PRINT March 2000


Lawrence Rinder

WHEN MAXWELL ANDERSON was appointed director of the Whitney Museum of American Art almost two years ago, many in the contemporary-art world reacted like villagers who’d spotted Frankenstein’s monster lumbering in their direction. A Greek and Roman specialist, Anderson was said to know little about contemporary art. His management-oriented reorganization of the curatorial staff impelled Thelma Golden and Elisabeth Sussman, cocurators of the ’93 Biennial, one of the museum’s most controversial offerings of the decade, to flee. What’s more, Anderson cut the number of floors devoted to contemporary art from three to two, and hired as curator of postwar art Marla Prather, an art historian associated with “safe” shows (read: Calder) at the National Gallery in Washington, DC. Nothing he did seemed to quell the rumor that the Whitney was no longer the friendly confines when it came to contemporary art.

Then Anderson did something unexpected: He hired Lawrence Rinder. Stunned, the peasants have put down their torches and pitchforks and begun to scratch their heads.

Up until his appointment as the Anne and Joel Ehrenkranz Curator of Contemporary Art at the Whitney, Rinder, a member of the six-person team responsible for this month’s Biennial, had worked for two years as director of San Francisco’s CCAC Institute of the California College of Arts and Crafts. Previously, as the MATRIX curator at the Berkeley Art Museum, he had mounted a variety of shows, most notably (with artist Nayland Blake) “In a Different Light,” an acclaimed exploration of “the gay aesthetic” that brought Marcel Duchamp, Jasper Johns, Carolee Schneemann, and Nan Goldin, among others, under the same roof. “Larry has a very personal vision,” says Gary Garrels, an SF MoMA veteran who himself was approached by the Whitney for the position before being named to a broader curatorial post at the Museum of Modern Art. “He puts things together in ways that other people don’t think about. He’s not just repackaging what’s out there.” And while Rinder’s not the highest profile of choices, his reputation for working with emerging artists precedes him. Had everyone gotten the Whitney—and Max Anderson—wrong? “It’s a good start,” says Klaus Kertess, curator of the ’95 Biennial, a bit warily.

Rinder places a Left Coast emphasis on the importance of “openness” and the “personal” in his curatorial practice. “My primary function is to be open and act as an antenna for new and great work. But just as artmaking can be a life process of self-discovery, curating can be a real process of existential reflection and working with art allows me to reflect on that. My taste is very eclectic. I’m interested in quilts and Net art and video and digital art. I’m not tied to any point of view.”

So contemporary art seems safe at the Whitney. The question is, What kind? When asked about this, Anderson squirts a cloud of ink and swims away: “Now that we have Marla and Larry at the table for the first time in the next few months, we’ll be able to arm-wrestle with each other over how to present living and emerging artists and established artists. That’s an iterative process.” If Rinder’s talk of openness is any guide, his shows are not likely to come out of the critical-theory playbook: The very San Francisco catalogue for his penultimate CCAC show, the less than enthusiastically received “Searchlight: Consciousness at the Millennium,” featured an essay by the Dalai Lama and a dialogue between Rinder and philosopher George Lakoff that seemed downright Jerry Brown–ish.

Rinder has yet to meet Prather, but he has worked with Anderson in conjunction with the Biennial and says he enjoyed the experience: “Max was nothing but open”—that word again—“and supportive. Frankly, I was very impressed. If there was a shadow side, I think that would have come out in the course of what was a rather lengthy and intimate process.”

Rinder’s partisans are excited if a bit anxious about what will happen to their boy on the East Coast. “There’s a sense of playing to the world in New York that there isn’t in San Francisco,” observes San Francisco Chronicle critic Kenneth Baker, “which confers a freedom to make mistakes. It’s safer [in San Francisco], it’s not a national audience. But he did really interesting work in the Bay Area and if he’s allowed to be himself in the Whitney setting, he’ll do great work there too.” Rinder is also excited about his new job, but if one talks with him long enough, one begins to hear a hint of anxiety. “Doing research for the Biennial and going to places like Houston and Miami was a real eye-opener. The challenge will be carving out the time to do that and that’s just something that I’m going to have to do and Max will have to support me on. I want to find an eclectic array of practices and disciplines; if I can’t be eclectic, I won’t be very happy.”

Adam Lehner is a writer based in New York.