PRINT March 1995


Biennials Gone By

LIKE SPRING CLEANING, romance, and hay fever, the time comes every (other) year when many of us can be found indulging in compulsive rounds of Whitney Biennial Trivial Pursuit. You’re all seasoned players so I’ll skip the easy questions, like when the Whitney started holding its surveys (1932), or when they changed from annual to biennial (1973). Admittedly, I probably take America’s premier contemporary-art survey a little more seriously than I should. For me, a recent opportunity to browse the museum’s archives was a chance to fulfill my periodic urge to dive deep as a baseball fan into the high-season euphoria of facts and statistics.

Who were the first Abstract Expressionist and Pop artists, respectively, to show in a Whitney Annual? Arshile Gorky in 1936 and Marisol in 1962. Who has participated in the most Biennials? There’s room for argument, but Theodore Roszak clocked over two dozen appearances. What was the most international Biennial? Though the show is supposed to include U.S. artists only, the migration of European talent during World War II gave the 1946 show a banner foreign list: Marc Chagall, Salvador Dalí, Max Ernst, László Moholy-Nagy, Yves Tanguy, and Jean Xceron.

Now for the sexier stuff. Name some artists the Biennial “discovered” early in their careers. David Smith became a regular in 1941, Romare Bearden and Louise Bourgeois in 1945. Jackson Pollock was anointed in 1946, before Life or even Betty Parsons had gotten to him. Joan Mitchell arrived in 1951, Leon Golub in 1955, Robert Irwin in 1957. The margins got smaller after the ’50s, though it still seems pretty clairvoyant to include Mary Heilmann in 1972 and Barbara Kruger (as a fiber artist!) in 1973. Name some notorious late arrivals. Robert Rauschenberg had to wait until 1961. Andy Warhol debuted in 1967, accompanied by critical grumbling that “he’s a movie producer now, who has contributed little to American painting in the past two years.” Both Bruce Nauman and Carl Andre made it in 1970; Alice Neel cooled her heels until 1972; Robert Ryman arrived in 1977; and Christo in 1981. Finally, name at least five well-known artists who have never been in a Biennial. Let’s see—there’s Ann Hamilton, David Ireland, Ray Johnson, Paul McCarthy, Faith Ringgold, Carolee Schneemann, etc., etc.

Many artists admit to a certain sensitivity when it comes to these selection patterns. Nancy Spero, invited in 1993, four decades after leaving art school, confesses to some resentment: “When the Whitney finally got around to calling, it felt like it was because they wanted to keep their conscience clean.” Peter Saul, who debuts this year, suspects that the upcoming Biennial “is to make up for the last one: it’s a lot of people who have given up, or are old, or live in the desert.” Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt made the cut in 1991, when he was 43: he would have preferred to be in the 1985 version, he says, “when Kenny Scharf did the bathrooms and Lisa Phillips got into trouble.”

I suppose when I started my Trivial Pursuit research I had the idea that the Biennial has always been playing catch-up. What it ended up signaling, though, was how a show like this can be largely right and largely wrong, both at once, most of the time. Biennials have made egregious errors, but have also suggested the significant developments and artists of their respective eras surprisingly consistently. Hindsight may show the Whitney scoring poorly in 1937, when the big discoveries were Ralston Crawford and Lorser Feirelson, but the ’45 show sounds impressive—it included William Baziotes, Romare Bearden, Max Ernst, Hans Hofmann, Matta, Robert Motherwell, Mark Rothko, Dorothea Tanning, and Mark Tobey. More recently the curators who put Jean-Michel Basquiat, John Coplans, R. M. Fischer, Eric Fischl, Keith Haring, Jenny Holzer, Barbara Kruger, Robert Longo, David Salle, Cindy Sherman, and Mark Tansey in the 1983 Biennial can hold their heads high, whatever the reaction was at the time.

Journalistic insight perennially disintegrates in contact with the Biennial, and for us players there is a perverse appeal in watching the process. Here’s John Gruen in New York magazine in December 1969: “What evil genius prompted the Whitney’s selections committee to root out a John Baldessari . . . as an exciting new talent?“ Then there’s Emily Grenauer’s New York Post passage on the 1970 Annual: ”How shall I classify Vija Celmins’ six-foot tall reproduction . . . of a hair comb . . . Joel Shapiro’s Shelf Pieces . . . or Barry Le Va’s Cleaved Wall . . . ? File them under ‘junk’ is how.“ Duller because more chronic are the indictments of the exhibition as a whole. Hilton Kramer has made the Whitney’s current administration something of a personal Moby Dick, but they shouldn’t feel singled out—here he is in a Times of nearly 20 years ago: ”It will hardly be a surprise to anyone, I suppose, to hear that the 1977 Whitney Biennial . . . is an unendurable bore."

There are, of course, more favorable responses to the Biennial, but these too risk comedy with the passage of years. The Time magazine of 3 January 1964 breathlessly hailed Grace Harrigan and James McCarrell as the rising stars of that year’s Annual—a show that also gave us Agnes Martin and Frank Stella. Lawrence Alloway’s 1972 advice on how to organize future shows, on the other hand, seems weirdly prescient, given the Biennial of 1993: “The Annual should be handed over to special interest groups for exhibitions organized on the basis of sex and race. Women artists (black women artists might want their own show), black artists and Puerto Rican artists should be given the space on the museum’s calendar and the funds to present the shows they are struggling to put on now.”

With the Whitney Biennial, it seems, everyone’s an armchair curator. Klaus Kertess, responsible for this year’s model, must be bracing himself for the notices his show might receive when it opens later this month. If his misery loves company, he might remember the 1987 show, where the curators cleverly took a little of the wind out of would-be critics’ sails by including a catalogue discussion of the Biennial’s history of bad press.

Dan Cameron is a writer and an independent curator living in New York.