PRINT January 2008


Venice Revisited

Robert Storr responds to his critics 

It is October, and I am back in the Serenissima for the awards ceremonies of the Fifty-second Venice Biennale. Today, I sit at a keyboard in an office above the Grand Canal listening to Charles Aznavour crooning “Que c’est triste Venise.” Tunga chose that camp classic as the barbed theme song of his installation at Documenta 10 in 1997, the last time the international constellation of summer art extravaganzas, also including the Biennale and Skulptur Projekte Münster, were in alignment. According to some but by no means all accounts—even in Artforum—Venice was a sorry affair this year, and the fault, its severest critics charge, was due to the melancholic character of its director. His methodology, such detractors maintain, issues directly from acute limitations of psychological and intellectual scope rather than from any considered viewpoint that might be purposefully at variance with the conventional wisdom regarding how exhibitions of this kind should be approached.

I am that supposedly saturnine curator. Yet, despite typecasting in some quarters, I am not given to terminal depression, and I see no reason for accepting the condemnation of a few of my professional colleagues (and barely disguised rivals) as the general, much less final, consensus in the wider world. Instead I take heart in knowing that shows as controversial as mine have proved to fade from memory less quickly than state-of-the-art culture-industry funfests, and that, in the best-case scenario, the work I did in Venice may yet be appreciated as a critique by example of art-world business-as-usual. In any event, I can assure those most bothered by what I have done that their irritation was anticipated and to a degree intended. Moreover, I can affirm that the “flaws” they have been so quick to ascribe to unexamined personal failings on my part were, on the contrary, the upshot of long and careful reflection. In truth, the problem for those who have been most categorical in their attacks is that the 52nd Biennale actually took a position, or an interconnected combination of positions, that disputed their own. And since they have given themselves every license to voice their objections and trumpet their ideas while blatantly misrepresenting mine, I will take the same liberty and respond in full. 

In 2004, when the Biennale Foundation board asked me to become director, it gave me three assignments. First, I was charged with organizing a symposium on the past, present, and future of the exhibition format established with the creation of the Venice Biennale in 1895. This meeting of minds took place after the closing of the 2005 Biennale, which was jointly organized by María de Corral and Rosa Martínez. (For the record, the Biennale had decided that, given the short lead time for 2005, two directors would be necessary instead of the usual one, and I was asked to recommend candidates. I put four names forward, of which three were women, thereby ensuring that the historical barrier against women would finally be broken, even though the abiding sexism of the system was evident every time Biennale president Davide Croff boorishly referred to Corral and Martínez in public as the “Spanish girls.” Misplaced gender solidarity apparently inhibited him from addressing me as the “American boy,” despite my polemical suggestion that he do so.) Second, I was invited to curate two editions of the Biennale starting in 2007, though, given the events of the past three years, I would never repeat the experience, nor, given the trouble I caused the president and former general manager by insisting on high professional standards and adequate budgets for the artistic component of the exhibition—in short, its content and “raison d’être”—is it at all likely that I will be tapped for that promised second round. Third, the leadership of the Biennale requested that I consult with them regarding changes in the Biennale’s structure and mission in light of their desire to rejuvenate it and establish a more thoroughly mixed public and private support system.

Meanwhile, I had my own promises to keep. Some were made in response to comments and complaints voiced at the symposium, but most were rooted in my own experience of making and attending such large-scale international exhibitions.

First, I resolved that the primary audience with which the Biennale concerned itself would not be the flock of migratory art professionals and aficionados to which I belong—that is to say, my curatorial and critical colleagues (which may explain the pique of some) and the makers, sellers, and buyers of art. Rather, the show would be directed at the greater, more various, and less self-interested public that finds its way to such events. To get an idea of what this actually means, one need only spend time viewing the viewers at such shows on off days. One quickly realizes that one is surrounded by schoolchildren, students, and adults of all ages, cultural backgrounds, income brackets, and degrees of interest ranging from mild curiosity to intense and informed engagement to animated hostility. Apropos, among the key distinctions between art fairs and biennial-type shows is the fact that the former are expressly set up as playing fields for the players; noncontending onlookers are invited to pass through. By contrast, the latter are forums for images and ideas where those noncontenders can discover for themselves and participate in some of what the visual culture of the moment has to offer, while the players who may be familiar with, and perhaps blasé about, what is new to their neighbors are—except during the vernissage—loosely scattered in the crowd. Statistically, the difference between the two is striking. At the final count, this year’s Venice Biennale exceeded recent attendance records in all categories by more than 20 percent, making it the most widely seen edition of the show in twenty-five years, and one of the most widely seen ever. Thirty-four thousand art-world people made an appearance during the opening week—and, pace Artforum’s photo editors, few of them arrived on yachts—while an equal number of art-world people probably came in the ensuing six months. At most, however, they compose a fraction of the more than 319,000 paying visitors who ultimately made the trip economy class, or by car, train, or ferry in the same period, including 100,000 students. (According to the final figures released by the Biennale, 1.5 million entrances were tallied at the forty-two free off-site national pavilions and thirty-four free collateral events.) Taking these numbers into account, my aim was not to increase the gate by pandering to populist taste—Golden Lion prizewinners León Ferrari, Emily Jacir, and Malick Sidibé are hardly “easy-looking” or mainstream—but to texture an exhibition that would bring fresh information to those who have little if any interest in the current “buzz” in those few cities where galleries and institutions operate in perpetual overdrive. 

