PRINT January 1995


The Whitney Biennial, it often seems, can do no right. The 1993 version of the show—the first of director David Ross’ tenure, and the first entrusted to a single curator—fared badly in the press even by Biennial standards, but the efforts of years past had also routinely drawn fire; group-authored, they were often seen as committee-compromised blueprints of the art-world pecking order. Curator Elisabeth Sussman’s forthright focus on politically motivated work was credited in some quarters as a wholesome corrective to this tendency, but it inevitably ruffled establishment feathers. Shortcomings in the show itself, dampening the enthusiasm of even would-be supporters, conspired to incite a bloodbath.

Enter Klaus Kertess, Ross’ choice to head up the 1995 Biennial. An art-world insider with an institutionally palatable imprimatur earned as the founder, more than two decades ago, of the influential Bykert Gallery, Kertess is known for an approach virtually antithetical to Sussman’s: where her Biennial had focused on work that was political in nature, Kertess is about art with a capital A; where much of the work in Sussman’s show defied the conventional media of painting and sculpture, Kertess is as “painter friendly” as they come. So pronounced was the shift in sensibility marked by the Kertess appointment that Ross’ decision was immediately criticized as a calculated bid to placate the previous Biennial’s antagonists.

Nearly two years down the road, Kertess’ show is falling into place. Whether or not his appointment served a momentary political expedient, no capitulation where his longstanding artistic values are concerned seems likely. Kertess emerges in the conversation that follows as resolutely independent; one gets the feeling that despite a passing nod to his institutional responsibilities, his Biennial, when it opens in March, will be about what Kertess likes, with few apologies offered along the way.

What does this curator favor? One evening in late October, as two years of hectic labor were finally coming together, I sat down with him and asked. Foremost on my agenda: to find out who was in and who was out. Next, in light of Kertess’ reputation as above all else a champion of painting: to get him to talk a bit about how he sees the field of contemporary painting generally, and where he thinks it's headed.

Jack Bankowsky

JACK BANKOWSKY: Tell me a bit about your background. At one point you ran a gallery called Bykert?

KLAUS KERTESS: I opened in ’66 and left in ’75. I showed Brice Marden, David Novros, Barry Le Va, Dorothea Rockburne, Chuck Close, and the late Bill Bollinger. I also showed the filmmaker Michael Snow and the photographer Peter Campus. There were about 12 or 14 artists all told.

JB: What made you leave?

KK: Two things really: I had been writing for three or four years and badly needed to test my commitment to that endeavor. To do that I had to sort of dangle myself out there in the world without another major commitment. Also, for me the gallery was about making a path for younger artists; as people like Brice and Chuck became successful, the gallery turned into more of a business involved with career maintenance. I wasn’t so interested in that.

JB: Has it been mostly the writing that has occupied you since you closed in ’75?

KK: More and more, writing has taken over my life. At first I was defensive and tried to separate myself as a curator from myself as a writer, but now I think each role feeds the other.

JB: What about before the gallery: were you schooled as an art historian?

KK: I studied art history as an undergraduate. After that I left the country thinking I would never come back, but I returned in a year, went to graduate school, got a master’s degree, taught, and was encouraged to go for a doctorate. But I realized I ultimately wasn’t a scholar, and left.

JB: How did you end up curating the Whitney Biennial?

KK: I was originally hired as the Whitney’s drawing curator on a part-time basis. Then the Museum’s director, David Ross, asked me to do the Biennial, and brought me on full-time for the duration of the process.

JB: The last Biennial was controversial because it focused on politically motivated work, a tendency that the curator, Elisabeth Sussman, apparently saw as having come to the fore in the past few years. Are you attempting to highlight any idea, tendency, or set of tendencies that you see as particular to this moment?

KK: The subtext for the show is “metaphor,” but that’s so broad it permits me to do virtually anything. The reason I focused this way is twofold: in part it re flects the way I think, and in part it is a response to what I see as happening on the art scene. Metaphor is an obvious part of all art, but I think it’s become a more pronounced part in the last years. In the ’60s and early ’70s, artists went out of their way to dispel metaphor from their work. Now it’s more openly embraced again.

I guess the real point of my selection is to refocus the idea that there is such a thing as a visual intelligence. The content that drives a lot of artists is obviously important, but what interests me is how that content becomes material, whether in paint, in three dimensions, or on film. The very act of it becoming material changes it, and it’s this transformation that makes the art vital—makes it succeed.

