developmental disability. As far as I know, the artists you mention—Dugdale, Grigely, and Walker—have physical developmental disabilities only. I agree about the label “outsider art” and I was trying to make this point in the essay. I do not find these categories to be especially meaningful or helpful; however, they are widely used (including by Creative Growth, for example), so I felt it was important to mention them, if only to use the opportunity to explode some lingering clichés, especially concerning isolation.

You object to my mention of John Clare. My intention was not to compare him to the Create artists but to show that since language, definitions, attitudes, and diagnoses change, it is difficult to have a clear history of art (or creative work generally) by persons with what we now consider to be mental developmental disabilities.

Concerning the voices of the Create artists, you ask about how my own catalog essay could fail to mention a single one of the artists in the show. The catalog does include individual short essays by Kevin Killian about every one of the twenty artists. My own essay, which functions as a kind of introduction was never intended to address the art in the show per se, but rather to set the stage for the exhibition and provide some context and framing. I indicate in my text that besides loving the art itself, one inspiration for the show is the phenomenon of small communities that generate a remarkably large and rich creative output, places like Black Mountain College, Gee’s Bend, or Fort Thunder. I aimed, in my text, to give some background on the three centers, which entailed describing some of the shifting definitions around disability and the history of attitudes towards disability and art. The 2002 Whitney Biennial catalog essay (which was called an “introduction” though there was not an additional essay in the book), does not mention any individual biennial artists. Indeed, that book, with its subsequent one-page texts on each artist is a good comparison, in format, to the Create book.

In the case of Create, our initial intent was to have had an additional essay that would have discussed the artists in some depth. The writing duties were initially divided among myself, Kevin Killian, and a third writer. I was responsible for discussing the overall theme and introducing the history of the centers (essentially an “introduction”), Kevin’s task was to write about each artist’s work individually, and the other writer was to have written about the artists and their relationship to the contemporary art world, locally, nationally, and internationally. This would have nicely covered all of the bases. However, very late in the process, the third writer told me he could not complete his text. It was much too late to commission another writer. As originally planned, the catalog would have included this important, now missing, dimension. Fortunately, Matthew Higgs was present at the June 23rd panel and filled in some of this information then. Also, we have been looking into the possibility of including some of the artists as speakers in a public event in September.

All twenty artists’ names are on the exhibition’s web page [link http://bampfa.berkeley.edu/exhibition/create]. Often, institutions will not list the names of all of the artists included in group shows, only the most prominent. With so many artists, we felt it wouldn’t work to include all of their names in advertising and on the invitation. And I didn’t want to highlight particular individuals in these contexts as I believe every one of them is excellent, though some are better known than others.

You suggest in your letter that listing mainstream artists in the short catalog essays is an “obvious effort to legitimize them.” I don’t see it that way. Comparison to other artists is commonplace in art writing. This approach is also very much part of Kevin Killian’s style, generally, as in his frequently presented plays, he is constantly alluding to well-known artists and cultural personalities as a way of illuminating the character and creative work of others. Furthermore, with works in exhibitions at places like Gavin Brown’s enterprise, MoMA, SFMOMA, and the Palais de Tokyo, it’s hard to say now that many of these artists are not mainstream themselves. There just doesn’t seem to me to be any reason not to discuss them in that context.

As to why I didn’t consult with you prior to going to press: I wish I had! You have raised some excellent points that I will certainly clarify in future presentations and should we print another edition of the book. As it is, I sent my essay to the executive directors of all three centers. I made corrections and addressed issues they raised. Finally, though, all of the shortcomings are mine alone!

The main focus of this show is, of course, the art. Secondarily, it is the phenomenon so much great art being made in a concentrated community. I speak about this in my essay, but in a longer text I would have explored more deeply what these three centers have in common with some of the other examples I mention. In any case, in these respects—that of presenting great art and highlighting the phenomenon of a highly concentrated community of artists—I do not think the show is untimely at all.


Lawrence Rinder

Photo: Sibila Savage