Dana Schutz expected Open Casket, her painting that reimagines the iconic photograph of 14-year-old African-American lynch mob victim Emmett Till, to attract attention. But she wasn’t expecting so much controversy: At the opening of the 2017 Whitney Biennial, protesters blocked the painting from view, and over two dozen black artists signed an open letter requesting the painting be removed and destroyed because it co-opted black pain with a white gaze. In a new New Yorker profile, Schutz explained her reason for creating the image: “How do you make a painting about this and not have it just be about the grotesque? I was interested because it’s something that keeps on happening. I feel somehow that it’s an American image.” The artist also described her hesitance in painting it:
“There was so much uncertainty with this painting,” Schutz said, quietly. “You think maybe it’s off limits, and then extra off limits. But I really feel any subject is O.K., it’s just how it’s done. You never know how something is going to be until it’s done.”
While it seems that much of Schutz’s New Yorker profile was completed in the months before the Whitney Biennial opened, she did offer a response to the continuing controversy, and suggested that her painting requires the context of her process.
“I knew the risks going into this,” Schutz told me. “What I didn’t realize was how bad it would look when seen out of context. Is it better to try to make something that’s impossible, because it’s important to you, and to fail, or never to engage with it at all? I just couldn’t do it any other way.”