PRINT January 2002

US News

the Whitney Biennial

“So you got the list?” asks Lawrence Rinder, chief curator of the Whitney Museum’s 2002 Biennial, as we settle into his office. I tell him it was faxed to me that morning. “Let me see if you got the right list,” he says, perusing it carefully. “The list” is, of course, the closely guarded roster of contemporary artists included in the mammoth exhibition, whose works will occupy three floors of the museum and spill out into nearby Central Park. “That looks kosher,” he says. “All right then.”

Given the high stakes of mounting the much anticipated and always controversial Biennial, Rinder, the Whitney’s Anne and Joel Ehrenkranz Curator of Contemporary Art, can be forgiven some inventory anxiety. West Coast–based before arriving at the Whitney just under two years ago (he was director of the CCAC Institute of the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland), he is no stranger to the New York scene—nor to the Whitney. He served as an advisor to the 1991 and 1993 Biennials, and was one of the six regional curators for the 2000 Biennial, which, with its curate-by-consensus approach, was criticized for its lack of direction and daring. Judging by his plans, one senses Rinder won’t make the same mistake.

There are at least 113 artists on Rinder’s list, depending on how you tally several collectives and collaborative groups. Some artists—Kiki Smith, Vija Celmins, Lorna Simpson—have long-standing international reputations. Others—Tim Hawkinson, Kim Sooja, Arturo Herrera, Jeremy Blake—are increasingly familiar. But an astonishing number, at least ninety-five, are first-time Biennialists, and therein lies Rinder’s greatest gamble. These include sound, film and video, and new-media artists, whose works were selected, respectively, by Whitney curators Debra Singer, Chrissie Iles, and Christiane Paul, in conjunction with Rinder. They also include such difficult to categorize artists as José Alvarez, who, Rinder tells me, “has been traveling around the world for the last half-dozen years doing a quasi performance project in which he appears to channel an ancient spirit named Carlos.”

What links artists as diverse as Alvarez and Celmins or photographer Collier Schorr and the music collective Destroy All Monsters? Rinder responds by explaining the inception of the show. “I asked the three curators and asked of myself to have what I call a research direction—not a theme, but say an attitude—which was to cast a really wide net across an unusually broad cultural spectrum.” Rinder speaks in amazingly writerly sentences: “Everyone has some limits in our purview of contemporary art practice, so I simply asked the curators to stretch those limits, and if and when they came across something they were really excited about aesthetically or artistically or culturally, which they felt was not the kind of thing that could or should be shown, to stop and ask why, to be analytically engaged with the work.” Each curator went on an extended road trip—Rinder covered twenty-three states in three months. As a shortlist was created, rubrics presented themselves: “In beginning to make possible floor plans, I discovered relationships between artists and works, and tried to come up with words to describe [those relationships]. They are ‘beings,’ ‘spaces,’ and ‘tribes.’” These three themes—“connective tissues,” Rinder calls them—will each constitute a floor of the museum in what will amount, square-foot-wise, to the biggest Whitney Biennial since 1981.

“Beings” and “spaces” are philosophical terms, I mention, but “tribes” has a slightly more contentious resonance. The artists, says Rinder, are “looking at subcultures, whether they’re snowboarders or punk rockers or Burmese pro-democracy insurgents. To call them tribes is provocative, especially at this point in history when we’re witnessing a kind of tribal warfare.” How does Rinder think that the events of September 11 affected the conception or execution of the show? “I was traveling from early June, and I came home on the night of September 10. Waking up on September 11, I asked myself, was all of this a waste of time? How am I going to do the Biennial now? Then I got out the list and looked at it and thought, no, this work does not seem inappropriate to the current reality. The question that is begged perhaps is, ‘Were the conditions of post–September 11 present before September 11?’ and the answer is yes. We’re not in a new world; we’re just more aware of the world we’re in.”

Given the proliferation of biennials around the globe, how does the Whitney roundup—the most closely observed exhibition this side of Venice—fit in? “The Whitney is lucky in that its purview is relatively narrow,” Rinder says. “So technically, theoretically, we should be able to go deeper into our subject. I think it’s very important for the Whitney to be organized with some thought to what is going on in these other exhibitions. It needs to have somewhere in its subconscious an echo of those practices.” Rinder mentions Manifesta 3, in Slovenia, which focused on the idea of the border state; he says he wanted to translate that specific geopolitical and psychoanalytic question into a more general one concerning the art world and its own forms of balkanization, focusing less on artists who have gallery representation and more on a wide range of cultural producers. The Whitney, he notes, “is now in a position to be freed from what at one point was a responsibility to anoint or carry [artists] forward to a next stage. To their credit the galleries are doing that themselves. The museum, or this museum in any case, can play a different role, and that’s what we’re trying to do.” The reception of the Biennial will likely hinge on Rinder’s translation of that “different role” into a coherent visual statement. It may be too soon to say, but one can surmise that Rinder’s effort will be anything but listless.


Peggy Ahwesh
Bosmat Alon
José Alvarez
Maryanne Amacher
Gregor Asch (DJ Olive the Audio Janitor)
Irit Batsry
Robert Beavers
Zoe Beloff
Sanford Biggers
Susan Black
Jeremy Blake
AA Bronson
James Buckhouse
Javier Cambre
Jim Campbell
Karin Campbell
Peter Campus
Vija Celmins
Chan Chao
Richard Chartier
Tony Cokes
Stephen Dean
Destroy All Monsters
Keith Edmier
Tirtza Even
Omer Fast
Vincent Fecteau
Ken Feingold
Robert Fenz
Mary Flanagan
Glen Fogel
Benjamin Fry
Brian Frye
David Gatten
Joe Gibbons
Luis Gispert
Gogol Bordello
Janine Gordon
Alfred Guzzetti
Trenton Doyle Hancock
Rachel Harrison
Tim Hawkinson
Arturo Herrera
Evan Holloway
Dennis Hopper
Peter Hutton
Ken Jacobs
Christian Jankowski
Lisa Jevbratt/C5
Yun-Fei Ji
Chris Johanson
Miranda July
Yael Kanarek
Margaret Kilgallen
Kim Sooja
Diane Kitchen
John Klima
Mark LaPore
Robert Lazzarini
John Leaños
Margot Lovejoy
Vera Lutter
Christian Marclay
Ari Marcopoulos
Bruce McClure
Conor McGrady
Meredith Monk
Julie Moos
Tracie Morris
Mark Napier
Robert Nideffer
Andrew Noren
Josh On & Futurefarmers
Roxy Paine
Hirsch Perlman
Leighton Pierce
William Pope.L
Seth Price
Walid Ra'ad/The Atlas Group
Luis Recoder
Erwin Redl
Marina Rosenfeld
The Rural Studio
Salon de Fleurus
Keith Sanborn
Peter Sarkisian
Judith Schaechter
Collier Schorr
Chemi Rosado Seijo
Lorna Simpson
Kiki Smith
Gerry Snyder
Stom Sogo
Phil Solomon
Scott Stark
Brian Tolle
Rosie Lee Tompkins
Lauretta Vinciarelli
Stephen Vitiello
Chris Ware
Ouattara Watts
Peter Williams
Anne Wilson
Lebbeus Woods
Fred Worden
Jennifer Zackin
Zhang Huan
John Zurier

Nico Israel is a frequent contributor to Artforum.