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PRINT November 1999

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Marla Prather

THE STANDARD art-world book on the Whitney Museum goes like this: a distant third in the New York contemporary museum sweepstakes (after august MoMA and flashy Guggenheim Inc.), stuck in a cramped, unrenovatable late-modernist bunker, limited in focus to an American art of fading importance in an increasingly global scene, and hobbled by uncertain, feckless administrators.

That last alleged characteristic bears some unpacking. After video-savvy, suavely PC director David Ross departed in 1998 for the sunnier, cyberrich climes of the Bay Area, the Whitney—so the story goes—decided to retrench. The next director would forgo exhibition excursions into social reform, would merely tolerate the bumptious (but box-office friendly) biennial, and would oversee the production of shows based on the Whitney’s collections that would be much more hospitable to ladies who lunch. Newish director Maxwell Anderson certainly talks the part. So much so, in fact, that after he forced out Thelma Golden and Elisabeth Sussman (curators of the infamously agitprop 1993 biennial) and contemporary specialist Lisa Phillips got her own museum to run (the New Museum), people started to think that the Whitney might hole up permanently in the year 1936, with Barbara Haskell doing an endless cycle of Hopper, Dove, and Demuth surveys. To put itself back into contemporary play, but not back on the contemporary spot, the Whitney needed just the right curatorial appointment.

Whether the museum has found the answer with new hire MARLA PRATHER is open to debate, but as Anderson’s long-rumored first choice for the job, Prather, already set with a fairly glittery gig as curator of twentieth-century art at the National Gallery, has to count as a feather in his cap. She’s youngish (forty-three), boasts impressive past-performance lines of big-league shows (Calder, Oldenburg, and de Kooning) and accessible art-historical texts (“revising author” for the latest edition of H.H. Arnason’s ubiquitous Modern Art). She also recently married real estate mogul and New York Daily News owner Mortimer B. Zuckerman. Which means what? Let’s just say it can’t hurt.

On the other hand, Prather’s taste in artists isn’t exactly what you’d call edgy. Perhaps that’s why the Whitney named her its first curator of “postwar”—not “contemporary”—art. That’ll let Prather concentrate on expensive objects (say, Rothko to Salle) and let somebody else—still to be named—mess with all that nasty recent stuff (say, Karen Finley to Alex Bag). As Anderson explains, Prather’s “brief extends from 1950 until the 1980s, and it is in the 1980s that [Prather and the to-be-hired contemporary curator] will coordinate their respective responsibilities, since the contemporary curator will consider work right up to the present.” (Prather said she’s still too new on the job to pronounce for the record on curatorial job organization.) The long and the short of it: Anderson’s first-year record may hinge as much on his next curatorial appointment as on this one.

Still, Prather, who may just be coming into her own, should blossom in her new post; with the right curatorial counterpart (meaning ear to the ground), the appointment—certainly Anderson’s surest step to date—could play pretty solid. Will slick and smug translate into bright and balanced on Madison and Seventy-fifth?

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