Please Wait by the Coatroom: Reconsidering Race and Identity in American Art


Far-ranging and thought-provoking essays on the relation of art and ethnic identity.

This first collection by award-winning author John Yau, drawn from decades of work, includes essays about Black, Asian, Latinx, and Native American artists: sculptors Luis Jimenez and Ruth Asawa; “second generation Abstract Expressionists” such as the Black painter Ed Clark and the Japanese American painter Matsumi Kanemitsu; the performance artists James Luna and Patty Chang; the photographers Laurel Nakadate and Teju Cole; and a generation of Asian American artists that has emerged during the last decade.

While identity is at the fore in this collection, Yau’s essays also propose the need for an expansive view of identity, as in the essay “On Reconsidering Identity,” which explores the writings of Lydia Cabrera and Edouard Glissant, and the possibilities of creolisation versus the reductiveness of Aime Cesaire’s Negritude.

Please Wait by the Coat Room is for serious readers interested in the art and artists of color that many mainstream institutions and critics misrepresented or overlooked. It presents a view guided by the artists’ desire for autonomy and freedom in a culture that has deemed them undesirable or invisible.

Editorial Reviews


Praise for John Yau and Please Wait By the Coatroom

“In this revelatory volume, John Yau challenges the art world’s omission and misrepresentation of Black, Asian, Latinx, and Native American artists. Yau’s passion energizes these reappraisals, and his writing captures the artworks’ physicality via striking observations and reverent attention to detail….This is a necessary corrective.”
Publishers Weekly

“Yau makes a case for the role identity and cultural background can play in the formation of an artist’s aesthetic choices, and he interrogates standard art historical hierarchies and the supposed objective viewpoint of the avant-garde. While he acknowledges a number of strides in recent decades toward a more inclusive, open version of art history, he also shows how far there is to come, a gap he helps to close through thoughtful pieces on artists such as Ruth Asawa, Kerry James Marshall, Richard Hunt, Jiha Moon, Ed Clark, and many more.”
Los Angeles Review of Books

“John Yau’s radiance of words and glistening observations about artists and the cultural sphere inspire and provoke. His peerless mode of describing and insights into the feeling of being cast aside compels all of us to reconsider makers and histories that have been waiting to be seen. Another brave, finely wrought collection that I will dip into time and time again.”
Asma Naeem, Dorothy Wagner Wallis Director at the Baltimore Museum of Art

“There certainly are many lively art critics right now. But if I had to name the one senior figure whose writing best reveals what’s happening, I would pick John Yau.”
David Carrier, Counterpunch

“John Yau’s art criticism is luscious and purposeful. He is generous with words, but not in an adulatory way. Rather, Yau aims at sounding the dimensions of an artist’s oeuvre and at unlocking its hermeneutic potential. This anthology, which bears the name of his landmark 1988 essay on Wifredo Lam’s marginalization at MoMA, gathers his voluminous work on artists of a wide variety of ethnic and cultural backgrounds, recognizing the importance of personal identity as a defining element of artistic expression. The collection is restitutive of what the art mainstream and formalist frameworks have tried to erase. Yau illuminates a world of artists disregarded or omitted in the modern art canon. Giving them the attention they deserve, this book is a breath of fresh air, and evidence of Yau’s lifetime of swimming against the mainstream’s conventions and hierarchies.”
Taína Caragol, curator of painting, sculpture & Latinx art and history, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian

“John Yau sees what others have long ignored: the art world’s willful blindness to race, its exclusion of people of color, and the complexity of artists relegated to its coat rooms. His criticism illuminates artists as makers, thinkers, and perhaps most radically, as people. Yau demonstrates the power of looking for yourself and saying what you mean, and challenges all of us do the same.”
Marci Kwon, co-director, Asian American Art Initiative, Cantor Arts Center

“John is a prescient critic who has set the stage for a more expansive view of art that the rest of us are only catching up to now. His insight into the work of artists who refuse to adhere to corporate and collector interests is unparalleled. His clear prose and intellectual curiosity come through on every page as he challenges us to think about art independent of lazy art-market narratives. For John, art is life.”
Hrag Vartanian, editor-in-chief and co-founder of Hyperallergic

“Over the twenty-five years that I have been a museum curator, I have turned to John Yau’s writing about the aesthetics of exclusion and fundamentals on how to operate as an Asian American in the art world, though we have been made to feel we are not of or from it. Yau writes with grace, complexity, and deep exploration. Please Wait by the Coat Room brings together decades of his expansive views on art by marginalized and underrepresented artists of color, most of whom, thanks in large part to his dedication, are celebrated widely today.”
Christine Y. Kim, Britton Family Curator-at-Large, North America Art, Tate Modern

“John Yau’s Please Wait by the Coatroom is the latest entry into the august tradition of poets writing about art. Yau’s sensitivity to words and their meanings and the gap between language and art is on display in this lively collection of essays that elevates the work of artists for whom the tangled knot of art and identity is central to their work.”
Helen Molesworth, writer and curator

“A generation has impatiently waited for this book. Poet and critic John Yau offers an intellectually lush collection of essays redefining the quest for identity with nuance, humor, and grace. There is nothing myopic or didactic here; Yau tells the story of excellence, precarity, and unsung heroes of painting, sculpture, and photography who continue to navigate the bowels of inequity. Yau’s description of seeing Wilfredo Lam’s painting hanging in the hallway to the coat room at the Museum of Modern art will go down in history as the quintessential example of the experience of thousands of artists of color lucky enough to be collected. He deftly uses this opportunity to excavate a generation of inequality in the global art worlds, but particularly in New York. Yau undoes previously canonized histories with precision. Yau is a polymath, deeply schooled in the canyons of metaphor in poetry, but here he is as precise and real as it gets.”
Kim Anno, painter, photographer, and film/video artist

About the Author

John Yau is a poet, fiction writer, art critic, and curator who began writing about art in 1978, when his reviews first appeared in Art in America. Since then, he has contributed essays to more than 200 catalogs and museum publications, curated exhibitions, and been the arts editor for The Brooklyn Rail (2007-2011) and regular contributor to the online magazine Hyperallergic (since 2012). The author of monographs on Jasper Johns, Liu Xiaodong, Catherine Murphy, A. R. Penck and many others, he received the Rabkin Prize for art criticism in 2021.


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