At least eight or nine artists in this Biennial were also in the last one, mainly because I think they are really terrific artists, but also because it makes sense to me to show them in a different context. To me the works of Matthew Barney are not so much about narrowly focused gender issues as they are dramatizations of what it is to make a mark.

JB: Your use of the word “metaphor” suggests contrasts with the sort of expository or didactic tendencies you saw as having informed much of the work, or at any rate the way the work was positioned, in the last Biennial.

KK: It’s not a reaction against the last Biennial so much as a reaction to a more general focus on gender or political issues in critical theory and writing about art. I oppose the idea that what makes art interesting or contemporary is that it deals with rape or racial identity. I think these problems are critical to some artists, but that there is a physical component that envelops those concerns and gives them life.

JB: The Whitney took a lot of heat for the last Biennial, and there was talk about your appointment as a strategic attempt to placate the show’s critics.

KK: It wasn’t lost on me. There’s a sort of public perception of me as extremely “painter friendly,” which is not altogether incorrect, and the immediate perception was that I would do a painting show, and that it would be, if not more palatable to the critics or the trustees or whoever, at least less controversial. I don’t know whether in point of fact that ends up being true. There is much more painting in this show than last time, but there’s no reason a painting can’t be as controversial as a videotape. Any number of things in this show could draw the fire of a Jesse Helms. I didn’t feel I had a mandate to make a more conservative show, and I wouldn’t have been interested in taking on the project if I had.

JB: How are the Biennials selected once the curator is designated? Do you collaborate with the museum’s other curators or is it a solo effort?

KK: The last Biennial was largely Elisabeth Sussman’s doing, but that was the first one that was the responsibility of one curator. The previous Biennials have all been group efforts. When I started I was encouraged to put together a national advisory committee, but I don’t really work very well with other people. I started to assemble a committee, but I didn’t get much further than Jerry Saltz, whose official title became “consultant to the curator.” I stopped after Jerry because I realized as I traveled around the country that I automatically call on certain people—the same people I would have put on a committee. So essentially it’s been me, with Jerry offering input and functioning as a sounding board for ideas.

JB: What about the film and video section?

KK: It’s traditionally been put together by John Hanhardt, the Whitney’s film and video curator. I wanted to have a hand in the selection, but John has a vast amount of knowledge that I don’t have. I know the obvious people on the immediate art scene—Cheryl Donegan, or Barney—but I sort of tuned out of the film and video worlds at some point in the ’70s.

JB: The final calls were yours?

KK: Yes. I wanted the films and videos to work with the rest of the show, so John and I screened films and tapes together. I did have veto power, but for the most part we tended to discuss the material and come to some agreement.

JB: To get back to how the show is organized. Does the museum set down guidelines once it hands over the show’s curation to you?

KK: Really none. Everyone at the museum had suggestions, people they thought I should look at, but no one said “You have to have ten sculptors” or anything like that. There is, however, the long history of the Whitney Biennial, which impacts on the curating of the show. Traditionally the show has always been a showcase for younger artists, and you want to continue that tradition because the Biennial is one of the few major museum shows that does this. The Biennial rewards promise and achievement at the same time, which I think is part of the reason it gets so much shit; it’s very hard to justify all the choices or omissions. You want to include a certain number of younger artists, so you’re limited in the number of mature artists you can show, and you have to consider how you are going to decide which ones to include and which to leave out. I am deeply committed to Brice Marden’s work to begin with, but as I traveled around the country the two names that came up most frequently in painter’s studios were Cy Twombly’s and Brice’s. Eight years ago you would have been more likely to hear Jasper Johns’ name mentioned. If I leave out Johns, which I did, it doesn’t mean I don’t like Jasper Johns, it just means I didn’t think this particular moment demanded that I deal with him. There were other people who seemed to need a certain kind of airing; which doesn’t mean I think they are better than Jasper.

JB: So, for you, Marden and Twombly are two strong points of reference in terms of what is going on now?

KK: And Bruce Nauman; for younger artists working with video or installation, he continues to be critical. Though Bruce will not finally be in the show because he doesn’t have any new work, I think of him as the foundation for a lot of what’s going on.

