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PRINT March 2000

THE MAX FACTOR: WHITNEY BIENNIAL 2000

THE OPENING THIS MONTH OF THE 2000 BIENNIAL EXHIBITION—the latest installment of the Whitney’s flagship show and the most-talked-about event on the museum’s calendar—also marks a closing of sorts: that of the moderately embattled first chapter of Maxwell Anderson’s tenure as director. Seventeen months into his term and with his final key appointment in place—Biennial team member Lawrence Rinder was recently named curator of contemporary art (see page 39)—the upcoming exhibition affirms one thing for certain: Any organization with the size and stature of the Whitney Museum of American Art inevitably does as much to shape the person at its helm as the person does to shape the institution.

From the start, Anderson’s group-curated effort—he named a six-person curatorial body amid a firestorm of staff defections—played more as necessary expedient than motivated innovation. The exodus was precipitated by early attempts at organizational restructuring—one curator got promoted, a couple more got mad, and the resulting rush for the door left the new director in something of a fix. The tailwind of toxic PR had many Whitney watchers fretting that the museum’s Kunsthalle edginess was about to go white shoe.

Of course, the Whitney’s not a Kunsthalle—it’s a museum; and surely Anderson had the collection in mind when he moved to reassign the institution’s loose consortium of curators to period-specific departments with responsibilities in corresponding areas of acquisition. Contrasting himself with predecessor David Ross, Anderson points out, “I’m a director, not a curator.” On to the deeds.

If Marla Prather, Anderson’s appointment to the new position of curator of postwar art, seemed to many solid but “safe,” she boasts a pretty starchy pedigree (i.e., the National Gallery in Washington, DC); as Anderson’s reported first choice, her coming on board counted as a show of strength. Next up: Lawrence Rinder. The thirty-eight-year-old California-based curator of shows by the likes of Jack Smith and Andrea Fraser may nevertheless appear a tad too white male to repair the blow those early defections dealt to the institution’s justly lauded diversity. Still, the appointment was a far cry from the auto-return to the blue-chip-cozy days of Thomas Armstrong (Ross’s predecessor) that many had feared of an Anderson Whitney. And the announcement of the Biennial artists—a roster notable for fresh names and the demonstrative absence of high-end New York gallery representation—has prompted even some cynics to ask whether the dark-age forebodings were exaggerated. Will necessity, as one member of the Anderson quick-fix team suggests, prove the mother of invention?

We called on the six Biennial curators—Michael Auping, Jane Farver, Hugh Davies, Andrea Miller-Keller, Lawrence Rinder, and Valerie Cassel—and judging by the balance of spirited advocacy and informed compromise their comments reveal, the collaboration seems to have been a living, breathing one. By all appearances, Anderson remained, in his own words, “a time keeper.” “My role was not to choose the work,” he emphasizes; while not every curator was 100 percent thrilled with the outcome, the collective effort may yield a result greater than the sum of its participants.

As for the Whitney as a whole? So far, so not-so-bad; but with the key positions, by Anderson’s own reckoning, all sewn up (Prather’s mandate covers the broad stretch from ’50 to ’85; Rinder picks up from there), some are wondering whether the ’60s and ’70s—arguably the most fertile (but also most challenging) period in American art—will get the short shrift. Where, too, are the high-style scribes and public presence to keep pace with the MoMA lineup? To keep its place next to its august peers as the feistiest of New York’s modern venues, the Whitney will need to be more than a well-meaning (and oiled) machine—it needs to make itself a midwife of ideas and debate, not just a packager of crowd-pleasing formulae. That is the challenge ahead as Anderson’s tenure enters episode two. Necessity, once again. Is it too soon to call it the Max factor?

Eds.