Seems like no art world job gets so consistently fucked up like the curating of the Whitney Biennial. Year after year, the Biennial gets panned for its disconnected assortment of work, which either expresses no consistent worldview or toes the institutional line. So when Charlie Rose rounded up Biennial curators Stuart Comer and Michelle Grabner and artists Zoe Leonard and Jacolby Satterwhite for an interview, the results were, unsurprisingly, noncommittal.
Charlie Rose: The Biennial, I suggest, asks the question ‘what is contemporary art in the United States?’ Do you come away with an answer to that?
Michelle Grabner: No. No. And you won’t in future biennials, and you haven’t in past biennials.
Rose: Well, why do we ask?
Grabner: It’s a good exercise in measuring the health of contemporary art. I often thought of my role as curator as more of a cartographer trying to map contemporary art. And there’s no such thing…
Rose: There’s no such thing—as a map?
Grabner: No, there’s no such thing as contemporary art. It’s a fiction in the mind of…everybody at this table, everybody who has a buy-in. It’s a fantasy, in terms of who’s participating and how they’re participating. So what I’m doing is mapping the best I can.
Grabner, herself a painter and the Chair of Painting and Drawing at SAIC, says that contemporary art is a fiction in the mind of everyone with a “buy-in”, and the Biennial is an easy target because too many people expect to see themselves in it. Grabner simply tried to map as best she could.
The idea of an overarching “contemporary art” may not line up with reality, but art does not exist in an imaginary vacuum; its boundaries and systems have to some degree already been described at length by figures like Ben Davis, Lucy Lippard, Julie Ault, and Sarah Thornton. Their documentation of the social and material conditions of art help us better understand how art interacts with the world. But fair enough. You can only capture so much of the nebulous in one show.
But this deflector-shield tactic gets a little ridiculous when Stuart Comer, MoMA’s Media and Performance Art Curator, refuses to identify a single idea. He describes art like disconnected stars, an array of dots from which one can draw random, but all equally valid constellations:
Comer: I think [the separation of curators in the Whitney Biennial] really suggests the polyphonic voice of the United States at the moment, where there are no easy answers about how to define contemporary art. So the fact that an audience can pick and choose or make the connections they want to across the same floors, or come away with very different perspectives—I think it’s exciting, actually.
Rose: It’s fair to say they’ll come away with more questions than answers?
Comer: Which I think is a good thing. The best exhibitions pose really interesting questions.
What kinds of questions? Why those questions? Why not other questions? “Michelle and I probably come to different conclusions about certain ideas,” Comer remarks at one point. Wonder what those conclusions are? He doesn’t say. It’s a tired old game where art can provoke any number of thoughts, but nobody’s expected to discuss them critically.
It would be nice if these curators could find some words to describe the postmodern shape of things, so we don’t end up on the same monotonous treadmill we’re always on. For example, My Barbarian (curated by Anthony Elms) obviously addresses Marxist and collectivist political ideologies in their work. That’s probably because capitalism isn’t working for some people.
People seemed to like Michelle Grabner’s floor the most, because it was a counterbalance to institutional painting practices with its traditionally feminine love of craft and materials. Why do we like this?
Keith Mayerson’s equally loving, and equally oily treatment of intimate family moments, landscapes, and Abraham Lincoln is hard to pin down, but if anybody can help us position these images somewhere in our culture, a MoMA curator can.
But if we’re destined to view art as a deep space of unrelated individuals who contribute one-off notions which have no bearing on our past, present, or future, then one wonders why we need curators at all.