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In a New Novel, Critic Yxta Maya Murray Stakes a Claim for Women Artists of Color Who Get Erased From Art History

In a New Novel, Critic Yxta Maya Murray Stakes a Claim for Women Artists of Color Who Get Erased From Art History
Art Is Everything , a new novel by art critic and law professor Yxta Maya Murray , follows the life of Amanda Ruiz, a queer Chicana performance artist who writes essays about her life and art, over the course of about a decade. When the novel opens, Amanda is on the cusp of fame, at work on a mobile opera named Texit and an NEA-funded autocritical documentary she plans to film in Mexico, after having stretched a $10,000 Franklin Furnace grant over two years. All the while, Amanda writes her essays, which form the core of the novel’s prose and appear as essayistic captions on Instagram, Yelp reviews of exhibitions, Vimeo comments, and more, as well as descriptions for artworks posted to museum websites that are quickly removed.
Though Art Is Everything is imbued with humor, Murray also takes to task the racism, misogyny, and homophobia that run rampant in the art world, causing harm to women artists of color. All the while, the art of Laura Aguilar, Glenn Ligon, Mickalene Thomas, Joseph Beuys, Marisa Merz, and Agnes Martin is discussed, as are the lives of Jean Genet, Isaac Newton, and more. At first, the connections between the artwork Amanda is writing about and her own life seem tenuous. But you soon realize that they have everything to do with Amanda’s world.
To learn more about Art Is Everything , ARTnews spoke with Murray by phone.
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ARTnews: How long have you been working on the book and where did the ideas behind it come from?
Yxta Maya Murray: I worked on it for about 2.5 years. It came after a long period of not writing fiction and not making much in the way of art. I suffered some obstacles, as we all do, and to tell you the truth, I was assaulted by someone in the publishing industry and I just stopped writing. That gets reflected in the book. Eventually, I thought, Well, I really should start writing again. When I came to that conclusion, I started to think about all the women of color artists who had stopped making art. There’s that famous Linda Nochlin essay, “ Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists? ” I thought, Well, there are a lot of great female artists—that’s not a problem. What I’m worried about are women of color artists and queer artists who stopped making work because of this difficult thing of living in this world and the impossibility sometimes of making your work.
I started to look up artists who had had a hiatus or who had stopped [working]. A lot of of artists I found just kind of dwindled and it’s never explained why. I found this one artist named Rosa Rolanda, a Mexican American painter who wound up living most of her adult life in Mexico and who had ceased making art entirely after a series of setbacks. I compared that trajectory to someone like Philip Roth, who has this glorious career and then announces in the New York Times that he’s retiring. That turned out to be one of my motivating impulses and, ultimately, the subject of the book, which is about this artist, Amanda Ruiz, who is trying to make her work despite all the things that life throws at you. And that’s one of the reasons why I love her so much, because she does feverishly keep making art in one way or another, but she reveals how difficult that is.
At the same time that I was writing this book, I was also initiating my career as an art critic, so those two things really came together. I’d written about art as a law professor. I became very ill, and I had a huge surgery in 2015. Once I realized I was going to make it, I thought, You should write about whatever you want. So I started writing about art and writing about women who can’t make art and that became a very passionate force in my life.
How did you mold the book’s protagonist, Amanda Ruiz, into a character? Do you consider her to be somewhat autobiographical?
Amanda’s bisexuality and her ferocity is mine—I’d have to claim that. She has this constant hunger that I also identify with. She’s a little younger than I am, and she’s a conceptual artist whereas I am primarily a writer. But the struggles of trying to make art everything and thinking about the costs of that are certainly something that I have thought a lot about. When your life falls apart, that can be a great source for your art, but at a certain point, you do need support. So I have been trying to make work through the loss of parents, family members, through illness, through assault. To have a lengthy career in the arts is really an undertaking. I know that we’re supposed to valorize the penniless artist, but we don’t. We valorize the multi-million dollar sale, so it’s that struggle that I became interested in delineating.
The book is written as a series of social media essays, posted to Yelp, Instagram, Vimeo, and Quora—what Amanda calls at one point “Marxist-feminist screeds”—as well as unauthorized didactic texts that she posts to museum websites. How did you realize that this was how you wanted to tell the story?
