PRINT March 1995

Q & A

Whitney Watch

SPRINGTIME (EVERY OTHER YEAR) means open season for Whitney Biennial–bashing. From chief curators and chaired professors to gallery attendants and art students, the art world loves to loathe this country’s premier survey of contemporary art.

As Klaus Kertess’ ’95 Biennial opens this month, we called on nine individuals and one collective we know have their ears to the ground and asked them which artists they felt he overlooked. Independent curator Robert Nickas generously supplied his own fully formed 40-name alternative (there was but one overlap with Kertess’ selection); the activist collective the Guerrilla Girls refused to name names, though spokesperson “Alice Neel” noted the inequity of the Biennial list—it includes less than 30 percent women; finally, with characteristic restraint, basher-of-bashers Hilton Kramer called for a full-fledged Biennial moratorium of ten years—long enough to wait out the tenures of the current Whitney curators. Not all of those queried were as adamant in their censure of Kertess’ selection; indeed some found plenty to praise. Nevertheless, the salon des refusés that follows numbers a decidedly robust 172.

ARTHUR C. DANTO (philosopher/critic):
I like it that there’s a lot of painting in the show, since I’m old-fashioned that way, though I would have included others: Dorothea Rockburne and David Reed are wonderful painters. Sean Scully and Robert Mangold are doing very beautiful work, which should be seen by Whitney audiences.

I’d like to see a real break in terms of the kinds of art that are shown, so that we can see more of people who are advancing the frontiers of craft into artistic territory, like Betty Woodman, who is a tremendous artist, or some of the people who are working with furniture, like John Cederquist and Garry Knox Bennett. Klaus Kertess has included some ceramics sculptors, but I would go farther in that direction. A hundred years ago, the Paris Salon opened itself up to crafts, which went very well with the Art Nouveau of the Belle Époque. Since we’re in our own fin de siècle, I think the crafts are again very interesting. I would certainly have included Dale Chihuly’s work with glass.

JAN AVGIKOS (critic):
This is an interesting transitional moment, as the social concerns of the last four or five years seem to be receding. I would have included three younger artists—Brian Toll, Brian Crockett, and Sarah Seager. Like many new artists, their works imply narrative, but unlike a lot of current art, the forms of narrativity they use have something very expansive about them; they don’t lend themselves to clear and conclusive positions but rather make room for the viewer’s response and participation. For similar reasons I would include Dennis Balk, Ronald Jones, and Cady Noland, all of whom employ complex yet open-ended story lines in their work.

On a different note, I also find Mary Heilmann’s work provocative. It isn’t narrative at all, but rather a form of intuitive painting; I think it should have been included.

BRUCE FERGUSON (critic/curator):
I think that the movement from politics to poetics that seems to inform Klaus Kertess’ selections is the right oscillation in terms of the work that’s being produced now. I do have two criticisms, though. For one, the division between film- and video-makers and artists seems completely antiquated; these Modernist distinctions no longer apply. Second, the idea of including two Canadians and two Mexicans in an attempt to broaden the exhibition’s scope just accentuates how provincial the Biennial is. It’s tokenism, and it always will be unless the exhibition is completely rethought beyond nationalist categories.

Were it an international exhibition, there’d be hundreds of people I would include. Since it’s a strictly American exhibition currently focused on painters, I would include people like Bobbie Oliver and Paul Campbell, artists investigating the poetics of abstraction after post-Modern irony.

GUERRILLA GIRLS (through “Alice Neel,” spokesperson):
We do not curate shows, critique artists’ work, or give out names. But looking at this list, it seems that less than a third of the artists in the show are women. There’s no excuse for this anymore. We want to expand the vision of the art world beyond that of white men to include more women and people of color. We’re not saying their vision is invalid, but it’s tunnel vision. White men will judge, like, promote, and empower work that reflects their own experiences.

I would include the following: Helen Frankenthaler, Paul Georges, Jane Wilson, Hugh O’Donnell, Dana Gordon, Anne Arnold, Dale Chihuly, Julius Hatofski, Sonia Gechtoff, Timothy Woodman, William Bailey, and Helen Miranda Wilson. They’re all artists of significant quality and accomplishment.

I haven’t scrutinized every name on the Whitney’s list, but it looks like the usual mix of favored talents and private interests. I don’t think that the museum as presently constituted is capable of providing anything even remotely like a reliable account of what is going on in American art today; I don’t think the curators are capable of doing the job that needs to be done. It would be a contribution to the life of art in America just to suspend the Biennial for a decade until we are in a position to get a whole new crop of curators.

BOB NICKAS (curator/writer):
For the first time, this Biennial includes artists from outside the U.S., but the expansion is limited to artists from Mexico and Canada. For me, though, some of the artists who come from other countries but keep studios here all or most of the year are very much part of what’s going on. Their work is made in New York more than anywhere else.

