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Biennial Angst

Maxwell Anderson wanted to reinvent the Whitney Biennial. And he has, with a crew of curators who have pointedly excluded the gallery world's fashionable set. Now, as the art community gears up for its favorite fracas, it isn't just the work that's going to be judged.

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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.


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