Second, with this audience explicitly in mind, I wanted to make an exhibition that could reasonably be seen in a couple of visits and that would make itself known through the spatially and temporally gradual discovery of both works and clusters of work, and of the correlations and contrasts among them. I did not want to write a manifesto and illustrate it with art, as has been increasingly common in recent years, nor to choose a slogan and use it as an umbrella for the miscellaneous showcasing of trends. Such exhibitions punish artists by making their efforts into “examples” in the service of an argument or discourse dear to the organizer, and they punish the audience by making them trudge through more art than can possibly be absorbed, wondering when they will be examined on the texts that provided the theme.

Nor did I want to make an exhibition that set up a genealogy of styles or concepts or that reinforced any teleological hierarchy of media or set up any contest between them, such as in painting versus video, installation versus painting. Hence, with the exception of artists who recently or prematurely died and are still relevant to the present situation, there were no historical figures in the show; nor, with the exception of a few pieces by Ferrari, were there any historical works. (Sadly, two of the artists I included passed away during the last stages of the project: Elizabeth Murray and Sol LeWitt, the latter of whom, with Felix Gonzalez-Torres, was one of the inspirations for the entire project.) That said, there were a number of late-career artists alongside midcareer and very young ones, the principle of selection being the immediacy of their work regardless of the familiarity or unfamiliarity of their names. (Incidentally, during the installation these different generations of artists formed a working community and often enjoyed one another’s company, making it hard for those lucky enough to mingle with them to be as cynical about shows like this as some jaded onlookers have been.) To draw a literary parallel, no account of current fiction can be made by concentrating exclusively on first novels; there must also be room for aged radicals and even absent ones—say, Doris Lessing and Roberto Bolaño, respectively. Indeed, when it came time for a jury made up of young tomidcareer curators to bestow the Golden Lion, their choice was neither a well-established name in line for a crowning moment (and there were several in that line) nor a rising star—it was the ever-surprising eighty-seven-year-old Ferrari.

In the same spirit, I also decided that no medium should be privileged by location and that the exhibitions in the Italian Pavilion and the Arsenale would be regarded as a single entity with shared components in different and differently accented proportions. Four artists—Ignasi Aballí, Adel Abdessemed, Rainer Ganahl, and Dan Perjovschi—appeared at both sites. Nevertheless, with its monumental Fascist facade as an emblem of reactionary aestheticism, the Italian Pavilion is basically a nineteenth-century Beaux-Arts building designed for showing painting and sculpture under natural light. This has been the reality for every director of the last seventy years and more. Furthermore, the Italian Pavilion has the best—which is not to say adequate—security and conservation conditions. It is hardly surprising, then, that much of the painting in the exhibition was sited there, though suites of work by Y. Z. Kami and Guillermo Kuitca were in the Arsenale. But as one entered the Italian Pavilion under Lawrence Weiner’s anti-monumental text work and Nancy Spero’s dangling Furies, one discovered that the entire series of galleries on the left was devoted to videos by Steve McQueen, Alterazioni Video, Shaun Gladwell, and Mario García Torres, followed by an installation by Waltércio Caldas. On the right side were to be found video and slide works by García Torres and Sophie Calle, as well as installations by Iran do Espírito Santo and Jacir. Dead ahead of the entrance was the handpainted animation of Tabaimo—one of four works in this medium in the show (to my knowledge the first time animation has been featured in such an exhibition), the others being Kara Walker’s shadow-puppet animations, Joshua Mosley’s Claymation dialogue between Pascal and Rousseau (also in the Italian Pavilion), and the waterpainting process video of the “disappeared” by Óscar Muñoz in the Arsenale, next to the interactive Internet work by Zoran Naskovski. In the meantime, photography in multiple modes was well represented, as were film (Manon de Boer, Margaret Salmon, and Yang Fudong), and various installation and mixed-media hybrids.

Despite my best efforts to draw attention away from the selector and toward the things selected, all of the reviews of the 52nd Biennale in Artforum—except for the thoughtful treatment by Katy Siegel—were blindingly ad hominem.

Third, following a related logic, the exhibition was broadly international but not constrained by any false attempts at proportional representation. The pressure to aim for that was relieved by the existence of the national and regional pavilions, a feature exclusive to Venice since São Paulo abandoned them in 2006. This year there were seventy-seven—more than ever. Two of them, Africa and Turkey, had special status as integral parts of the program for the 52nd Biennale, and that status was also proposed for a third, India, but that project could not be realized in time. I suggested the idea for all three to the Biennale board, and the two that finally came to fruition were presented in spaces I voluntarily subtracted from those originally allocated to me. The intention was to heighten the general public’s awareness of previously marginalized art worlds by resituating exhibitions focused on them from outlying rental spaces and bringing them into the core of the main exhibition to join the new national pavilions for Italy and China that had been placed in the Arsenale. (Heretofore, the only African country and the only Islamic country to have a pavilion in a prime site were one and the same: Egypt.) Behind both these undertakings was the conviction that whatever the downsides of premising exhibitions on national or regional identity—and to my mind there are many—in our barely post-colonial reality, self-determination remains a crucial factor. Moreover, in the present international art context, opening the doors to curatorial talent can be as important as opening them to artists. Correspondingly, an open call for exhibition proposals for the African pavilion was issued by the Biennale, yielding thirty-seven submissions, and I named a jury of specialists in the field—all African or from the diaspora—to decide which curator or curatorial team would be offered the Arsenale space. Lest there be any misunderstanding about my direct role in the jury once convened, it consisted of listening to the conversations but saying little, and most especially refraining from any expression of preference. I did not vote.

