A Talk With: The Curators of the Whitney Biennial

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It’s here, the Whitney Biennial, the show that everybody loves to hate. It opens today at the Whitney Museum in New York. I sat down yesterday with Shamim M. Momin and Henriette Huldisch, the Whitney curators chiefly responsible for this year’s edition. The new Biennial is unusual in that for three weeks part of it will spill over to the Park Avenue Armory, a Victorian brick pile a few blocks from the museum. The Armory is going to be given over largely to “social performance” activities, some of which verge into party territory — a dance marathon, a fully operating tequila bar and a mixed media installation that will remind a lot of people of the chill out room at a dance club.

Babylon Bar, Eduardo Sarabia, 2006/ PHOTO: Courtesy I-20, New York

Even granting the tradition of “social sculpture” dating back to Joseph Beuys in the ’60s, these are doings that qualify as art only when you apply a very elastic definition of the term. (Except maybe that chill out room. I’ve been in a few over the years that have struck me as veritable Gestamtkunstwerks, if you know what I mean.) But Momin and Huldisch say that artists have been drawn so much lately to these mercurial group-interactions-as-artform that it’s essential to include them in the Biennial.

I’ve also sometimes thought that partying is an art if you do it right, but that’s not what they’re getting at. As usual I’ll split this conversation into a couple of posts.

LACAYO: You might say that you both took on the most thankless job in the world of art, curating a show that gets spanked by the critics almost every time. Did you ever think of just saying: “Lord, let this cup pass from my lips?”

HULDISCH: The fact that the Biennial tends to be controversial was sort of liberating to us. We felt that we just have to be sure that we do the exhibition that feels right, and we can’t really worry about what the critical or public response is going to be. Because that will be what it is, regardless.

We also know that some of the Biennials that are now considered to be some of the most important ones gathered the most vicious reviews. The evaluation changes over time. So we both put it out of our heads as much as possible. The other thing that helps is that we have basically no time to do the show, so you just have to get to work.

LACAYO: When did you start working on it?

MOMIN: Last January.

LACAYO: But in a way you’ve always been working on it

MOMIN: That’s right. This is what we do, so it’s not like we’re starting from scratch.

LACAYO: This Biennial doen’t have an official theme, but one idea you develop in the catalogue is “lessness”. So what is “lessness”?

HULDISCH: I’m using the word there to harness a number of ideas. One is a tendency towards non-spectable, non-monumentalism. I talk about three different directions. One is failure as a key motif. Another is an inclination to use modest, humble materials. And lastly there’s this notion of people making smaller, more localized gestures that have an “in the moment” aspect.

LACAYO: Modest scale, scavenged materials, evanescent performances that disappear as soon as they’re done — this is a place that the art world circles back to repeatedly, no? It did in the late ’60s and ’70s, when there was also a reaction against the power of the art market. Performance art came along as part of that. There was the Italian “Arte Povera” in the late ’70s and ’80s. And the catalogue for the ’93 Biennial, after the Reagan-Bush years, talks about the prevalence of work that year that “deliberately renounces success and power in favor of the degraded and the dysfunctional.”

MOMIN: Certainly the artworld, like most areas of culture, swings on a pendulum to some degree. We’re not trying to say that these things have never been done before. But each time these tendencies are revisited they take on different forms, they have different inflections. And in this case it also seems to run very broadly across disciplines.

LACAYO: Did you find the same preoccupations being picked up by artists all over the country — in Chicago, in Miami?

MOMIN: It really seemed to run the gamut, across the board. They emerged in both the cities you mentioned and also in Los Angeles most strongly.

LACAYO: The Biennial is a survey of American art. How did you define American artists?

HULDISCH: Citizenship doesn’t matter and hasn’t for a long time. The idea of what is Ameriican art has changed a lot at this institution over the last 15 or 20 years. For a long time permanent residents and even people just living and working here have been included. And there have been instances like in 2002 when Christian Jankowski was in the Biennial. He was living in Berlin but had made an artwork dealing with American televangelism that was very resonant.

LACAYO: Every Whitney Biennial has a few older, late-career artists. I always wonder how they’re chosen. How did you settle on the West Coast realist painter Robert Bechtle, who’s in his mid seventies? There’s very little painting in your show, and Bechtle works in the style that used to be called Photorealist, so he comes as a surprise.

Six Houses on Mound Street, Robert Bechtle, 2006 / PHOTO: Whitney Museum

HULDISCH: One of the reasons we were interested in Bechtle had to do with a particular chronicling of American terrain and American landscape in his work, which I think appears in a lot of the other works in the exhibition, in very different formal iterations. We thought it was an interesting opportunity to put Bechtle in a different context.

LACAYO: What about Sherrie Levine, who’s 61, and who used to “appropriate” famous photographs, re-photographing them and exhibiting them as her own work as a way to question the idea of originality? She has two kinds of works in the Biennial. One is a suite of 18 pictures called Equivalents (After Alfred Stieglitz) that pixillates a group of the famous Stieglitz photographs of clouds so that each one reads as a blurry grid of black, grey and white squares.

MOMIN: I hate “neo” phrases, but there’s a kind of neo-appropriation that’s going on now and she’s obviously very important to that.