PRINT Summer 2016


the 1993 Whitney Biennial

Charles Ray, Family Romance, 1992–93, painted fiberglass, synthetic hair. Installation view, 1993 Whitney Biennial, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. Photo: Ted Thai/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images.

IN 1991, when I came to the Whitney, I felt we were under siege. It was impossible to work in an art museum and ignore what was happening around you. The conservative Republican campaign to defund the National Endowment for the Arts, which was really a thinly veiled effort to censor American artists, was in full swing. Under George H. W. Bush appointee John Frohnmayer, the NEA had withdrawn funding (later partially restored) for the group exhibition “Witnesses: Against Our Vanishing,” organized by Nan Goldin at Artists Space in New York. Washington, DC’s Corcoran Gallery had bowed to congressional pressure, canceling its plans to host the Robert Mapplethorpe show “The Perfect Moment.” The Ayatollah Khomeini had proclaimed a fatwa against Salman Rushdie. As a curator, I could not hide from these attacks on free expression any more than I could hide from the homophobia and racism so apparent all around me.

Before I arrived at the Whitney, I’d been a curator at Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art. There, my colleagues (including David Joselit, Gillian Levine, and Robert Riley) and I developed a curatorial approach that reflected the vital exchange between the art world and what was generally referred to as cultural studies. This was a catchall term that for us encompassed a constellation of texts and theories about postcolonialism and the politics of identity while also designating an experimental impulse, a rethinking of the relationships among artistic, curatorial, and political practice; criticism and theory; literature and polemic. Out of this ferment came a productive way of working. We focused on inclusive programming and outreach to different communities of artists. Many artists we thought were important were working in video and performance, so we paired time-based art with installations of other mediums. Eventually, we produced a group of exhibitions and publications that reflected what I think of as an ICA style. For instance, the 1987 exhibition “British Edge” brought together installation, film, video, and music by a diverse roster of creators from the UK (including Mary Kelly, Derek Jarman, and Isaac Julien). Dick Hebdige’s widely anthologized catalogue essay “Digging for Britain: An Excavation in Seven Parts,” an experimental archaeology of British history and culture from empire to Thatcherism, is an example of the kind of critical intervention we wanted to support.

When David A. Ross left the director’s post at the ICA to become director of the Whitney, I made the move to New York, too. But if there was no longer any geographic distance between me and the city’s network of blue-chip galleries, auction houses, and collectors—the art world that had boomed in the 1980s—I was determined to at least maintain a critical one. The artists I was interested in, and the critical community that had grown up around them, wanted something more from the museum than a rote program of career-building exhibitions.

The 1993 Whitney Biennial was actually the first exhibition I organized as a staff curator at the musuem. If ignorance is bliss, that would explain why I plunged into my new assignment so blithely. I was not versed in institutional or New York art-world politics, and I had no real sense of what it would take to install an immense, heterogeneous exhibition in the quirky precincts of the Breuer building. Happily for me, it was a collective effort. I invited my new colleague Thelma Golden (like me, recently hired by Ross) onto the team, as well as Lisa Phillips and John Hanhardt, veterans of previous Biennials. Education director Connie Wolf was a crucial part of the conversation, too. It’s fair to say that we had a mission to make a strong statement, to demonstrate the kind of exhibition making we thought was important, to powerfully confront the issues engulfing America and the art world.

I think we all wanted not just to include the usual suspects from the usual galleries but also to look seriously into all mediums and to put together a diverse group of artists. Hanhardt had been organizing an incredible socially responsive video program for years. Golden had curated exhibitions of several generations of African American artists but was particularly involved with a group from her own generation, including Glenn Ligon and Lorna Simpson, who were both in the Biennial. Most important, we wanted to be responsive to what was happening in the world, at the moment of our making this show. Whenever an artist we had chosen proposed a work, we pushed against the constraints of architecture, budget, and programming as usual, an attitude that enabled us to include works like Daniel Joseph Martinez’s I CAN’T IMAGINE EVER WANTING TO BE WHITE admissions buttons. Constraints were precisely what we intended to overcome.

I am proud of what we accomplished, proud of our boldness, and proud that the ’93 Biennial is a benchmark in the Whitney’s institutional DNA. It’s an event we can’t and don’t want to live down and it inflects the way we think about our collections and programs. Retrospective pride, however, doesn’t erase memories of the harsh controversies that we lived through.

When the exhibition opened, it did not seem to me that we had launched anything more than an ordinary and ordinarily contentious Biennial. We were not prepared for the gargantuan uproar. I can still summon the amazement I felt when I read New York Times critic Michael Kimmelman’s review. The line that sticks in my mind is his flat declaration: “I hate the show.” Even for Biennial criticism, that was extreme. The objections Kimmelman raised were representative of those aired by other critics. He cited Ligon’s work, which incorporated appropriated Mapplethorpe images, as an example of the “sensationalistic” surfeit of “genitalia.” And he took the show to task for privileging “political sloganeering and self-indulgent self-expression.” I think perhaps the real issue for Kimmelman and other critics was the vision of “self” that was being expressed. If the Biennial artists had contented themselves with presenting an individualist subjectivity that transcended race, sexuality, gender, and other identity categories, then both the tone and the content of the criticism might have been very different. Instead, the artists were responding to an imperative that Homi K. Bhabha articulated in his catalogue essay: “the need to think beyond narratives of origin and initiatory, initial subjects and to focus on those moments or processes that are produced in the articulation of ‘differences.’” That need is just as pressing today.

Elisabeth Sussman is curator and Sondra Gilman Curator of Photography at the Whitney Museum of American Art.