PRINT May 1999

US News

the Whitney Biennale

REVIEWING THE WHITNEY BIENNIAL of American Art has gotten to be something like playing a round of golf just to get rid of pent-up aggression. Let’s see, which club will we whack the vulnerable little ball with this year? If the play is from the middle of the art-market fairway, as it was in Klaus Kertess’s 1995 show, we could reach for the “Chic Gallery Old Boys’ Network” wood and drive that sucker right through Matthew Marks’s plate glass window. If we’re in the politically correct rough (on the left, of course), as we were in 1993, we could grab the “Politics Make For Ugly Art” iron and enjoy digging a nice divot in the turf of the putatively marginalized “Other.” And if the allegedly national (but in fact LA and NYC heavy) biennial of two years back seems about as sea-to-shining-sea as a New York City subway token, we might take a cut with our “New York Parochialism” wedge and get the air of neglected regionalists under the ball. The Whitney—credit due here for intention, if not astuteness—has tried in each successive biennial to wrest last time’s lucky club out of the critic’s hand.

In the early ’90s, when David Ross (now running the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art) was still new on the Whitney job, he bade curators Elizabeth Sussman and Thelma Golden veer radically away from the heavily gallery-influenced biennials of the ’80s. After the critical drubbing their biennial took for being so stridently PC (the contentiousness dependably surrounding each biennial kept attendance up), the museum went for more apolitical grunge in ’95. And the last biennial in ’97—despite token representation of Mexico (expanding, as in ’95, the “American” charter written into the museum’s name, you see) and the inclusion of such frequent-flyer artists as Francesco Clemente—had a decidedly bicoastal flavor.

Now, under new director Maxwell Anderson (who is thought to personally favor more conservative art, e.g., Edward Hopper and Arthur Dove—and more radical technology, e.g., Intel, etc.), the upcoming biennial (after a three-year interval it’ll appear next year, in 2000, to kick off the millennium) is trying to get off the island of Manhattan. Instead of one in-house curator, the Whitney has appointed six outside agents, each from a different corner of this vast land of ours, to cobble together the new exhibition. Truth be told, necessity may have been the midwife of invention. Although Anderson “persuaded” Sussman and Golden to leave the museum when he came on board, Lisa Phillips—the very-connected Whitney curator who was to fill in for Golden, the original Biennial-woo chief—left to step up to a directorship at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in SoHo. The players this time include Michael Auping of the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth; Valerie Cassel of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago; Hugh Davies of the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego; Jane Farver, currently of the Queens Museum but soon to be of the List Visual Arts Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts; Andrea Miller-Keller, a Hartford, Connecticut-based independent curator (and 1996 São Paulo Biennale commissioner); and Lawrence Rinder of the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland. A thoroughly professional and reasonably diverse roster, although a bit institutionally polite and lacking the presence of any real wild hair.

Contacted by phone soon after the committee was formed, Davies said the mechanics of choosing the show was totally up in the air. “We haven’t even had our first conference call yet.” But he hopes that the selection process is as open and freewheeling as possible, with the selectors—all arriving with special expertise in their respective neighborhoods—unconfined in their choices to their respective geographic nooks. Another issue he hopes the committee will ponder is whether to curate works or names: Should they select specific pieces or projects, or simply make a list of artists they feel should be included, and go from there? More recently, Cassel reported that certain philosophical agreements have been reached. “The exhibition is going to be driven by artwork; we’re not going in for doing it by the names of artists. And we’re not going to be confined by geographic area.” As for the selection mechanism itself, Cassel remarked, “We’re [probably] not going to vote; we’re going to reach consensus. We want a more or less seamless exhibition, and not six separate shows.” But remember, she cautioned before hanging up, “the whole thing is an experiment.” It’s nice to know that, whatever the Whitney Biennial’s program of the moment, at least some things remain constant.

Peter Plagens is a contributing editor of Artforum and the art critic for Newsweek.