Fourth, although I did not want to make a show about my politics—they are no secret, and anyone who has read my writings knows (contrary to the yellow press) that I am neither a Bolshevik nor a Bushevik—I did want to take account of the vast and sometimes contradictory array of work reflecting the grim social, economic, and ideological crises currently besetting the world. I also wanted to juxtapose with such work the saving grace of art that affirms the powers of the unencumbered imagination in the face of such conflict, with El Anatsui’s scintillating curtains being the counterpoint and coda to the harsh images that preceded them in the Arsenale. There were other bright spots, and a couple of glaring ones—Jason Rhoades, for instance—but overall the exhibition was intentionally sober rather than celebratory, a wager on seriousness in a time of terrible upheaval and gaudy distractions.

Fifth and finally, in planning the 52nd Biennale I was determined to avoid two extremes currently bedeviling curatorial practice: the exhibition by committee and the “auteur” exhibition. So saying, I do not deny the mediating role I, or any other exhibition maker, inevitably plays. Nor did I fly solo around the world to single-handedly “discover” and put my stamp on artists. Quite the opposite: I listened to old friends, new friends, and friends of friends in the places I was going—among those acknowledged in the catalogue are Iwona Blazwick, Yuko Hasegawa, Paulo Herkenhoff, Geeta Kapur, Victor Misiano, Victoria Noorthoorn, José Ignacio Roca, and Yoko Uchida. Ultimately my choices were based not on the consensus of my peers nor on my own taste—in Venice, as I have always done, I paid special heed to art that I don’t “like” yet can’t stop thinking about—but on a sense of what I could most enthusiastically recommend to the attention of others, and on how certain works and groupings of works shed light on each other or threw sparks. In the final analysis I did not want the discussion to be about “my” Biennale but about the art that was in it and the realities and imaginative possibilities that art speaks to or for. Taking the polemical thrust of Barthes’s “Death of the Author” to heart as a challenge to the notion that creative as a challenge to the notion that creative intention is all-determining, I had no desire to substitute myself for the Author as presiding mastermind, thereby depriving individual viewers of the chance to make meaning for themselves.

Curator Robert Storr (right) with artists Chéri Samba and Ellsworth Kelly viewing Samba’s 2002 painting Aussi . . . au plafond (Also . . . on the Ceiling), Italian Pavilion, Fifty-second Venice Biennale, 2007. Photo: Jack Shear.

Obviously, I have failed to the extent that I have been unable to deter those who insist on treating exhibitions as personifications of the organizer. And so, despite my best efforts to draw attention away from the selector and toward the things selected, all of the reviews of the Biennale in Artforum—except for the thoughtful treatment by Katy Siegel—were blindingly ad hominem.

Jessica Morgan leads the pack in both respects. Nothing about the whole enterprise finds favor in her eyes. For starters, the title—“Think with the Senses, Feel with the Mind”—displeases her, although it is hard to grasp what literary or philosophical standard she is upholding, given the boldly idea-lite titles of the books on which her name appears: for example, Chic Clicks; Common Wealth; Time Zones; Pulse: Art, Healing, and Transformation—pretty touchy-feely for such a hard-nosed curator and critic—and a long list of monographs bearing only the artists’ names. So far as that goes, I will console myself with the knowledge that Sol LeWitt loved the Biennale’s title.

Morgan uses the occasion of her review to summarize my entire career as a curator and a critic and sweepingly dismiss it as evidence of someone little concerned with cutting-edge international art, though she grudgingly concedes that I have some knowledge of African and Latin American art. Had she read my résumé more carefully, or had her ear been closer to the ground outside the US and England, Morgan would have known that I painted murals in Mexico in the early 1970s, participated in several conferences there (most recently in 2005), contributed a section to Paulo Herkenhoff’s 1998 São Paulo Biennial as well as to its conference, and have made focused curatorial trips to Argentina (twice), Chile, Colombia, Cuba, Uruguay, and Venezuela. Moreover, I was told by curators I met in Senegal at Dak’Art 2006 that I am also the first director of the Biennale to travel to Africa expressly to look for art for the Venice exhibition. I will skip mention of my two trips to China, two to India (where I spoke in 1998 and 2006), and much else along the way. Indeed, for thirty years I have been an outspoken advocate of greater cosmopolitanism in the art world, have repeatedly made the effort to build the necessary bridges, and have crossed them myself.