What’s always been important to the show is the mix. Trying to figure out a balance, I got involved with a number of older artists, like Milton Resnick, who hasn’t been seen much lately. His painting has become more figurative, and I think it is some of the best work he’s done. Robert Ryman is in the show because I thought his show at the Modern was one of the most beautiful exhibitions I’d seen in a long time. On the other hand, Jane Freilicher is an artist I feel has been critically neglected. Right down the line there are artists who have not been seen at the Whitney.

JB: What about regional stipulations or quotas?

KK: There are none. I decided early on that I thought we should include some representation from Mexico and Canada because the whole issue of Americanness seems up for grabs. It’s a little provincial to keep saying “American ”when what you really mean is the United States. So there are two artists from Canada and right now two artists from Mexico in the show—a small gesture. No one resisted that, everyone thought it was a good idea, but it was up to me to figure out how to deal with the matter.

JB: So I assume that means Jeff Wall is in.

KK: Yes, Jeff Wall and Stan Douglas; I think they are two of the most interesting artists in the show.

JB: And from Mexico?

KK: Julio Galán and Gabriel Orozco.

JB: The last Biennial and this one are the first two under Ross’ tenure. Has it been a self-conscious decision on the part of the current administration to Jet a single curator shape the show more decisively?

KK: Yes, but I think some of it came from the curators themselves. It’s really hard working with other people. I’m probably not meant to be part of an institution; if I continue to be part of one, I’ll probably end up in a different kind of institution altogether. . . . I think the curators as a group were bridling because there was too much compromise. It’s a monstrous task for one person to do, but it makes for more focus and excitement.

JB: In a previous interview you mentioned that you were making an effort to think about people who were not necessarily part of the art-world circuit.

KK: At first I was falling into a trap where I was looking for specific kinds of artist, and thinking, Oh, you need this in the show. I think that’s dangerous; you might as well be an intellectual decorator. This show will be wide-ranging, but there is no artist in the show whom I don’t feel strongly about.

JB: Did you make any discoveries in your studio rounds?

KK: There’s a photomontagist from Boston, John O’Reilly, who is virtually unknown in New York. O’Reilly’s 63 and came to art fairly late. It’s not that he’s unknown; he’s been showing for ten years or so, and he’s in MOMA’s collection. But he’s never had any real exposure in New York.

There’s also a terrific young painter named Ellen Gallagher whom Kiki Smith chose for one of those artist-selected shows at Artist’s Space in 1993. She’s just had a show in Boston, but a lot of people may not be familiar with her work.

JB: What does it look like?

KK: Like Agnes Martin gone to a minstrel show. She is very involved with the meaning of cliché, particularly how the cliche of the black minstrel became part of the culture. She makes excruciatingly crafted images very carefully drawn on lined paper laid down on canvas. They tend to have the lips of black people, or little minstrel heads, that sort of suggest musical notation. They’re delicate and really very beautiful.

JB: It’s a bit of a surprise to see Peter Saul crop up.

KK: Well, Peter Saul should be much more a part of our life in New York. He wrote me this really goofy letter that said, “Hi, I’ve never been in one of these shows.” Saul made it into the “Hand-painted Pop” show at the Whitney, but otherwise he hasn’t been in many museum shows. He’s had a fair amount of impact on a number of artists, including Mike Kelley and Carroll Dunham, but he’s seldom folded into our idea of what’s going on. I went out to see him in Austin; his new paintings are really terrific.

JB: I’m curious to hear whether you think the painters you’ve selected represent a particular approach, or several particular approaches, as opposed to other pockets of activity in current painting. Can you make any general characterizations about the kinds of painters you’ve included?

KK: It’s hard. There’s a group of abstract painters, but they’re not especially related: Philip Taaffe, Stephen Mueller, Brice Marden. There are also purely figurative painters: Freilicher, Catherine Murphy—another artist who I think makes pretty wonderful paintings and isn’t dealt with much. And then there are a whole group of artists who deal à la Peter Saul with the more cartoony side of things—Frank Moore, Lari Pitmann, Christian Schumann, who I think is one of the more interesting painters to come along in a while. Peter Cain is also in the show. It’s pretty varied. What’s not there, I guess—and what people thought I would put in—is paintings influenced by the art of the ’60s, where I made my start.