She expresses herself through a variety of media, and some of these are legitimate and some of these are not. In terms of the illegitimate venues or fora that she accesses, I think a lot of us walk into museums and read the vinyl text on the walls and worry about the framing of an art show. That’s happened to me time and time again. It happened to me most strikingly at a 2016 Agnes Martin show at LACMA, which I do write about directly in the book. Agnes Martin, of course, is one of the great artists of the 20th century, one of the great personas of art history, and also a person who was a lesbian and who had suffered very much. Her work can sometimes come off either as glib or inaccessible if you don’t understand what’s going on or you don’t take the time to see what’s going on.
For me, the reason why Agnes Martin is special is because she had this philosophy of everything being united and everything being connected, a transcendent state she wanted to reach. That can come across as tedious or clichéd. But once you understand her life story, then you understand how much she had to go through to access this truth. She wound up making this work about our unity with nature, with the invisible world. One of the reasons that she did that, I suspect, is because she was an outsider. She experienced schizophrenia. She was in various mental hospitals, including Bellevue. She was a lesbian at a time when it was outlawed in the United States. All those things contributed to her suffering and also a state of mind that could see things that other people couldn’t. And yet when I went to the show, none of this was on the walls. I became very frustrated about that, and I thought about all the times when people of color, women, and queer people’s art had been displayed in galleries and museums and I hadn’t seen that kind of framing that explained who they were. I knew that that information was key to me. I think about it in terms of human rights, to have access not only to these images but also to these stories.
I also thought about Laura Aguilar, whose work for so long was not shown in galleries. You could only find her work in zines and pamphlets. On the web, you couldn’t really find it for a long time and it certainly wasn’t on museum websites. To be able to see the work of Laura Aguilar or Agnes Martin and to know their stories is to help you develop a world, to develop a self. So I began writing out of that.
The book opens with a very powerful chapter titled “I Didn’t Even Know These Existed,” which is about not knowing Laura Aguilar’s work. It’s very profound and I think reflects the ways that people, particularly in the Chicanx community, sometimes do not know our own history because it’s not accessible to us. There’s no way to learn about it because it’s not in history books or museums, or, as you point out, even on the web. How does that chapter parallel your own experience about learning of Laura Aguilar’s work?
I had certainly heard about her work, and I had seen some of her pieces. But before she died, when I would look for images on, say, MOCA’s website or on other museum websites, the same thing always came up: “No Image Available.” And they weren’t displaying her work either. I also noticed that when she died and became more famous, there were a lot more images available. I’ve been looking for her for years on the web. I and so many others we had to do this kind of detective work to access these images and the stories of our own history—not even just in terms of art. Our history has been erased. I can’t become fully myself without access to these images, to know what’s possible, to know what hurts, to know what the problem is, to know where to go next. These images help us develop ourselves. That’s why Amanda’s constantly running around trying to find images and writing in frustration when she can’t.
[ Read about Laura Aguilar’s lasting legacy. ]
Something else that undergirds Amanda’s journey is the ways in which she tries to do battle against the racism of the mainstream art world, which she takes to task.
The biggest problem is an enforced silence, a muteness, because we’re not given sufficient access so that we can tell the stories of our lives. This is a problem that we’ve talked about for decades. I definitely felt that I was combating a silence that was impressed upon me for several reasons. I mean, sexual assault is one way of keeping people quiet. And then also not being open to the stories of outsiders is another way. And what Amanda does is, she moves to channels where she can express herself. That’s what a lot of us have done. We’re trying to create a community in these other spaces. It’s a wonderful opportunity to think about new ways of making art, but the silence still exists. She’s railing against the big quiet and she’s doing that in spaces where she can be heard to a limited extent.
A few years back, I went to MoMA and I was going up to the second or third floor. I look into this room and I see an African-African guard standing in the center of the room. He was looking at what appeared to be nothing. And he’s just standing there staring into space. Nobody was engaging with him. I walked up to him and said, “Hey, what’s going on?” He said, “I have to watch this.” So I look at what’s going on and I see that he’s looking at a plastic, transparent string that is attached to a metal weight on the ground. They place this work by Robert Barry in the middle of the room and they were worried that people would walk into the string and get clotheslined—or more likely hurt the art. Afterward, I started to research the mental health of security guards and I found that it can sometimes be quite challenging if there isn’t enough stimulation.