Other than a passing notice of SITE Sante Fe, which I organized in 2004 after leaving the Museum of Modern Art—Morgan entirely missed “The Devil on the Stairs,” which I mounted (while at MoMA) at the ICA Philadelphia in 1991 with Judith Tannenbaum; a jointly organized way-off-Fifty-third Street show I took part in at Exit Art called “. . . It’s How You Play the Game,” which teamed me (again while at MoMA) with Guggenheim curator Nancy Spector, then–Whitney Museum curator Thelma Golden, and Exit Art founders Papo Colo and Jeanette Ingberman; the inaugural show at Artpace in 1995 in San Antonio, for which I chose Annette Messager, Felix Gonzalez-Torres (one of his last projects), and Jorge Amado; membership alongside Nicholas Serota, Harald Szeemann, Fumio Nanjo, Louise Neri (among others) in the team that assembled the 2000 Sydney Biennale; as well as the career survey of Jörg Immendorff that Pamela Kort and I did at Moore College in Philadelphia in 2004—the evidence Morgan provides are the MoMA retrospectives and two group shows I did during my dozen years at that notoriously slowmoving institution. Furthermore, she hasn’t considered what it took to get those on the books, nor does she think much about what the group shows contained, not least being the first major presentations at MoMA (fifteen years ago!) of Adrian Piper, David Hammons, Ilya Kabakov, and Sophie Calle, and specially commissioned works such as Bruce Nauman’s 1992 Anthro/Socio and Louise Bourgeois’s Twosome of 1991. But that is in keeping with Morgan’s whole style of reviewing, which is equivalent to that of a theater critic who spends her time second-guessing the cast list when she should be watching the performance, though in this case she doesn’t bother to ask how a curator so little “associated” with a global perspective—by whom, I would like to know—could have found artists around the world (whom she doesn’t deign to name). More to the point, she entirely neglects to mention that for ten years I directed MoMA’s Projects program—the only format at the museum dedicated to emerging artists—and that, in addition to fostering the initiatives of younger curators, I organized a number of these exhibitions on my own, including, notably, Tom Friedman’s first solo museum show and one devoted to Art Spiegelman’s Maus, the first unqualified presentation of a comic book as art at MoMA and the first presentation of the original drawings, studies, and preparatory materials for a graphic novel anywhere in a museum. (That Venice also had comics by Eyoum Nganguè and Faustin Titi was no accident.) About my twenty-five years of criticism she has nothing to say either—for example, I write regular columns for magazines in France and England and occasionally contribute to others in Mexico, and elsewhere—although a good many of the artists she takes for granted as established weren’t when I first wrote about them. Notwithstanding my supposed myopia, Morgan thought me sufficiently in the know to invite me to write an essay on Ellen Gallagher—whose work I had already acquired for MoMA—for a show she organized at the ICA Boston in 2001. I did. Perhaps that has made her feel competitive.

Of course, these are relatively petty matters, though the pettiness is Morgan’s. More consequential is her disparaging of the show’s supposedly “collection-style hang (one artist, one room),” although this crude characterization betrays Morgan’s surprising lack of appreciation—especially coming from a curator at the Tate—of what can be made visible by the spatial syntax of adjacent galleries. Parenthetically, publicly treating the likes of Nauman and Polke as safe choices will not make matters easier for her down the line when she suddenly discovers she wants to work with them. And for the record, Polke is not one of my “perennials,” as Morgan claims. Heretofore I have shown exactly one of his paintings, in a group show (at SITE Santa Fe in 2004), which makes the extraordinary suite of nine works he completed for Venice all the more remarkable. In the meantime, Morgan should consider that what I meant by the term correspondences—openly borrowed from Baudelaire, whose radical disquiet and anything but “vague” poeticism I fervently embrace—manifested itself in spatial ways through the parallel placement of Margaret Salmon and Sophie Whettnall (two women encapsulating sexual antagonism in video and film), Zoran Naskovski and Paolo Canevari (two artists coming to grips with the war in Serbia), the urban photography of Gabriele Basilico (Beirut in ruins) and Yto Barrada (Morocco in “development”), plus much more that is less directly juxtaposed: things seen out of the corner of the eye as the viewer leaves one area for another; visual rhymes between otherwise disparate works; or visual recall in widely separated spaces—for example, Shaun Gladwell’s balletic skateboarder in the Italian Pavilion echoed in Canevari’s graceful footballer dribbling a skull in the Arsenale. In sum, it is not the show that is compartmentalized; rather, it’s Morgan’s tunnel vision and scant powers of recall and association that explain why she saw so little in the combinations around which the show is organized. 

Consider the bigger picture too. The recent history of the Biennale has often been one of chaotic presentations and unhappy artists. Not all of this is the fault of the previous curators. Indeed, given little time to work in the actual spaces and even less in the way of resources, Corral and Martínez made the best of a very difficult situation. I was there to watch the process, learned a lot from their struggles, and made it a priority to improve conditions for the artists and for curators. The outcome of a bruising bureaucratic battle over just these issues is what Morgan and others who have made a virtue of messiness judge too tidy, too “museum-like.”

If I hesitated to impose my will on artists or to entrust their work to exhibition designers likely to use it as ornaments to their own statement, it comes from a strict respect for Guy Debord’s critique of spectacle and his advocacy of “drift.”

But what produced this effect? On the one hand, no major changes were made in the Italian Pavilion—nor, for financial reasons, were any possible—except for the room reconfigurations of Waltércio Caldas, Sophie Calle, and Steve McQueen. On the other hand, roughly half the walls in the Arsenale were inherited from the Architecture Biennale and, for the same budgetary reasons, all that could be done was to elaborate on them in order to shape spaces that the artists would find flexible and useful. Meanwhile, the apportioning of spaces and their installation was done in direct consultation with the artists. All were sent detailed maps, many made site visits, and, for the first time ever, 3-D models—paid for with money I personally raised for that purpose—were built to anticipate problems and permit a careful mapping of the sequence and interrelation of works. Thus, in nearly every case, the exact layout of rooms accorded with stated needs of artists rather than with the “museological” reflexes of the curator, and I regret those few instances where I could not do what the work demanded. Nevertheless, the progression of rooms and the harmonies and dissonances among them were mine, and if I hesitated to impose my will on artists or to entrust their work to exhibition designers likely to use it as ornaments to their own statement, it comes from a strict respect for Guy Debord’s critique of spectacle and his advocacy of “drift.”