JB: Who are you thinking of?

KK: David Row, Jacqueline Humphries, Nancy Haynes; there’s very little evidence of this group in the show.

JB: If you had to characterize the main tendencies in painting today, and I’m talking not just about painters who already have bluechip status, but about mid-career and younger artists, how would you mark out the territory?

KK: You will get somebody like Schumann, who relates in some ways to Dunham, and to Saul; he has invented his own world of goofy cartoony figures. Then there are a lot of abstract painters still dealing with what it is to make a mark; in a way, they’re reinvestigating the gestural. Helen Marden is one example; also Harriet Korman and Suzanne McClelland, though McClelland is not in the show. There’s also a lot of narrative painting out there, for example Frank Moore’s work. It’s pretty wide open. I tend to shy away from the more purely formal work, because that area seems to have been dealt with so completely; no one has added a new wrinkle to formal painting recently.

JB: One noticeable tendency among youngish painters that you seem to omit is what, in a vulgar way, you could sum up as post-Gerhard Richter—all the painting that seems concerned with the interface of the corporeal and the technological or photographic, or that plays with the terms of abstract painting but liquidates the kind of affect normally associated with them. What happened, for example, to Jonathan Lasker, or David Reed, or Peter Halley?

KK: The jury is out for me on Jonathan Lasker. I don’t get much beyond the formal issue of his taking apart notions of abstraction and analyzing them and putting them back on the canvas again. The work is intelligent, I respect it a lot, but I guess I have trouble having a real experience with it. I want to be able to connect on a personal level with the work—to feel some pleasure or to get something back from it. I’m interested in what Halley is doing, but I never get beyond the fact that his paintings look like the early paintings of Donald Judd. I don’t get the whole social program he’s involved with, which I think you have to be told, rather than getting it from the painting. And then there’s the whole group of artists who just seem to offer an overly estheticized take on ’60s painting; it’s sensitive and intelligent but I don’t get it.

JB: You’re talking again about Row, Humphries, and the like. But even before we get as far as that judgment, I’m wondering if for you someone like Lasker is comfortably a part of that batch of painters. I share your sense of the general coordinates for talking about Humphries et al., but by those criteria, Lasker’s work wouldn’t make any sense at all. I need a slightly different paradigm even to begin to understand what’s at stake in his work, or Halley’s, or, to up the stakes, Richter’s.

KK: Yes. Lasker has deconstructed formalism and put it back together again. I think that’s interesting, but I think that Paul Bloodgood is another artist who has done this in a more interesting way.

JB: So then perhaps you do understand what I’m getting at. The tendency we’re talking about doesn’t seem to figure much in your show.

KK: I didn’t say to myself, Oh, I’m going to exclude these people, because I don’t like them. It just didn’t happen. Bloodgood really interests me; I still can’t quite get there, but I’m still open. That Bloodgood isn’t in this show doesn’t mean that this is the end of my interest in him. I’m curious what he’s going to do, and I have a battle that goes on in my head about his work.

JB: How does that battle go?

KK: Well, Paul just appropriated the way Pollock painted and emptied it out completely. Now he is playing with a lyrical abstraction from the ’70s that we all liked years ago and are completely tired of. It’s like Ross Bleckner or Philip Taaffe bringing Bridget Riley back. He’s doing it with a twist, but then the question is, Is the twist enough?

JB: I remember that when you wrote your Dunham article for us last year, I was a little surprised about the degree to which you seemed to feel that his work could be comfortably discussed in more or less the same terms that you could discuss any abstraction in this century. It seemed you were emphasizing a kind of continuity in the way one could talk about abstract painting, when I would have been more inclined to explain how Dunham’s work differed from the abstract legacy you placed him in in terms of mark, palette, whatever.

KK: Painting in the last 50 years has developed in a continuous line (this is not the case, for example, with sculpture). I don’t think anybody works outside of the tradition. You pit yourself against the tradition, and by pitting yourself against it you automatically become part of it in some way. I remember your wanting to know more specifically what made Dunham of a different generation than Brice or Cy before him, but to me they are all a part of this painting line.

JB: Which contemporary Europeans are most important to you?

KK: I think Sigmar Polke probably plays the biggest role in my scheme of things. He’s one of the key artists of his generation, and a lot of work that’s going on probably wouldn’t have happened without him. In fact, as I organized the show, I kept thinking, What would it look like if you had a Polke in the Biennial? You can’t really avoid him.

