Suffer the Children

Rhonda Lieberman on the opening of “NYC 1993” at the New Museum

Left: Artist Nayland Blake. (Photo: Frank Expósito) Right: New Museum director Lisa Phillips and Alexander Skarsgard.   (Photo: Neil Rasmus/BFAnyc.com)

I KNEW A MUSEUM SHOW ABOUT “NYC 1993” would be creepy, I just didn’t know what kind of creepy. When the nostalgia train hits a time when you were actually an adult, you palpably experience the constructedness of history. Younger colleagues quizzed me “how it really was” like I was a stegosaurus hanging around the Museum of Natural History. (I guess I’d better get used to that…)

In the crowd in the New Museum lobby at the opening, a forehead tagged for Ash Wednesday was an apt harbinger of the evening: The implicit theme seemed to be “the suffering body of 1993.” The show was heavily skewed toward AIDS, gender politics, kinky sex, prostheses, fucked-up doll parts—like Charles Ray’s mutant family (a visual of arrested development with parents and children the same height, buttressed by two live normal-size guards, for scale)—all under the harshest medical lighting. We had lighting and white walls in 1993—but I don’t recall it seeming so harsh. Plus the bonus of schmoozebeasts and dealers running around enjoying “history’s” bump of (market) validation.

No Cary Leibowitz (whose profound “liteness” and marketing shenanigans with multiples were hugely prescient and influential). No word art à la Kay Rosen (which was also a big moment). No “loser art”—except Sean Landers’s écriture on legal paper monumentally installed to cover an entire wall. Mike Kelley was represented by relatively sleek framed drawings of garbage (not dirty stuffed animals). No messy scatter art. The typical aggressive shitshack of the era was represented by a large Jason Rhoades shed. There was an overall seriousness, sterility, and darkness in tone to the show—all under the harshest dental lighting, like at 4 AM in the club when they turn the lights on and you’re like “Ugh!”

Left: Artist Alex Bag. Right: Victoria Nicholson, New Museum associate director Massimiliano Gioni, and dealer Massimo De Carlo. (Photos: Neil Rasmus/BFAnyc.com)

One floor alleviated the “suffering body”–in-medical-lighting vibe like a soothing intermezzo: People lingered on the wall-to-wall Rudolf Stingel plush orange carpeting, festooned with a Felix G-T hanging lightbulb sculpture and murals of birds in flight, a small window customized with Robert Gober “prison” bars. The floor was designed, someone observed approvingly, “like an art fair booth you want people to notice.” It was womblike. I saw Jerry Saltz approach a cluster of people and ask “how art was different in 1993” (as if the show had induced a state of instant amnesia). I glided away, so he wouldn’t ask me. Then he caught up to me under a Julia Scher video monitor titled Mothers Under Surveillance.

We eyed each other: “Security was big then,” he offered affably. “We loved security!”

“Make it stop!” I thought as I lurked near a Paul McCarthy piece featuring a goat on a large dirt-covered platform. Deb Kass spotted me and did a classic double-take: a fellow relic of the ’90s. Both of us miraculously free of cobwebs. “Check out Patty’s piece in there—it’s really dirty!” she pointed to a small “lesbian” room that was attracting a crowd. “And check out my ‘Yentl Temple’ on Twenty-Seventh Street. Fifteen Yentls—it’s crazy!” she self-promoted like a Crazy Eddie commercial from the ’90s!

Left: Scott Rothkopf, Whitney Museum curator and associate director of programs, and artist Cheryl Donegan. (Photo: Frank Expósito) Right: Artists Peter McGough, Elizabeth Peyton, Jack Pierson, and T.J. Wilcox. (Photo: Neil Rasmus/BFAnyc.com)

Lutz Bacher’s video My Penis was mesmerizing: a close-up of William Kennedy Smith at his rape trial, saying “my penis” then screwing his face into a microgrimace like a gargoyle, repeated over and over again like an animated GIF. Then I thought of Anita Hill (technically 1991, but that era)… Clinton had just come into office… (“Make it stop!”)

Can you believe they included Annie Leibovitz but not Cary? They picked the wrong Leibowitz! Another striking omission, pointed out a fellow scribe, was Karen Finley.

History is written from the perspective of the winners. A veteran observer riffed they seemed to have curated this show basically working back from people who are marketable now, then checking to see what they were doing in 1993. Instead of digging up strangely neglected pieces hidden away in someone’s garage, they just typed a bunch of big names and “1993” into the keypad and had the registrars from Marian Goodman and Andrea Rosen send stuff over, he chuckled. No surprises like you’d expect when you consult an “archive,” or even a survey that ventures off the beaten track.

Left: Curator Klaus Kertess and artist Billy Sullivan. (Photo: Frank Expósito) Right: Artist Janine Antoni. (Photo: Neil Rasmus/BFAnyc.com)

“This show feels so trustee-driven,” the observer went on, curated through the rearview mirror of the art market. But 1993 wasn’t only about what the proven commodities of 2013 were doing back then. What about the also-rans who were really interesting and influential but aren’t big sellers now, and conversely, the then big shots who are now in eclipse? Those are the kinds of revelations you want from a show about “NYC 1993.”

“Someone should do the Howard Zinn People’s Art History of 1993!” said artist Ryan McNamara. Totally.

Left: Irina Serrano and artist Andres Serrano. Right: Charles Ray‘s work. (Photos: Frank Expósito)

Left: Collector Derek Wilson, Metropolitan Museum of Art curator Nicholas Cullinan, and collector Christen Wilson. Right: LA MoCA director Jeffrey Deitch. (Photos: Frank Expósito)

Left: Dancer David Hallberg. Right: Dealer Peter Currie and Tate Modern curator Stuart Comer. (Photos: Frank Expósito)

Left: Artist Ida Applebroog. (Photo: Frank Expósito) Right: Artists Robert Gober (middle) and Donald Moffett (right). (Photo: Samuel Roeck)