The best exhibitions are indeed those in which the viewer is actively encouraged to move at will rather than follow a didactic, unidirectional parcours. Accordingly, if one of the motives for locating the five boxes in which Yang Fudong’s videos were presented was to give architectural structure—including pauses—to their narrative, the other was to disrupt the wind-tunnel effect of the Corderie and give people a choice of going left or right and a reason for doubling back to try the path not taken the first time. The maze of the Italian Pavilion does this automatically, and in no way did my use of that building differ from what had been done by Corral, Germano Celant, Achille Bonito Oliva, Harald Szeemann, or any of my predecessors. But since when are fluency and clarity of a layout merely a matter of aesthetic, much less aestheticizing, effects? Are they not precisely the conditions required so that works of art can speak for themselves and to one another before being spoken for by curators and spoken of by critics? In due course Morgan will no doubt be offered a biennial—in her mind, perhaps her attack on this one was a kind of audition for the job—but when she gets the chance I would suggest she take a second look at what she has just written and ponder what she might still have to learn about exhibition making. Judging from her words in Artforum, there is a lot of which she is unaware.

It is hard to know what to say about Francesco Bonami’s utterly bizarre and at times inadvertently hilarious contribution to the onslaught, except to thank him for the comic relief. I will note, though, that second- and third-rate people frequently long to be number one at something—anything. In that spirit, Bonami chooses to begin his assault by claiming to be the first American curator of the Venice Biennale, only to belittle that distinction immediately thereafter in order to wrap himself in another tricolor flag and position himself as a quintessential Italian and therefore uniquely qualified to judge the errors of his American successor, whom he hastens to portray as ignorant of Italy and, by implication, of everything non-American. In fact, I never made much of being the first person born in the United States to get the nod; that was the work of the press office, journalists, and, in his backward way, Bonami himself. That said, Italy is hardly new to me: My first extended stay was in 1967—I was living in France that year—and I have been back many times, not least to quite a few Biennales, the first of which I attended when I lived in Holland in 1978. So why all the fuss, Francesco? Obviously we are both men of the world.

Sadly, the only way to describe Bonami’s intrusive obsession with my Biennale is an apparent inability to mourn his own. At last count, he has written about the 2007 Biennale eight times since 2006, when, shortly after having attended the 2005 symposium on biennials, to which I invited him as a speaker, he penned his first column in Bidoun. Like the seven that have followed, it was replete with half-truths, blatant untruths, and nonsensical fictions, of which his feigned sympathy for me and his patronizing lessons in how to deal with chaos and incompetence Italian style are the most absurd. As a dispenser of wisdom, Bonami plainly rejoices in any chance he gets to make himself ridiculous, and further proof of this penchant is provided by the time he has spent calling newspapers in Cleveland, New York, and only spy satellites know where else to remind the local critic that he—you guessed it-was the first American curator of the Venice Biennale. 

In short, Bonami has become my stalker, and, as with most stalkers, what begins as a charm offensive designed to co-opt a fantasized symbol of power eventually sours into resentment and aggression when the narcissistic craving to assert one’s own identity takes over. Thus, predictably, Bonami has ended up casting himself as the official spoiler of the 52nd Biennale. Presumably his Artforum piece is the last of these interventions—though with fixations such as his, too much is never enough. Revealingly, his criticism focuses on my failure to be a team player (a corporate value if ever I heard one), and sure enough, the model he chooses is managerial—something about “talking only 10 percent of the time and listening 90 percent.” But look who’s talking! That he delegated his Biennale to a record-setting eleven associate curators and allowed the list of participating artists to swell to nearly four hundred tells you where compulsive networking and an inflationary incapacity to be selective will lead. That his exhibition deferred yet further to the audience by effecting a screwball marriage of Barthes’s “Death of the Author” and Leninist authoritarianism in his subtitle-only gambit “The Dictatorship of the Viewer” signals just how far away he wanted to get from his own undertaking. Perhaps he is so intent on getting close to mine in order to make himself visible again.

And what a knack for put-downs our manager-jester has developed. For instance, Bonami writes, “If Storr is not the first to curate an American Venice Biennale”—there he goes again!—“he is nevertheless the first to organize an Amish one.” Well, if so, then I have been on my Rumspringa year for the past forty years. (Should my patriotic new countryman not know it, that is the year Amish teenagers leave the community to sow wild oats.) And normally I would be honored by any comparison to the only artist in the show he bothers to cite, Bruce Nauman—“Storr clearly listened only to his own thoughts, transforming them into a claustrophobic Bruce Nauman sound piece”—but never one based on so peevish and provincial an assessment of a truly great artist’s work. Clearly, though, Bonami is terrified of being left alone to his own thoughts—or lack thereof—and cannot bear it when the ideas of others do not fill his mind. To stop the gap, as he demonstrates once again in these pages, Mr. Bonami is given to flamboyant phrases and preposterous metaphors—I suppose he thinks they make him more colorfully Counter-Reformation, hence less Amish—so perhaps he will accept the following fable as an homage to his style. 