JB: How prominently does Richter figure in your cosmology?

KK: He and Polke are the two key European painters. At the moment I have a fairly low opinion of Anselm Kiefer, who I don’t think is of major importance to anyone.

JB: What about Andy Warhol? Is he a great enabler or a dead end?

KK: Well, he’s an amazing influence—I think probably less in the ’90s than he was in the ’80s, but he’s going to be with us for quite a while. Of people who are in the show, someone like Jack Pierson wouldn’t have happened without Warhol. But he probably also wouldn’t have happened without Twombly.

JB: Twombly is crucial to Pierson?

KK: In his drawings, certainly; they share a throwaway elegance.

JB: Who’s writing for the catalogue?

KK: I wanted the catalogue to have a parallel life to the show. Too many of the Biennial catalogues have looked like Sears catalogues to me, but it seemed kind of weird to have a lot of didactic writing when the whole show emphasized the idea of visual intelligence and nonverbal experience.

I’ve written an essay about different manifestations of metaphor, and my reasons for using metaphor as a subtext for the show. There’s an astounding neurobiologist named Gerald Edelman who wrote a book called Bright Air, Brilliant Fire, which I read three years ago in the process of researching a novel. He’s developed an extraordinary model of the mind. After 300 pages of stuff I often didn’t entirely understand, he came to the conclusion that metaphor was the primary function of the mind; when I started the show he was the first person I asked to contribute to the catalogue. He was a little reluctant, as he professes no knowledge of art whatsoever, but there’s a lot of current scientific theory—chaos theory, for example—that seems to parallel the way artists think. It’s surprising to me to have this way of thinking validated by science when everybody has always separated the two. Edelman wrote an essay for me on the relationship of metaphor to the body, and on the importance of metaphor to semantics and to the way language is formed. Then, at a turning point in the show, when I realized that if I wasn’t going to enjoy putting together the catalogue I would probably never enjoy the show itself, I called on John Ashbery for an essay, because I’ve always liked his writing about art. But as I was calling him, I thought, Wouldn’t he rather write a poem, and wouldn’t I rather have him write a poem? So by the time he picked up the phone, I had decided to ask him to write a poem for the catalogue, which he did. It’s this totally wonderful slapstick roller-coaster ride.

JB: Does the poem have anything to do with art, the art scene, or the show particularly?

KK: No, it’s just a terrific John Ashbery poem. I also asked Lynne Tillman to write, and she said that in all likelihood she would probably rework the first chapter of a new novel so that it had a more cohesive existence, and that’s exactly what she did. John Hanhardt will also write something about the film and video artists. I should just say one more thing: we invited all the artists to think about doing a project for the catalogue. Some of them are doing projects, some of them are just presenting documentation of their work, but each artist has a double-page spread that they can do what they want with. All the biographical information is going to be put in the back.

JB: Since besides Ashbery there aren’t any art critics writing in the catalogue, are there any art critics working today that you admire?

KK: Dave Hickey is sort of the man of the moment. I think he’s a terrific writer. His essay for Edward Ruscha’s retrospective at the Fort Worth Art Museum a few years back is one of best monographic pieces I’ve ever read. Then among younger writers Neville Wakefield’s writing feels fresh and smart. I write art criticism myself, and in my own work I’ve been engaged in an ongoing war with the vocabulary that’s accumulated over the years; I’ve been trying to shake that out and change it. There’s not a whole lot of art writing now that I could say I have great enthusiasm for.

JB: Are there art historians you look to now, or voices that had a formative influence on you?

KK: When I was in college and sort of wavering between the 20th century and the Florentine Renaissance, the key book that influenced me was probably Robert Rosenblum’s book on Cubism. I still think that’s one of the clearest, most beautiful works on 20th-century art. My other choices are just as obvious: Meyer Schapiro, Erwin Panofsky. I read the standard texts. I don’t have a whole lot of experience with recent art history, but what I have looked at I’m wary of.

JB: Is there anyone in the art world today that you think of as particularly astute when it comes to contemporary art—anyone who you look to as having their finger on the pulse?

KK: I get more information from artists than I do from just about anyone else.

Jack Bankowsky is the editor of Artforum.