I asked to take his picture because I realized that the museum was directing our attention to these works of art that we were supposed get this ultimate meaning from, art that was supposed to explain life to us, and simultaneously our attention was being directed away from a real human being who was being made to work under conditions that were difficult to inhumane. I thought that’s a pretty powerful conditioning, to ignore the inequality that exists within the museum space and to think that we’re looking at something that is good for us, while we’re actually being trained to look away from inequality.
Amanda’s writings are also filled with a lot of philosophical concepts, scientific theories, and histories.
The book does bristle with a lot of ideas. Amanda looks to things like biology and philosophy, and, to some degree, mathematics. She’s throwing her net really widely. She’s trying to make connections between herself and the rest of the world. She does that in part because white supremacy and hetero-male dominance have destroyed those connections. She has to reach out and try to understand where she exists within the larger scheme of things. That results in a boundless curiosity for her about how things work, where she is within that system.
At one point, after she’s been sexually assaulted, she gives an explanation for what’s happening. She says, “It’s like you think you’re in a Lyft, but what you’re really in is a truth factory, where everything you’ve ever believed in is getting destroyed and recycled into a fucking nightmare and the only way to make it stop is to search for gaps in the man-facts called human history—so that you can see where there’s a crack, where the things you knew before fell in. And I’m just trying to find them using Google.” She’s just trying to find out where she is in history, where she is in the world. And that’s why she has no problem looking at the brutality of biology or of mathematics and the beauty of it, too.
The concept of intersectionality, which comes out of critical race theory, also informed that approach. Intersectionality is about how people are not just made of one thing, that the binary doesn’t exist, but rather we are a welter of connections and that we’re also connected to others. Her madcap adventures into the worlds of philosophy, math, and science are her efforts to understand her widest connections in a world that would otherwise shrink her and say that she’s not connected to these great phenomena.
The internet search history listed at the end of some of the chapters are amazing and hilarious—foreshadowing things to come that make sense only when they’re written as a full-length chapter. And each chapter begins with the bracketed text. Can you shed a little light on these?
I think a lot of us have gone through our search histories and just shaken our heads: What was I doing today? What is wrong with me? It’s like prayer. “God, show me the way.” And in the absence of God, we have, I guess, a search window where we can put in these questions and get an avalanche of information, most of which is not relevant. It’s Amanda’s effort to try to contextualize and understand what she’s going through. And now it’s a form of prayer and request to understand. The bracketed materials serve as a context and explanation for these didactics and web postings that help explain where she was and what was happening when she began to write the essay.
Amanda’s journey centers around her romantic relationships and this tension between being a child-free artist and motherhood.
Since modernity happened, there’s been this perceived divide between the life and the work. Lots of people, like to say, “That’s not accurate. You don’t just choose between the life and the work. You try to balance them—have it all.” But I have found at various points in my life that in order to make work that you have to sacrifice certain things that might be very important to you. You’re made to wonder whether you’re making the right decision. I would also say that once you begin to lose family members or become disappointed in love, that your commitment to making art at all costs can start to really hurt. And Amanda is a woman with the capacity to get pregnant, so she’s worried that she will lose herself if she has a family. Like so many other women in various fields, we worry about how are we going to manage this—it seems impossible.
The book opens in 2011 and eventually we read about Amanda’s life during 2020 and into 2022. This book was probably well into production when the pandemic began in March and then when the surge of Black Lives Matter protests began last summer, both of which she mentions. Can you talk about the process behind accounting for this in real time?
I wrote the book and it was in production. We copy edited it and it was done. Covid landed and then the protests began. We were all in the streets screaming our lungs out, with masks on, about racial injustice in the United States. I said to myself, “I have to get this into the book.” I went back and looked for spaces where I could have some mention of this because Amanda is a character who would be deeply involved in the protests and also would be under very deep anxiety because of the medical hazard that we are now facing. The book looks toward a future where we’ve regained some kind of hope. And there has been an alleviation of this medical catastrophe, and I can only say that is what I really hope is going to happen. I hope that the future that imagined at the end of the book comes to pass.

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