Once upon a time there was a winsome boy soprano who dreamed he might grow up to become one of the Three Tenors of the Italian curatorial establishment, the first two being Germano Celant and Achille Bonito Oliva. After a long apprenticeship and leading roles in small to medium-size houses, his chance came with the invitation to organize the 2003 Venice Biennale. But his voice had not matured, even as his hair grayed and his ambition overripened, and, in the event, his nerve failed him and he hired a chorus of singers who upstaged him as a showman when they did not simply drown out his piping vocal spasms. Now, having blown his tryout for the big time, our aging prodigy desperately, angrily dreams of a second chance—which will never come. And while he pines, he earns his keep by writing spiteful gossip columns and playing casino lounges, where he improvises his own opera buffa like a clown who’s lost his timing. I Pagliacci with a drum beating cultural bureaucrat and go-between as star. “La commedia è fi nita!

Okwui Enwezor’s contribution to the critical gang mugging of the Biennale is not a bit funny. But given that his power play comes after significant contributions to the field such as “The Short Century” (2001) and the uneven, much delegated, but still important Documenta 11 (2002), his arrogant and dissembling belligerence emits the dispiriting and regrettable aura of wasted promise.

The bad faith begins as coyness when Enwezor opens his truncated “History Lessons” with crocodile tears about the good old 1990s, when curatorial prospects were less swamped by the tide of cash that now carries luxury cruisers into the canals of Venice and further north on the Grand Tour to Münster, Kassel, and Basel, where the money docks and the confusion between art fairs and art exhibitions is complete. And yet, Enwezor notes, when market day arrives, “even respected curators and artists have come to ply their trades . . . and even philosophers, as evidenced by Jacques Rancière’s participation in the Frieze Art Fair’s lecture program.” How does Enwezor know this? Was he there “plying his trade”? I can say for sure he was doing just that in Basel in 2006 when he took part in a panel I moderated that also included Douglas Fogle, Hou Hanru, Chrissie Iles, José Ignacio Roca, and Anton Vidokle. So why the feint and parry about Rancière and “respected curators and artists,” except to simultaneously mask and preemptively alibi his ubiquitous presence on the conference circuit, thereby allowing him to critique his cake and eat it too—in large servings? And by the way, does he really think demon commerce appeared on the scene after 2000? If so, his is a dismal parody of the nostalgia for the 1970s that skewed criticism in the go-go ’80s in part as a consequence of forgetting that the go-go ’60s ever happened.

Sigmar Polke, Deucalion’s Flood (Axial Age), 2007, violet pigments and mixed media on fabric. Installation view, Italian Pavilion, Fifty-second Venice Biennale.

Things deteriorate from this low point. That Enwezor is insensitive—and unthinking—when it comes to painting, especially abstract painting, is made painfully clear by the initial thrust of his attack. Thus he writes that the Italian Pavilion is “a cemetery for abstract, expensive, blue-chip paintings by Ellsworth Kelly, Gerhard Richter, Susan Rothenberg, and Robert Ryman, with Sigmar Polke’s gigantic, oddly vacuous panels setting the stage for what becomes a punishing exercise in revanchist melancholia. The Arsenale fares no better.” That Rothenberg’s paintings are not a bit abstract seems to have slipped Enwezor’s notice entirely, as does the fact that, rather than being emblems of artistic vacuity, the shimmering chasms of Polke’s work are fundamental to their poetics. (More to the point, Polke makes this explicit by appropriating illustrations from Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth as images. And, by the way, if my mention of poetry sticks in anyone’s craw besides Morgan’s, then it should further demonstrate that the false dichotomy between intellect and intuition, reason and sensation, to which my exhibition’s title was addressed is alive and well.) That the abstract work was gathered in order to highlight the present diversity of the practice, and that all the work mentioned, with the exception of one of the Polke canvases and the Ryman group (previously unseen outside of New York), was made for the exhibition, apparently counts for little with Enwezor. Once again, other people’s money blurs his vision; what’s wrong with these artists is that they are “blue-chip,” and a similar faux populism creeps in later with his slighting remarks about “highbrow retrospectives.” That there were other artists linked to this suite of rooms by immediate contiguity and calculated “see-throughs” also escaped him. But there were—including the decidedly non-blue-chip painters Thomas Nozkowski and Raoul De Keyser, whose work has never been shown in such a context before nor in direct dialogue with these better-known figures. (Since they did not lend themselves to his contempt, did Enwezor just screen them out?) And nearby was Giovanni Anselmo’s sculptural ensemble Dove le stelle . . . , 2004–2007, which went unmentioned because, one supposes, it did not fit Enwezor’s ostensibly oppositional discourse either and consequently doesn’t exist—except, of course, in its exquisitely simple physical reality. 

