Critic, curator, and cultural historian Maurice Berger, whose work examined the role of race in visual culture, has died of complications related to the novel coronavirus. He was sixty-three years old. Berger held the position of research professor and chief curator at the Center for Art, Design, and Visual Culture at the University of Maryland and, until last year, contributed the monthly column Race Stories to the Lens section of the New York Times.
Born on the Lower East Side of New York in 1957, Berger grew up in a predominantly black and Puerto Rican public housing project; his childhood was a continued source of inspiration for his later writing and curating. Berger received his undergraduate degree from Hunter College and went on to obtain a PhD in art history and critical theory from the City University of New York, where he studied with Rosalind Krauss. In 1987, while teaching at Hunter, Berger collaborated with anthropologist Johnetta Cole on “Race and Representation,” a project that encompassed a book, an exhibition (cocurated by Lowery Stokes Sims), a symposium, and a film program. Three years later, his essay “Are Art Museums Racist?” appeared in Art and America, prefiguring many critical concerns of the era.
A regular contributor to Artforum in the 1980s and ’90s, Berger’s first piece for the magazine was a review in the May 1985 issue that examined T.J. Clark’s The Painting of Modern Life: Paris in the Art of Manet and His Followers (1985). For the April 1994 issue of Artforum, Berger organized “Man Trouble,” a special feature on masculinity in crisis with texts by Simon Watney, Herbert Sussman, Wayne Koestenbaum, Todd Haynes, and Kobena Mercer. Berger’s eleven books include The Crisis of Criticism (New Press, 1998), White Lies: Race and the Myths of Whiteness (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999), For All the World to See: Visual Culture and the Struggle for Civil Rights (Yale University Press, 2010), and Revolution of the Eye: Modern Art and the Birth of American Television (Jewish Museum/Yale University Press, 2014). Alongside his writing, Berger was a prolific curator. Some of his most notable exhibitions include “Minimal Politics” (1997), “Adrian Piper: A Retrospective, 1965–1999” (1999), “Fred Wilson: Objects and Installations 1979–2000” (2001), “White: Race, Whiteness, and Contemporary Art” (2003), “Action/Abstraction: Pollock, de Kooning, and American Art, 1940–1976” (2008), and “For All The World To See: Visual Culture and the Struggle for Civil Rights” (2010).
His film Threshold, 2012, was included in the 2012 Whitney Biennial. That same year, Berger began Race Stories, which he described as “a learning experience, for me and the reader, fostering the racial and visual literacy denied me by my teachers.” Berger received many awards and grants from institutions including the National Endowment for the Humanities, National Endowment for the Arts, Association of Art Museum Curators, International Association of Art Critics, the Emmys, and the Andy Warhol Foundation.