A.I.R. Gallery — Sylvia Sleigh’s Resignation Letter
Roxana Fabius Sep 30, 2022 4 Minute Read
This essay is featured in the digital exhibition A.I.R. Gallery: Chapter 2.
Being part of a collective is complicated.
There are many requisite skills to be learned—including letting go of individual interests, and accepting, however begrudgingly, the majority’s leanings—and even when a single person has the continued patience required for group decision-making, they still might hit breaking points that define either their continuity or separation. Many artists have been part of A.I.R. in its almost fifty years of existence. Each individual story is different: some A.I.R. members have left feeling unheard by the group (Mendieta); others because their work with the organization felt complete (Spero); and yet others have left feeling gravely attacked or disrespected (Pindell). Each of these separations has been accompanied by a resignation letter that is now housed in the A.I.R. archives.
This text addresses the story behind Sylvia Sleigh’s resignation, based both on my close reading of her letter and on what I have heard from people who were around at the time. The curious thing about this specific resignation letter is that it intertwines many of the New York art world of that era’s most important actors, some of whom are today considered canonical and others of whom deserve rescuing from the oblivion that the biases of our historical and historiographical models have laid out.
Sylvia Sleigh (1916, Llandudno, UK–2010, New York, NY) joined A.I.R. in 1974 after a brief stay at SOHO20 as a founding member. After Sleigh relocated to New York City in 1962, she became a leading figure in the feminist art movement. Her figurative male nudes celebrated the relationships she established with her models; she even depicted the children of friends such as Nancy Spero and Leon Golub.
When I first encountered Sleigh’s letter, it struck me as important because it encapsulated many things that I was then beginning to understand were true of being part of a collective organization such as A.I.R. Gallery, which are encapsulated in finding a balance between the individual desires and the collective will. At the same time, I was surprised to discover that Lawrence Alloway—the eminent art critic to whom we owe credit for many fundamental concepts of twentieth-century art history, who challenged the formalism of modernism and who many say opened the door to the modes of art criticism and curating that we so freely practice today—was part of A.I.R.’s intimate circle.
What we can understand from the letter is that the A.I.R. collective asked Lawrence Alloway, the artist’s husband, to write a text (for the catalog for its fifth-anniversary exhibition at P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center) without consulting Sleigh ahead of time. This request came with certain parameters: Alloway would have to, for instance, write a specific number of words per artist so as to put all mentioned artists on equal footing. While Sleigh understood the necessity of writing about all of the artists in a show, the defining moment in this letter is her distaste for the request made of Alloway to write the same amount of words about each, as if this measure alone ensured equality. The last line of Sleigh’s letter reads: “A writer cannot be told what to write or how many words to write about each artist without patronizing them or losing his or her own integrity.”
Alloway, a widely regarded art critic who definitively transformed our understanding of the relationship between art and mass culture, believed in a criticism that “retained respect for variety and an interest in the simultaneous possibilities of different styles, and curiosity about the interconnections between positions generally thought of as separate. Such a criticism would be interested in coexisting generations working in different ways and not rest on age and style affiliations, as it generally does at present.” His was a criticism that believed in the complexities of connections and not in the simplicities of homogeneity. Accordingly, Alloway defended the lack of aesthetic cohesion that A.I.R. presented at its first exhibition in 1972, before Sleigh became a member. Rumor has it (and the letter also suggests) that Alloway was offended by the request because of the limitations imposed on his writing, and though he was a champion of A.I.R. and its mission, he felt his integrity would be at stake if he would agree to the request in the form it was made.
How we enact equal representation as a cooperative is a question that A.I.R. still grapples with today. At its core, is a reckoning question of the differences between equality and equity. A quick internet search tells us that “equality has to do with giving everyone the exact same resources, whereas equity involves distributing resources based on the needs of the recipients.”
This document demonstrates the ongoing struggle for balance that is present at a collective endeavor, but from that difficulty, a stronger network of support can be born. Asking someone to treat twenty or so artists equally is intrinsically problematic: not only is it true that not all artists need the same level of attention (despite the general lack of visibility that A.I.R. artists experienced), but it is also the case that any writer’s subjectivity will be undoubtedly expressed through their writing, and artistic freedom has always been a central tenet of A.I.R.’s raison d’etre. Still, the most compelling aspect of this challenging feature is that, even today, it remains one of the cooperative’s practices for the writing of catalog essays. In A.I.R.’s pursuit of equity, we have as yet found no better method for the enactment of equality. It is this question that still must be answered.
Roxana Fabius is an Uruguayan curator and art administrator. She currently lives and works between New York and Uruguay and serves as Executive and Artistic Director at CAMPO Garzón in Pueblo Garzón, Uruguay. Between 2016 and 2022, she was the Executive Director of A.I.R. Gallery, where she was instrumental to the institution’s programming direction and curated Dialectics of Entanglement: Do we exist together? (2018), the first restaging of the germinal exhibition Dialectics of Isolation which included the work of Ana Mendieta, Kazuko Miyamoto, and Zarina Hashmi. Also, at A.I.R she has organized programs and exhibitions with Gordon Hall, Elizabeth Povinelli, Jack Halberstam, Che Gosset, Regina José Galindo, Lex Brown, Howardena Pindell, Faith Ringgold, and many others. Other projects have been presented and exhibited at the Judd Foundation, New York, NY; Park Avenue Armory, New York, NY; Hessel Museum of Art, Annandale-on-Hudson, NY; Caixa Forum, Barcelona, Spain; Zona Maco, Mexico D.F., Mexico; Art Port, Tel Aviv, Israel; Centro Cultural de España, Montevideo, Uruguay; and Museo Zorrilla, Montevideo, Uruguay.