Enwezor’s total silence about the artist at the other end of the enfilade that culminates with Anselmo would seem inexplicable given his larger agenda as critic and curator—until one factors in the specific strategies Enwezor has employed to pursue that agenda in Venice and elsewhere over the past decade. The missing artist is Chéri Samba, the self-described “popular painter” from Congo, and the pivotal position his work occupies in the Italian Pavilion means that Enwezor’s refusal even to whisper his name in this context speaks volumes. The crucial painting in this regard is a self-portrait in which Samba poses on a bar stool surrounded on both sides by painted versions of works by Dalí, Magritte, Miró, and Picasso, but also by Barnett Newman, Keith Haring, and Jean-Michel Basquiat [see p. 54]. In effect, Samba pictorially declares himself at the center of artistic traditions that have long ignored, if not actively excluded, most African art, with Basquiat being a bitter reminder of how perilous the sudden embrace of the “other” by those traditions can be. By design, this painting was placed in the center of Samba’s room so that it would be seen the full length of the corridor that ran from that gallery down the center of those housing Kelly, Richter, and Ryman. Yet incredibly, Enwezor takes this opportunity to transform an African artist given the highest visibility of anyone in the vicinity back into the “Invisible Man.” And in the same sullen denial of the “présences africaines” in the Italian Pavilion, he neglects to say that in order to arrive at the Polke room, viewers had to pass through the abstract mural space of another African artist, Odili Donald Odita. Indeed, but for a reference to El Anatsui, Enwezor has made every one of the six Africans in the Arsenale and the Italian Pavilion Invisible Men and topped this off by making the whole of the African pavilion invisible as well. 

Why? Unfortunately, the answer requires airing dirty laundry I would have continued to keep bundled up had Enwezor not taken the hostile stance he has.

But for a reference to El Anatsui, Enwezor has made every one of the six Africans in the Arsenale and the Italian Pavilion Invisible Men and topped this off by making the whole of the African pavilion invisible as well.

When I decided to announce an open call for the African pavilion, it was largely in response to the firestorm of complaints I heard from African curators and critics who were invited to a conference at MoMA timed to the opening at New York’s P.S. 1 of Enwezor’s exhibition “The Short Century.” What rankled for them was always being asked to participate on the sidelines but seldom if ever being offered access to the exhibition system—that system effectively being dominated by a few high-profile figures, of which Enwezor was the most conspicuous.

And sure enough, no sooner had word of the 2007 Biennale opportunity gone out than Enwezor and Salah Hassan—whom I had already invited to participate in the 2005 Biennale symposium—sent me a vituperative letter, in effect demanding that the open call be called off and the African pavilion be handed over to them outright. Their reason: The Forum for African Arts—an incorporated and registered nonprofit institution that had produced two off-site exhibitions to coincide with previous Biennales and whose spokesmen they announced themselves to be—had prior claim on any African project under Biennale auspices. Indeed, they stated that I had violated their “intellectual property” rights in launching such an initiative, and that only the forum and affiliated curators could provide sufficient expertise to frame such an exhibition. Moreover, they protested that I had ignored a proposal forwarded to me before the open call was made, and subsequent letters said that Hassan had discussed the forum’s plans for 2007 in his presentation at the 2005 symposium and that Enwezor had discussed them with me personally in Basel. I promptly responded that no proposal of any kind had arrived at the Biennale or at any of my addresses or by e-mail, nor had either curator ever said anything to me suggesting such a proposal or any wish for direct involvement with the project, and that the transcript of the symposium recorded nothing from Hassan about their intentions for 2007. I then flatly stated that I could not in good conscience disrupt or preempt a democratically organized deliberative process that was already in motion. Nor would I use my office in a neocolonialist manner to create a separate Ministry of African Culture within the Biennale structure or name them or anyone a de facto Viceroy of African Affairs. I concluded by saying that despite the personal abuse directed at me in their letters I would be happy to discuss the matter face-to-face in the interest of ensuring that African representation was central to the Biennale for the first time (and also so as to quell any open disputes that might jeopardize its happening a second time, as Biennale president Croff had originally promised me it would, though he later backed away from that commitment and has since been replaced). Moreover, I stressed that I would welcome any proposal they actually sent in and would put it before the jury without reference to our exchange. 

Their next letter started with somewhat conciliatory words and then shifted to ones even more inflammatory than those of their opening salvo, including the rhetorical question “Do ‘Africans’ have to apply to the masters in Venice, or to the enlightened jury you would have put into place, in order to have access to the space?” Had they deigned to take part, they would in fact have been submitting their proposals to a jury of their peers—other specialists in African art. In the interim between these communications, Enwezor and Hassan sent their initial letter to me to other members of the forum, presumably with the aim of stirring up opposition in the field to the Biennale’s plan. That move boomeranged—badly. Forum member Olu Oguibe promptly wrote to endorse the Biennale call and to question their assertion of monopolistic power in this domain while linking support for the African pavilion with praise for the Biennale’s decision to name its first women directors. Still closer to the bone, another member, Marilyn Martin, wrote an open letter from Cape Town explaining that prior to receiving the letter concerning the Biennale, she had not been contacted by the forum since it was established in New York in 2000; and in conversation in London, she told me that none of the projects for which Enwezor and his cosigner had raised money using the forum as the organizational umbrella had involved input from her or, presumably, from others in her ambiguous position on the board. I can only wonder how past or potential funders have felt or will feel about what would now appear to be a two-man operation masquerading as a broad-based consultative collective, but plainly the forum’s ability and willingness to call on experts passionately committed to African art has been highly selective, and inasmuch as contact with them has to be channeled through the forum’s jealously possessive principals, the organization is of little use to anyone in a position such as the one I held as director of the Biennale. 

