The Santa Barbara Museum of Art (SBMA) has canceled an exhibition focused on the legacy of art historian Michael Fried’s landmark 1965 show, Three American Painters, months before its opening. Three American Painters: Then and Now was conceived and organized by SBMA’s former Deputy Director and Chief Curator Eik Kahng, whose position at the museum has been eliminated as of January, according to multiple sources interviewed for this story.
In a statement to Hyperallergic, a representative for the SBMA cited “the Museum’s mission, budget, relevance, and audiences” among the reasons for the show’s cancellation. But several participants and a board member who asked to remain anonymous suggested that there were other factors, including concerns that Fried would be viewed as homophobic based on statements he made in a private letter to the editor of Artforum in 1967, when he was 28 years old. In the letter, unearthed in a 2018 scholarly article by Christa Noel Robbins, Fried employs the term “faggot sensibility” to characterize certain aspects of Minimalist aesthetics.
Emory University professor Todd Cronan, who wrote an essay for the exhibition catalogue, brought up another possible motive, telling Hyperallergic that in a November 30 meeting, SBMA’s director Amada Cruz asked Kahng to stop working on the show because it was under consideration for its lack of diversity. In mid-January, Kahng’s position was eliminated due to “redundancy,” according to Cronan, as Cruz would be assuming the role of chief curator.
With respect to Kahng’s termination, an SBMA spokesperson said the museum could not comment on “confidential personnel matters.” Kahng did not respond to email inquiries.
Slated to open July 7, SBMA’s exhibition would have included works by the original “three American painters” — Jules Olitski, Kenneth Noland, and Frank Stella — and 22 other artists, among them Anthony Caro, Helen Frankenthaler, and contemporary photographers Thomas Demand, Candida Höfer, Thomas Struth, and Jeff Wall. Envisioned as a “historical re-creation” of Fried’s exhibition at the Fogg Art Museum, which lay the groundwork for the critic’s 1967 essay “Art and Objecthood” — a foundational art historical text that pitted post-painterly abstraction against Minimalism — the SBMA show extended Fried’s line of reasoning into the present day. It aimed to connect pioneering Color Field painters to a younger generation of photographers whom Fried would come to champion, investigating questions of authorship and materiality in the age of AI and digital mark-making.
A total of 62 loans had been secured and a print catalogue was ready to go to press by the first week of 2024, when artists and collaborators learned that the show had been scrapped altogether. On January 5, Cronan and other participants in the show received an email from the SBMA’s newly appointed director, Amada Cruz.
“As part of my responsibilities, I have been assessing all the upcoming programs of the museum, including exhibitions,” Cruz wrote in the email. “I have made some changes to these programs, among them the difficult decision to cancel the Three American Painters exhibition and publication.”
When Cronan asked Cruz to explain her decision, she replied, “As I mentioned, there are many reasons, but mostly I think this project is more suited to an academic institution. We serve a broader audience at the Santa Barbara Museum. I have suggested to Eik [Kahng] that she offer it to a university gallery.”
Cruz stepped into the role of director and CEO of SBMA in October, succeeding Larry J. Feinberg, who announced his retirement last February after a 15-year tenure. Previously, Cruz was director and CEO of the Seattle Art Museum for four years, and before that, the executive director of the Phoenix Art Museum, where her tenure could be described as tumultuous. She increased the museum’s endowment by almost $5 million within her first six months, but was criticized for her “abrasive management style,” reportedly leading to the resignations and firings of several museum employees.
Lauren Poster, whose father Jules Olitski was one of the three artists in the original 1965 presentation and who now runs the Jules Olitski Foundation, learned of the show’s cancellation from a registrar who emailed her to inform her that the museum would no longer require the pieces that the foundation was set to lend to the exhibition.
Asked by Hyperallergic what she thought of the possibility that Fried’s use of a homophobic slur many decades ago might be behind the decision, Olitski replied, “If that’s the reason, then [they should] say that and let’s have an open conversation about it.”
“We’re living in a time when we’re reckoning with what needs to be reckoned with,” she continued. “Let’s be honest about what things are and what they are not and put them in the proper context.”
Christa Noel Robbins, who authored the 2018 article in which she discusses Fried’s language, had a similar response.
“A show that properly historicized the generative value of Fried’s criticism, while still acknowledging the very real occlusions embedded in his approach to art’s history, would be brave,” Robbins told Hyperallergic. “Such a show could very well present as overly ‘academic,’ if, by that word, we mean carefully thought out, properly historicized, and willing to acknowledge and discuss that which is most controversial in our cultural landscape.
“But in our current moment bravery seems to be in short supply in the museum world,” she said.
Fried declined to comment for this story.
Among the dozens of participants and collaborators in the show were longtime patrons of Color Field painters. Dennis Yares, whose gallery has been exhibiting such works for six decades, expressed his dismay at the show’s cancellation in a January 16 email to Cruz and the museum board, calling the decision “preposterous.” David Mirvish, a Canadian gallerist and collector who was a major lender to the exhibition, remembers visiting Fried’s original 1965 show at the Fogg Museum and the profound impression it left on him, “like nothing I’d seen before.”
“What the art of that age brought, how it engaged me for 50 more years, that can’t be told unless you stand in front of those objects,” he said in an interview. “A gift has been taken away from the people of Santa Barbara, a gift to have their own judgment and experience.”
Artist Willard Boepple, whose 2014 monograph included a foreword by Fried, had lent one of his works from his own collection for Three American Painters: Then and Now — a series of silkscreen monoprints. He was “stunned” when he learned via another participating artist that the exhibition had been canceled.
“This exhibition was her baby,” artist Willard Boepple told Hyperallergic of former curator Kahng’s commitment to the show. “It wasn’t even Michael Fried’s idea.”
“I was honored to be included. There were interesting stories to be explored about where Color Field went,” Boepple said. “To have a show that embraces Charles Ray and Anthony Caro in the same room, and Jeff Wall and Frank Stella in the same room … I would have liked to see that.”