Biennial Angst

Chakaia Booker paces the length of her narrow studio, one of many occupying an eight-story former parking garage on a windswept stretch of Broadway between 132nd and 133rd Streets. Its 500 square feet are overrun with piles of discarded rubber tires from cars, trucks, and bicycles that Booker scavenges from the streets. Booker adjusts her headdress – a frighteningly large black crocheted affair that drapes around the sculptor’s head like a giant sleeping cat – and peers at her current project, which she’ll be exhibiting in the Whitney Biennial. It’s not immediately recognizable as an artwork: a sprawling multi-panel relief of black rubber shapes locked onto a gigantic wood-and-metal armature.

The piece, which the Whitney expects to have in a week’s time, is still not finished, Booker says, so she has been spending nights here rather than making the trek downtown to her East Village apartment. No matter that there’s no heat in her studio on this bone-chilling February afternoon, or even a bed. “I like to be with the work, ‘cause I never know what thoughts will come up and I’ll want to respond,” says Booker. She points to a straight-backed metal chair. “I might sit and nod for a few minutes – just a quick nap here and there.” In fact, Booker’s studio has none of the basic comforts – no sink, no mini-fridge. But then, she isn’t eating anyway. “I don’t like to eat when I’m working on large pieces,” she demurs.

For the first time since the heady Schnabel-and-Salle era of the mid-eighties, the contemporary-art world has a red-hot center – a clique of mediagenic young stars like Cecily Brown, Damian Loeb, and Tom Sachs, whose blue-chip galleries keep waiting lists of collectors ready to buy their new projects, sight unseen. But while you might find them on the downtown party circuit, you won’t see their work on the walls of the Whitney when the 2000 Biennial opens on March 23. Instead, the show belongs to artists like Chakaia Booker, who, at 47, isn’t even currently represented by a commercial gallery.

This year, for the first time in the history of the Whitney’s perennially controversial show, a team of non-Whitney curators was sent to scour the country for talent. Though art-world insiders fretted that the out-of-towners would give short shrift to New York artists, that hasn’t quite been the case – 43 of the show’s 97 artists are living in the New York area. But this year’s show does pointedly exclude some of the New York gallery world’s most fashionable talents.

Instead, the Whitney’s visiting curators seemed to favor artists whose work is deeply idiosyncratic or out of the loop – work, in other words, that is not an easy sell for commercial galleries. While this year’s Biennial does include a handful of younger “art stars,” among them Vanessa Beecroft, E. V. Day, and Lisa Yuskavage, it is notable for its attention to work that has been critically praised but is also plainly hard-earned, from Joseph Marioni’s monochromatic “paintings of colors,” to septuagenarian John Coplans’s black-and-white self-portraits, to Petah Coyne’s wax-dripped installation of draperies and saints. Plus, the show boasts a healthy dose of complete unknowns. “There is a pretty good percentage of artists I haven’t heard of,” says Peter Plagens, Newsweek’s art critic and a contributing editor at Artforum, of this year’s list. “It either means that I haven’t gotten around enough or that the Whitney is really doing its job and discovering new artists.”

“Often artists are penalized by their very visibility in the show,” says Anderson. “So it’s a RISK to be in a Biennial in that sense.”

And the 2000 Biennial is more than just a proving ground for new talent; it’s Whitney’s director Maxwell Anderson’s first major exhibition. Before it even opened, the show – and Anderson – had taken a media hit for Hans Haacke’s Sanitation piece. But ruckus over this Biennial had begun months earlier. Shortly after he arrived in September 1998, Anderson set the Biennial’s new parameters. His decision to enlist a group of curators from outside the museum was greeted with general dismay from the day it was announced. The 43-year-old Whitney director was already on probation with the New York art world, which took issue with his arrogance and a track record that indicated less fluency with contemporary art than the Whitney’s two previous directors, David Ross and Tom Armstrong, had. A Ph.D. in art history from Harvard notwithstanding, Anderson’s background suggested a more managerial, scholarly bent, including stints as an assistant curator of Greek and Roman art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, director of the Michael C. Carlos Museum at Emory University in Atlanta, and director of Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto. His businesslike reserve set many in the historically emotional art community on edge; Anderson is, after all, the man who pioneered a digital image bank of the art of North American museums and is wont to use the term portfolios when referring to the Whitney curators’ areas of expertise.

Anderson’s abrupt reshuffling of the Whitney’s staff sparked a series of controversial departures: Contemporary-art curators Elizabeth Sussman and Thelma Golden resigned, followed by Lisa Phillips, stripping the Whitney of all of its previous Biennial curators. And the word on the street was that Anderson’s demeanor and reputation had caused him so much damage within New York that he was forced to look elsewhere for curators for the 2000 Biennial.