My Biennial: Vito Acconci, Lutz Bacher, Barry X Ball, Robert Barry, Barbara Bloom, Louise Bourgeois, Vija Celmins, Larry Clark, Jessica Diamond, Steve DiBenedetto, Ellen Gallagher, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Dan Graham, Renée Green, Peter Halley, David Hammons, Gary Hume (England), Alfredo Jaar (Chile), Neil Jenney, Jon Kessler, Jutta Koether (Germany), Ken Lum (Canada), Matthew McCaslin, John Miller, Olivier Mosset (Switzerland), Chuck Nanney, Cady Noland, Steven Parrino, Jennifer Pastor, Adrian Piper, Aura Rosenberg, Sam Samore, Julia Scher, Michael Scott, Haim Steinbach, Rudolf Stingel (Italy), Wolfgang Tillmans (Germany), Alan Uglow (England), Lily van der Stokker (Holland), Dan Walsh. The only overlap with the current Biennial is Ellen Gallagher, and I have to admit that she and Dan Walsh are the two most interesting painters around right now.

TIM NYE (Thread Waxing Space, New York):
Two artists come to mind. Though I’ve shown Leonardo Drew at the Thread Waxing Space, I think I can still say with a certain objectivity that his omission from the Biennial was a severe oversight, as he has been included in virtually all the other major exhibitions devoted to important new artists. I can’t think of another artist who better represents the idea of metaphor that Kertess has cited as the organizing principle of his show. As a young black artist, Drew works with materials that allude to his racial history, but he layers them so that it’s not always the first thing one notices. It doesn’t immediately come across as in-your-face political work.

Having read the Kertess interview in Artforum, I think it’s odd that given the fact that Robert Ryman, Agnes Martin, and Brice Marden are in the show, Kertess excludes younger artists like Jacqueline Humphries who have been influenced by art from the ’60s. He describes Helen Marden’s mark-making means of expression in exactly the same terms that I would use to describe Jacqueline’s or Suzanne McClelland’s work. Yet, by what seems a very circular argument, he singles out Jacqueline ’s work as precisely what does not interest him. I think she’s definitely one of the most important young painters working today and should have been included.

MARTHA WILSON (Franklin Furnace, New York):
More radical chicks! Annie Sprinkle’s tit prints; Karen Finley’s drawings; Lorraine O’Grady’s black and white photos of Egyptian and family images juxtaposed; Dolores Zorreguieta ’s installation about the “Desaparecidos” of Argentina; Ann Messner’s bronze castings; Ida Applebroog’s installation of paintings; the Guerrilla Girls’ installation of ten years of posters; Erika Rothenberg’s suicide works; Emma Amos’ portrait series; Robin Tewes’ paintings; and Ilona Granet’s signs.

SIMON WATSON (the Contemporary, New York):
Culture in the United States is under attack. Politicians, appealing to regional fears, are taking aim at public funding for the arts. Traditionalists in our own arts communities are using smoke-screen arguments about “quality” to denigrate the new and to create needless divisions. Artists live in the world and respond to it in varied ways in their work. Art can enlighten, stimulate, challenge, and delight; it can also be a call to arms.

The notion of who is an artist needs to be liberated: we all are. Refined esthetics and cultural activism can coexist (from Goya and Guernica to the Guerrilla Girls). My Biennial wish list reflects this expanded notion of cultural production: Homi K. Bhabha, Ross Bleckner, Gregg Bordowitz, Louise Bourgeois, Michael Brenson, Bureau, Judith Butler, Schuyler Chapin, Chuck Close, Douglas Crimp, David Deitcher, Colin de Land, Cheryl Donegan, Mary Dornan, the Estate Project, Ronald Feldman, fierce pussy, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Robert Gober, Godzilla, Leon Golub, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Group Material, Jenny Holzer, bell hooks, Isaac Julien, Barbara Kruger, Kim Levin, Glenn Ligon, Catherine Lord, Richard Martin, Mark Morrisroe, Bill Moyers, Cady Noland, Pepón Osorio, Ann Philbin, Adrian Piper, Martha Rosier, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Carolee Schneeman, Kendall Thomas, Carole Vance, the Vera List Center for Art and Politics/Maurice Berger, Michele Wallace, Carrie Mae Weems, Patricia Williams, Hannah Wilke, Cornel West.

