Twenty years ago, at the 1993 Whitney Biennial, fault lines opened up and the ground shifted. What was quickly labeled the “politically correct” or “multicultural” Biennial contained little painting, which had dominated the past few installments of the show. This time, the exhibition was full of installations (Charles Ray’s full-size replica of a bright-red toy fire engine; Coco Fusco in a cage in the courtyard, costumed as a Native American), site-specific sculpture, and video (Matthew Barney as a genital-less satyr). It was mostly art by unknowns, too: Setting aside the video-and-film program, about 30 of the 43 artists were in the museum for the first time. More than 40 percent of the participants were women, quite a few were nonwhite, and a generous amount of the work was about being openly gay. One of the exhibition’s admission buttons, designed by artist Daniel J. Martinez, read I CAN’T IMAGINE EVER WANTING TO BE WHITE.
People went batshit. Contempt was everywhere. Robert Hughes saw strains of Stalinism. Peter Plagens wrote that it had the “aroma of cultural reparations.” Referring to the Biennial’s one African-American curator, Hilton Kramer hissed, “There is a certain awful logic in having Ms. [Thelma] Golden on the curatorial team.” New York Times chief critic Michael Kimmelman wrote “I hate the show,” saying it made him feel “battered by condescension” and that it treated art “as if pleasure were a sin.” Oh, my. Joining the pleasure police was Peter Schjeldahl, whose Village Voice review was titled “Art + Politics = Biennial. Missing: The Pleasure Principle.” One notable exception was Roberta Smith, in the Times, who called it “a watershed.” She and I had been married eight months earlier.
And me? I wasn’t writing a regular column then—I was still making my living as a long-distance truck driver, writing on the side—and I didn’t review the Biennial. But I did, in a short Art & Auction story, say something like “The fact that everyone hates this show made me like it and know that it’s important.”
In retrospect, it’s amazing to see how hung up everyone was. These artists were against not beauty but complacency; they were for pleasure through meaning, personal meaning. They saw that the stakes had risen by 1993, and they were rising to meet them the best they could. Of the show’s 82 artists, about half still have significant careers. That’s an exceptionally high percentage, especially considering how many were unfamiliar figures before then. A few 1993ers—Janine Antoni, Pepon Osorio, and Fred Wilson—are now MacArthur winners. Robert Gober, Bill Viola, and Wilson have each represented the United States in the Venice Biennale. It’s fair to call the 1993 Biennial the moment in which today’s art world was born.
So what happened?
Generalizations are always faulty, but two stories dominated the eighties art scene. First, painting returned. Big paintings, about painting’s history, by men who wanted to enter art history. My wife called these guys “the barrel-chested painters” after seeing a book jacket picturing Julian Schnabel, Markus Lüpertz, and Jörg Immendorff with shirts off and pecs out. The second story was “Pictures Art”—a vogue for images, sometimes painting but usually photography, made mainly by women, much of it skeptically critiquing art history or commodity culture. It was probing and cerebral, but Pictures Art, too, talked primarily to insiders. It was more about the canon than about the larger world.
The art that emerged in the early nineties could not have been more different. It came from all over the globe, and it wasn’t as painting-centric or flashy. It was being formulated in small groups fed up with overcommercialization. Many of these artists were influenced by conceptualism, feminism, theory, and Pictures Art, but they turned away from making work about art, commodities, or pop culture. Initially their work got more intimate, eccentric, obdurate, pressing, and personal. Reviewing the show, Kimmelman described “one sensationalistic image after another of wounded bodies, heaving buttocks, plastic vomit, and genitalia.” That collective vomiting was a massive blast of new energy.
The artists who emerged in the generation that began here made work that was weirder, less hangable, and derived more from idiosyncratic impulses. Nan Goldin unveiled pictures of the people, dying and dead, whom we’d met in her previous decade of work. In 1993, Charles Ray showed one of the best sculptures of that decade or the next, Family Romance, an uncanny rendition of a family of four standing stark naked, all about chest height and the same size. It still shoots Freudian sparks. In these years (though not at the Biennial), Hanna Wilke showed her tremendous last-act images of herself dying of lymphoma: She was a gorgeous gorgon angel of death. Paul McCarthy, almost forgotten by 1993, exhibited a large animated mannequin of a man having sex with a goat; it was the first of many greater, grosser installations. Artists were capturing the ways that identity and the body, be they political, sexual, physical, psychological, or doomed, would become central themes of the decade. Central themes because they were necessary themes. Identity politics (or “political correctness,” if you didn’t like it) was becoming a dominant piece of the national conversation, as it still is twenty years later. The country was becoming more diverse—a place that could elect Barack Obama as its president—and some embraced that new reality in order to move forward; others reacted against it. The Biennial was on the side of the future, and still is.