In fact, the show appears to be less a radical departure for the Whitney than a return to the spirit of the Biennials of the seventies and eighties, when then-Whitney director Tom Armstrong encouraged his curators to seek out artists who had not had solo New York shows (or a previous Biennial inclusion) in order to achieve a more national scope. “In those days, we made an effort to include all of the United States, and we asked opinions of museum directors and curators, including many of the same people who are on this year’s committee,” says Richard Marshall, a former Whitney curator who organized seven Biennials between 1979 and 1991. Artist Chuck Close, who joined the museum’s board of trustees in February and is a veteran of four Biennials himself, applauds the diversity of this year’s exhibition: “It’s a good sign – so often the hot list of the moment is the only thing that occurs to anyone.”

The curatorial team Anderson chose was remarkable for its lack of New York figures. It includes Michael Auping of the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth; Valerie Cassel of the Art Institute of Chicago; Hugh M. Davies of the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego; Jane Farver of the Queens Museum of Art (who has since moved to MIT’s List Visual Arts Center); Andrea Miller-Keller, an independent curator; and Lawrence R. Rinder of the California College of Arts and Crafts in San Francisco, who will become the Whitney’s new curator of contemporary art in June.

“I wanted a young soul like Valerie who had no axes to grind – she was just optimistic,” Anderson says emphatically, leaning forward in a chair in his spare and modest office in the Whitney’s brownstone on 74th Street. The room is remarkably neat and orderly; silver-framed photographs of Anderson’s wife and son are meticulously arranged on a shelf behind his desk. Anderson folds his hands and smiles. “And I wanted some warhorses: Michael Auping, Hugh Davies. Andrea Miller-Keller is in a sense a Thoroughbred warhorse, because she’s still deeply engaged with the most contemporary art.”

The curators hit the road in March of 1999, each creating a list of 50 artists that they would eventually have to narrow down to the 97 who would be shown at the Whitney. Amazingly, when the group met with their choices, there were only three overlaps in the lists. “We looked at everybody’s selections and said, ‘Oh, my God, now what do we do?’ ” Anderson recalls. “The challenge was to bring the collection into focus without finding the lowest common denominator – choosing what was going to be compelling, interesting, and wasn’t going to be just who each curator could agree to live with.” As is always the case with Biennials, demographics played a role. “We started mapping the show to various matrices,” Anderson says, “ages, media, geographical location.”

But while Anderson’s curators brought certain strengths to the table – a mix of sensibilities, a wider knowledge of work outside the usual Manhattan-area confines – it was rumored in the art world that some curators were actively promoting work from their respective regions. Michael Auping encouraged the inclusion of Trenton Doyle Hancock, a young artist in his home state whose work he himself had collected. Although curators often collect work, in this case it struck some as a conflict of interest. Reached at home in Fort Worth, Auping acknowledges he bought a small work on paper from the artist’s Dallas gallery two years ago for $300, adding that he mentioned his purchase to his fellow curators during their deliberations. “I’ve bought art from a lot of young artists to support them,” Auping says. “I nominated Hancock because I think the Biennial should do things for people like him. This is what the Biennial should be about.”

Valerie Cassel says she and her fellow curators made every effort to be fair. “We all presented works we felt strongly about, and I do remember Michael saying how strongly he felt about that artist’s work and that he had bought a piece. I felt the curatorial process was one of respect and integrity.” Anderson, too, defends Auping. “From my perspective, part of the purpose of the Biennial is to bring American artists forward who are known to artists, curators, and collectors across the country,” he says. “In this instance, I think Michael was doing exactly what he should have done.”

As part of the curators’ mandate to find emerging talent, they branched out into new fields of media, featuring Internet art (a particular interest of Anderson’s) for the first time. But while the other artists selected for the show went through a grueling series of studio visits, the Internet artists found themselves weirdly untouched by the curatorial process. Annette Weintraub, 53, who heads City College’s electronic-design and multimedia department, is probably the best-known of the nine artists selected. Her piece, Sampling Broadway, combines photographic panoramas, animation, voice-over narration (of texts written by the artist), and street sounds to create a metaphoric tour of five locations on Broadway between Bowling Green and 14th Street. Although the piece “has been around and has gotten a lot of attention,” she says, the former painter was surprised by the e-mail she received telling her of the curators’ decision. “Having been a painter and having gone through the ritual of studio visits, it was a slightly odd experience because I’ve never met any of the curators. The Net pieces, from what I understand, were curated entirely online,” she says.