What’s still missing from the Biennial? Students: some of the best exhibitions I’ve seen have been at the art schools where I’ve visited, most notably Hunter College, the School of Visual Arts, U.C. Irvine, UCLA, and the Whitney Program. The Americas: it’s about time the Whitney Museum of American Art’s trustees made its exhibition programming reflect all the Americas and not just the United States. The current, narrow, accountant’s eye on the Whitney’s original mission statement—which excludes all but U.S. citizens from being exhibited—has frozen the museum in a World War I–era perspective. Cultural Criticism: in 1982 the Reagan Administration eliminated National Endowment for the Arts grants to art critics, resulting in an impoverishment of cultural discussions. Writing is an essential process for thinking. Rather than the traditional yearbook format, I would hire art critics to produce essays about today’s art, culture, and society. Cultural Advocacy: freedom of expression is vital for a healthy culture to survive. The Whitney Biennial should act as an agora—a site for public discussion, reflection, and empowerment.

CARLO McCORMICK (senior editor, PAPER):
Robert Williams for a career vision that has defined American lowbrow culture. Rita Ackerman, lzhar Patkin, and everyone else who proves how feebly arcane and obsolete nationalistic distinctions like “American” art have become. Evil Knievel, Annie Sprinkle, Joe Coleman, Richard Kern, John Wayne Gacy, Kim Deitch, Perry Webb, Terror, Global Ghetto, Paul Mavrides, Visual Mafia, and Mark McCloud’s Institute of Illegal Images (a museum of LSD blotter art), because contemporary culture is far vaster than the limits of fine art can possibly comprehend.

As for film and video—Tony Oursler for taking video out of the idiot box, Tessa Hughes-Freeland (my wife) for sheer excess, and Paul Garrin, because he comprehends the subversive nature of technology.

SUSAN KANDEL (art historian/critic):
Gary Hill and Sherrie Levine are my first choices; I think of them as the most radical heirs to Robert Smithson’s prophetic post-Modernism. Also Bruce Conner because his recent ink-blot grids are so completely obsessive and psychotic. I would also have included Monica Majoli’s tiny jewellike paintings of S/M scenes between men for the same reasons. There’s an elaborate distancing she achieves in her search for intimacy; you sort of search her scenes for her identity as a lesbian. I’d also nominate Sol LeWitt, because his last show at Pace was perfectly amazing, and Jim Isserman. I’ve been impressed by the literary nature of Theresa Pendlebury’s work, the multiple alter egos she creates, and her extraordinary wit. Thomas Trosch is also notable for his wit. Jennifer Steinkamp is doing very interesting things with digital media. Two final choices for me would be Lutz Bacher and Lisa Yuskavage, because they both demonstrate that feminism is alive and well in art in the ’90s and that there’s more than one way to make effective political art.

It’s great to see the Biennial is still committed both to veteran mediamakers like Shu Lea Cheang, Gregg Bordowitz, and Todd Haynes and to newer voices like Karim Aïnouz and Frances Negrón-Muntaner. I do have to say, though, that there’s a certain myopia involved in curating film specifically within U.S. borders at a time when both capital and cinema are transnational propositions. The last two years have been interesting in that a lot of “experimental” styles and narrative approaches have been appropriated by Hollywood studios. I’m thinking not only of dreck like Natural Born Killers, but also of films like Allison Anders’ Mi Vida Loca. Films like Mi Vida Loca have challenged the oppositionality of categories like “independent” and “studio,” “fringe” and “mainstream,” in ways that also problematize some of the habits of mind that inform film curating within a museum. The relatively broad commercial distribution and financing behind films like Mi Vida Loca and Gus Van Sant’s Even Cowgirls Get the Blues also bring up the question of independent filmmakers who use their status solely as a stepping stone to a Hollywood deal. In a perfect world, an exhaustive survey of American films and videos of the last two years would include Rick Castro’s raucous video Three Faces of Women, starring the legendary Bruce LaBruce and Vaginal Creme Davis; Charles Lofton’s sexy I Like Dreaming; Lourdes Portillo’s moving film The Devil Never Sleeps; Jane Wagner, Tina DeFeliciantonio, and Tom de Maria’s video Tom’s Flesh, which explores corporeal fascism and masculinity; and Ela Troyano’s short films Carmelita Tropicana and Once Upon a Time in the Bronx.

BILL ARNING (director/curator, White Columns):
I was pulling for a group of painters who have been around for a while but have been left out of the big shows—artists like Marilyn Minter, Deborah Kass, Amy Sillman, Katherine Kuharic, and Catherine Howe. I thought Klaus would have been more interested in that group. Among West Coast artists I would have included Keith Mayerson and Keith Boadwee, who’s doing these new enema paintings that are really great. I’m happy that Cheryl Donegan got in. When rumors of who would be included started circulating, you could tell that it was a quirky list. I’m a street-level curator, doing studio visits and seeing shows constantly, so it came as a big shock to me that a lot of the names on the list I’d never heard of. If someone like me doesn’t know a lot of the artists, then the show could be a revelation for the general public.

Jeffrey Slonim contributes this column regularly to Artforum.