Whitney curator Shamim Momin is walking the West 22nd Street gauntlet. She nods and waves and touches cheeks in the Continental manner to a succession of doe-eyed bearded men and slim-hipped men in large sneakers loitering outside Friedrich Petzel Gallery. It’s not true that Momin knows everyone in contemporary art in New York, but it’s as close to true as can be said of anyone.
Inside, people are drinking beer in celebration of Seth Price’s new wood-veneer-and-plastic wall pieces: enlarged found images of basic human interactions represented via negative space; in other words, the outlines of hand pictures grabbed online. Momin, petite in heels and a tightly belted long sweater over a dark green baby-doll dress, greets Price, a lanky 34-year-old New York artist, then walks up to a tall blonde woman standing in the center gallery. It’s Henriette Huldisch, her co-curator for this year’s Whitney Biennial. Price is one of the 81 artists in the Biennial, and, a few weeks before the show is to open on March 6, his curators have come out to support him. With Huldisch is her taller, blonder husband, Andy Graydon, a film editor and sound artist. It’s past eight and Huldisch, who has an infant at home, is giving Graydon the look that means it’s time to leave. It’s barely perceptible, a flattening of the lips and an intensity about the eyes.
There are other Biennial artists here, too: conceptual provocateur Fia Backström, printmaker Matthew Brannon, sculptor Heather Rowe. The new walls are up on the Whitney’s fourth floor, the curators tell Rowe, and it’s time to install her art—itself a series of drywall supports marking out unbuilt walls. Momin speaks in fast, gushing, interlinked sentences, while Huldisch, who is German, picks her words carefully.
Backström knows Price and Brannon and included both in her 2005 project, “Lesser New York,” an anti-hype rejoinder to the P.S. 1 show “Greater New York.” It was filled with lowbrow conceptual stuff: posters and CDs and fliers to other shows made by, among others, Gardar Eide Einarsson; a group called New Humans, led by Mika Tajima; and Champion Fine Art, a now-defunct gallery run by Drew Heitzler. Turns out Einarsson, Tajima, and Heitzler are in the Biennial as well.
The 2008 Biennial may not necessarily be the most networked Biennial ever, but it is certainly the most unabashed about the importance of social networks. Artists have always hung out together and put the fruits of their conversations into their art: Think of seventeenth-century Amsterdam, the Montmartre crowd in the late 1800s, and Dada cafés in the twenties. But lately those connections and conversations have become the art itself.
It started a couple of years ago with a handful of thirtysomething artists inviting other artists to their apartments and basement Kunsthalles for seminars and reading series or writing tongue-in-cheek press releases for their shows on the Lower East Side. They had watched other artists push shiny sculptures and pretty-pervy paintings through huge white-cube galleries, with obscene amounts of cash and press coming out the other side. And they had witnessed the impact of all that high-minded political art of the seventies and eighties—that is, precious little. After Reagan came Bush I and II, after Gulf War I came September 11 and Gulf War II. So the artists went local: They turned to their living rooms and trusted friends, and started bands and small presses and planted front-yard gardens together, and let it be.
Huldisch calls all this a philosophy of “lessness,” while Momin identifies it as a recognition that progress is a sham and, moreover, computer programs and the Internet and time and space and life itself exist as open-ended feedback loops rather than linear stories with clear ends. “Something we found across a range of media and themes,” says Huldisch, “is a tendency toward smaller, more localized gestures, a modesty of material in approach and scale, a non-monumental quality.”
Networked art is everywhere and nowhere: It is tough to buy but usually comes with handy artifacts for sale (nobody is silly enough to say they are completely anti-market). It is local and global: You work with your friends, but your friends are often on a plane somewhere over the Atlantic.
Curators of the biennial by now understand that reviews will come, and many will be vitriolic. “In a weird way, it’s freeing,” says Momin. The 2004 Biennial, which she co-curated with Chrissie Iles and Debra Singer, was anomalously well received, with the Times’ Michael Kimmelman calling it “easily the best in some time.” Like most Biennials, it had no predetermined theme, but was seen as a kind of elegiac celebration of beauty. In contrast, the 2006 Biennial, co-curated by Iles and Philippe Vergne, felt unremittingly dark.