Joseph Grigely is another one of this Biennial’s mid-career participants who, like Chakaia Booker, is not represented by an American gallery. Deaf since an accident at the age of 10, the 43-year-old artist studied mechanical engineering and nineteenth-century literature before turning to art in the early eighties. His work, part of an ongoing series called “Conversations,” consists of notes written to him by friends, acquaintances, and strangers. Grigely then pins those snippets – napkins, envelopes, scraps of notebook paper, and other ephemera – on the wall in gridlike compositions to create a narrative installation. Though Grigely, who lives and works in Jersey City, has shown his work in Manhattan galleries (including Matthew Marks and Deitch Projects), he is far better known in Europe, where his work has been exhibited extensively in galleries and museums. His selection for the Biennial, he says, “was a very extenuated process. I think everything was pretty tentative for a while.” When asked if he hopes the show will generate offers from galleries, Grigely says that his only concern has been making a good piece for the show. “It’s complicated,” Grigely says. “There will be people unfamiliar with my work seeing it for the first time – and people very familiar with it seeing it and wondering what new direction I can move in.”

Anderson was acutely aware of this issue going into the show. “There’s no way to say that every work and every artist in the show will be from this point forward launched,” he says. “Often artists are penalized by their very visibility in the show. And if they had more time to develop in their careers, they might have taken a different turn without suddenly having a spotlight shone on them. So it’s a risk to be in a Biennial in that sense.”

As for his own career, Anderson views the Biennial as a chance to start fresh. Still, he is clearly worried by talk of the Whitney’s declining reputation as a champion of contemporary art. “The Whitney has not lost its moorings and is still a place that is deeply engaged in contemporary art. And it’s going to be possibly more so because we now have lots of curators working in contemporary art,” says Anderson, pointing to his recent hirings of Marla Prather as the Whitney’s curator of postwar art and Lawrence Rinder as the museum’s first Anne and Joel Ehrenkranz curator of contemporary art.

Staunching the leaks is one thing; to some longtime Whitney observers, it is the Biennial itself that has had the most damaging effect on the museum. “I’m sure the Whitney hopes that the show will stand up to P.S.1’s ‘Greater New York,’ ” says John Post Lee, a co-owner of the Chelsea-based gallery Gorney Bravin + Lee, referring to the well-reviewed survey of New York-based talents that opened in February and was jointly curated by P.S.1 and the Museum of Modern Art. Although Gorney Bravin + Lee does not have an artist in the Biennial, its artist James Siena made it into the Long Island City show. “P.S.1 raised the bar extremely high,” continues Lee. “It remains to be seen if the Whitney can compete.”

“I don’t think Anderson’s impact has been any more negative than that of any other director,” says Joe Helman, owner of the Joseph Helman Gallery, whose artists have been selected for past Biennials but who does not have an artist in this year’s show. “The institution’s neck is continually placed in the guillotine by having the Biennial. We are forced, every two years, to judge the seriousness and quality of the museum by this one unwieldy exhibition.”

Like any survey of cutting-edge art, the Biennial opens the museum to public complaints about individual pieces. Two weeks before the show’s opening, the museum came under attack from some of the Whitneys themselves for its inclusion of Sanitation, a work by the German-born artist Hans Haacke. The piece – not yet completed at the time of the uproar – was said to comprise garbage cans, recordings of marching troops, plus quotations from Mayor Giuliani (made during his attempts to close down the “Sensation” show at the Brooklyn Museum) printed in Fraktur, a Gothic typeface that was revived by the Nazis.

When Marylou Whitney, the socialite daughter-in-law of the museum’s founder and a member of the Whitney’s national committee, got wind of the piece, she threatened to withdraw her support of the museum. Other members of the family took the opposite view. Flora Miller Biddle, an honorary trustee of the Whitney and granddaughter of the museum’s founder, supports Haacke. “The museum has the obligation to show all different kinds of work, and Haacke’s piece is just one kind. The Biennial has nothing to do with being sensational – it has to do with representing the art of the country. I’m all for the Whitney, all for its director, and all for its curators.”

Anderson, too, passes the Sanitation scandal off as nothing more than hype. “What I’m looking forward to is seeing 97 artists show their art, and so far none of them has, including Mr. Haacke,” he says testily. Anderson’s predecessor, David Ross, agrees: “The whole point of the Biennial is to generate a useful critical dialogue about the state of American art. If it does that, it will be a successful Biennial.”

But will the 2000 Biennial be successful? Asked how he thinks the show will be critically received, Anderson is either refreshingly candid or trying to dodge a bullet – it’s hard to tell. “I’m cautiously optimistic, by which I mean I don’t expect a lot of critics to like the exhibition,” he says, and smiles. “That’s not what’s supposed to happen.”

Biennial Angst