There is more, but it is all of the same unsavory order, and perhaps the only detail that merits a final comment is that when I wrote to Enwezor and Hassan in the week before the competition for the pavilion closed, encouraging them one last time to send the long-promised but never delivered proposal, a note came back consisting of the excuse that both had been too busy on other projects to follow up—five months after they said they had sent it in!—but saying that they still looked forward to my offering them another space in the Biennale solely for their own use.

Insofar as Enwezor is concerned, revanchism (which he ascribes to me in his attack as being symptomatic of melancholia) is a modus operandi involving premeditated distortion of the facts and defamation of character. Motive (rancor over having to share with other committed professionals a vast area of artistic production he has come to view as his franchise). Means (poison pen). Opportunity (an overview of the summer’s big international exhibitions). Without this being made explicit, readers may not stop to wonder how it is that a Biennale director supposedly epitomized by his interest in abstraction could be the same one who made the choices Enwezor endorses—for instance, Emily Jacir (a few rooms away from the painters Enwezor writes off, and herself a painter)—even as he fails to cite the work of Nalini Malani (from India) and Jenny Holzer (who, with Emily Prince, made works that jarringly bring the war home to the art world). And was it just a fluke that the curatorial eye that selected Richter recognized exciting correlations and thought-provoking differences with the materials-based abstract hangings of El Anatsui, whom Enwezor praises? And what of the visual jump from Kelly in the Italian Pavilion to Marine Hugonnier in the Arsenale, where she inserts cropped sections of Kelly’s compositions into the front page of a Palestinian newspaper? Does none of this or of the previously discussed works and pairings even hint at what Enwezor says is missing from the show: “a truly compelling aesthetic view of what it means to live and make art in this most unruly time of ours”?

One thing is certain in any case: None of these choices was made by committee, as were their equivalents in Enwezor’s Documenta and Bonami’s Biennale. I made them all and stand by them all. That said, the whole purpose of my research and selection was to place before a wide, unpredictable, and varied public a coherent variety of work worthy of their attention—and to then get out of the way. (Contra Morgan, I have a position and it has a name: pluralism, which consists of crediting and presenting the actual diversity of artistic production rather than just paying lip service to difference.) In the case of the three Artforum reviews to which this letter is a rejoinder, a pathological preoccupation with the curator in general and me in particular has meant that despite my best efforts, I—or a row of straw men with targets bearing my name around their necks—have blocked the view of the art that was brought to Venice for all to see. In the final count, there were 101 artists or collectives in the International Exhibition this summer, yet of them only twenty were singled out and none was discussed in any detail by Morgan, Bonami, or Enwezor. Aside from the rest of their posturing and blustering, that should say enough about these authors’ total abdication of critical seriousness. In the unlikely event that they decide to make amends for this lapse, apologies should go to the artists they sacrificed to their vendetta. As to their transparent attempt to write me out of contention, all I can say is, “See you around!”

—Robert Storr
Venice/New York

Critic’s Critic

In her review of the Venice Biennale, Jessica Morgan puts down Robert Storr’s selection and installation hard, which is her right. But her spiteful ad hominem attack on Storr is beyond the pale of art criticism. Indeed, she creates a fictional person rather than the real one who has functioned in many art-world capacities, ranging from senior curator at the Museum of Modern Art; prolific art critic for Artforum, as well as numerous other American, English, and French publications; to professor of art history at the Institute of Fine Art; and, currently, dean of the Yale School of Art.

Morgan claims that Storr “as a curator has never been identified with ground-breaking group exhibitions.” She especially disparages the “Dislocations” show he organized at the Museum of Modern Art in 1991. In fact, however, if any show ever mounted at MoMA or any other museum at the time was risky and relevant, this was it. Morgan allows that “Dislocations” addressed “the debate about identity politics [that] still raged in America” and “roused the ire of conservative critics” but incongruously concludes that it was a “fairly safe” show. Morgan also denigrates Storr’s 2004 SITE Santa Fe Biennial, “Disparities and Deformations: Our Grotesque,” which was a spot-on theme show for our grotesque times. Moreover, between 1993 and 2005, Storr mounted retrospectives on Robert Ryman, Bruce Nauman, Chuck Close, Gerhard Richter, and Elizabeth Murray, among others, at MoMA at precisely the historic moment when these shows were merited at this particular museum. Morgan’s extraction of the names of a few artists included in Storr’s shows is a mean-spirited ploy to conceal the wide range of artists he admires and featured in the Venice Biennale as well as other shows he curated and articles he wrote.  

Morgan takes Storr to task for not creating “a thematic or theoretical structure” for the Venice Biennale. She allows that this was not his intention, but will not accept that what he did do was generate a discourse among works by artists, both established and new, that have a particular contemporary relevance and that stimulate both the mind and the senses. Indeed, Storr’s show did precisely what Morgan asked of an exhibition of this kind, that is, to insightfully take on “the pluralistic state of contemporary art, illuminating the coexistence of discrete but related dialogues.” If the artists Storr selected did not meet her expectations, for example, in being too “middle-of-the-road,” and presumably not cutting edge, she should have identified other artists she would have included, not just the ten or so already in the Biennale of which she approved. Then, we would have some sense of her point of reference. Finally, Storr is criticized by Morgan for not being global enough, and by Francesco Bonami (the director of the 2003 Biennale and contributor of another essay on this year’s) for not being Venetian enough. You just can’t win.

—Irving Sandler
New York