PRINT May 1993



WHITNEY-SLAMMING HAS LATELY achieved the status of high sport, and predictably enough the press has had a field day with the current installment of the Biennial. Indeed the museum’s director, David Ross, could hardly have been more prescient when he remarked in his introductory note to the the Biennial catalogue, “Oddly, consideration of the construction of identity, central to an understanding of contemporary society, may seem to some inappropriate as the framing reference to introduce an exhibition surveying the past two years of American art.” When a show is premised on a summing up of the last two years of artistic culture, the stakes are high to begin with; in the case of the current Biennial, where the focus has shifted from the usual survey roughly mirroring the temper of the art market to a purposive attempt to map an artistic phenomenon that, almost by definition, percolates at the peripheries of mainstream gallery culture, the pitch of debate has crescendoed in a seemingly bipartisan onslaught of vitriol. Even to the most sympathetic of the 11 writers we invited to respond to the show in a special section that runs in this issue in lieu of our regular columns (the columns will return in their usual spot next month), much of the Biennial seems dispiritingly parochial if not downright ingenuous. Nevertheless, a serious attempt to break with the tried but tired tradition of the roundup, and to position the show at a crucial nexus of cultural contestation, is itself cause enough to applaud.

Happily, the responses our writers have sent back sidestep the facile polemicizing that has characterized much Biennial commentary thus far, entering the discussion by surprising and personal routes that up the stakes of the debate instead of battening down the hatches in the face of culture’s inevitable modulation. Though frequently critical of the proceedings at hand, in most instances these writers wear their ideological adjustments on their sleeves. Glenn O’Brien dismisses much of the show as so much pious dreck, but he also finds plenty to enjoy; dubbing himself a “studly, womanizing, ofay, honkey, mick dude,” he separates himself from the shrill reactionaries who disguise their tastes with a rhetoric of absolute, “value-free” “quality.” Speaking from a very different place, Hilton Als opens the proceedings with a characteristically in your face diatribe that some will decry for playing too fast and too loose with derogatory stereotypes; read it not as a hostile slam at the artists in the show, but as an urgent refusal in the face of well-meaning but reified pieties. Deeply implicated in a complex negotiation with the various institutions in which it circulates, Als’ text, like much of the best art in the show, works this troubled territory, inhabiting the language in which experience of it is necessarily inscribed rather than retreating into complacent propriety. It is in this spirit that later in this issue we run “History of the Suburbs,” Als’ collaboration with the art historian Molly Nesbit and the graphic designer Darryl Turner—an aggressively performative meditation on “writing and difference.”

—Jack Bankowsky