Aleksandra Mir

American Pie

Frieze, #93, London, Sept 2004
By Jennifer Higgie and Matthew Higgs

Whitney Biennial 2004
11 March - 30 May 2004
Whitney Museum of American Art, 945 Madison Avenue at 75th Street, New York, NY - 10021

The 2004 Whitney Biennial, a survey of contemporary art made in the US, opened in March at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. It was curated by Chrissie Illes, Shamim M. Momin and Debra Singer. frieze asked seven critics and curators to repsond to a few questions.

Dan Cameron is Senior Curator at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York and was Artistic Director of the 2003 Istanbul Biennial

Dan Fox is Associate Editor of frieze

Jennifer Higgie is co-Editor of frieze

Matthew Higgs is an artist and Curator at the CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts, San Francisco

Katy Siegel teaches art history and criticism at Hunter College and is a Contributing Editor of Artforum

Roberta Smith is an art critic living in New York. She has written for The New York Times since 1986

Neville Wakefield is a writer living in New York

What function should a Whitney Biennial serve at this point in time?

Dan Cameron

The Whitney Biennial should showcase works by younger artists, champion works by underrated artists and recontextualize works by established artists. It should hurl itself at the newest developments, but always with a backwards look to see how the latest changes make the recent past look a bit different. It should make a strong rhetorical case for the cause of new art.

Dan Fox

There are too many survey shows that present the same old same old in the name of some misconstrued notion of internationalism. The Biennial's geographical limits are a plus; it allows for focus. Judging by some of the work shown this year, however, the Whitney needs to avoid being a chart-topper's run-down of the tediously hip.

Jennifer Higgie

Maxwell L. Anderson wrote in his preface to the catalogue: 'The exhibition was born of a spirit of advocacy rather than a safe affirmation of the obvious ... it is in the museum's tradition to make room for lesser-known talents even at the expense of artists in vogue.' These, surely, are sentiments that can only be applauded, even if they're not entirely borne out in the show.

Matthew Higgs

Any group exhibition of contemporary art should unapologetically reflect the opinions of its organizers at a particular point in time. A cursory glance at the catalogues of Biennials past reminds us that history and/or the market will ultimately decide what work or artists will survive or escape their historical moment. It is inevitable that in five, ten, 15 or 20 years time most of the work in the 2004 Biennial will look either peculiar or, better, faintly ridiculous. This is as it should be.

Katy Siegel

The Whitney Biennial began as a nationalistic assertion of the culture of the once provincial US against that of 'old Europe'. Now that New York is no longer the boonies, why bother promoting American art? If there's any reason for this exhibition, it's not to dazzle the art world with something it hasn't seen before, but to gather a lot of work together for out-of-town visitors, or for New Yorkers who don't spend their Saturdays trooping around Chelsea.

Roberta Smith

Like any museum survey of contemporary art, the Whitney Biennial should be a sampling of what the curator(s) considers the best art of the moment, selected and installed in a way that constitutes some new thought about the work and its relationship to that of other artists. The show should have a rationale and, given that it happens every two years, almost any rationale will do. Unfortunately there seem to be only two approaches at the moment. One is the balanced overview, as in the current show, which cuts through media, styles and generations and tends toward a certain homogeneity. The other is the polemic, generated by a narrower, more didactic focus that concentrates on a certain kind of art or area of art-making. Both the 1993 and 2002 Biennials had elements of this; they stick in the mind more clearly than most, but more for their positions than for what was in them. Neither approach works without the benefit of 'a good eye' - an old-fashioned concept, perhaps, but one that is almost always more or less absent from the Biennial. This year it is much less absent than usual, but that is only relative. And needless to say, other approaches should be tried. What about devoting it to a single art medium?

Neville Wakefield

Biennials may be the new endangered species, their pastures overgrazed by art fairs whose purpose is partial and unequivocal, while their claims to representation are eroded by the market economies of parks and piers. Ten years ago the Whitney Biennial was the only cross-sectional view of art production at a given moment. It represented a more or less singular vision of a plural and complex activity. Since then much of this privilege has been lost. Already diced and served up at art fairs, the grand ambition of the overview seems, if not hubristic, out of sync with the times. For Biennials to continue to claim relevance they will have to address their commercial counterparts with more than the luxury of space and elegance of setting.

Is this show representative of American art at this moment?

Dan Cameron

I wouldn't use the word 'representative' to describe the Biennial this year, because it smacks of pseudo-democracy. It's not really a 'What's Hot' survey either. Rather, I think the curators have pulled off an intricate yet sensitive installation of mostly very exciting art.

Dan Fox

Living outside the USA, I wouldn't like to comment on how accurate this particular Biennial is as a barometer of American art. That said, there are a good few familiar names in the show, which does say something about the weather patterns of US/European market forces and curatorial taste. The familiarity of the visual and strategic languages on display makes me wonder whether it's only the inflections of local vernaculars that differentiate the art here from much else you'd see on the higher-profile biennial or art fair circuit.

Jennifer Higgie

A moment is a slippery thing. I'm not from the US and I've never lived there, so it's hard to say. But it's obvious that any show purporting to reflect anything as diverse as art made in the US must acknowledge that reasons for exclusion are simply a reflection of curatorial taste; no one could step back far enough to take a snapshot of an entire country. However, the eclecticism of this Whitney revealed a refreshing lack of curatorial single-mindeness that allowed much work to be shown together that didn't really get along — a healthy and real reflection of how creativity anywhere blooms and struggles. At times, though, the clumsy co-existence between earnest, big-P political work and work that perpetuates the infantile was tiresome. Is this American art now? Please, no more bedroom Goths, dumb approximations of nature (antlers should be banned for at least a decade) or toys. One other thing: the sheer amount of figurative drawing that was either precise or smudged - odd.

Matthew Higgs

Probably, although the extent to which photographic work was marginalized was curious. I, for one, would certainly have liked to see the work of, say, Bruce LaBruce or Richard Kern being acknowledged in such a context. Both are photographers and filmmakers whose ongoing aesthetics, attitude and general modus operandi maintain a pervasive and persuasive influence on a lot of recent work.

Katy Siegel

American art is too various to cover comprehensively, so every Biennial must be partisan and partial. This one represents what is going on in New York and, to some extent, LA galleries. But even that view is largely limited to a certain kind of self-regarding art and artist. The inward turn comes, perhaps, in reaction to two overwhelming conditions facing young artists today: the theory imposed on them in grad school and the immensity of global politics. They take refuge in adolescent self-regard (Sue de Beer, Elizabeth Peyton et al.), crafty cuteness (Matthew Ronay, Virgil Marti) and small-worldism, in which itsy-bitsy pieces spread and aggregate into big installations (Katie Grinnan, assume vivid astro focus). It was nice of the curators to include non-native artists residing in the US, such as David Hockney and Maurizio Cattelan, but apparently it's easier to get in via Italy than Tennessee, and that whole 'let's think about people of colour' thing is over.

Roberta Smith

Any Biennial is representative enough if it justifies the amount of space and time required to organize, or see, it. They rarely do and, despite its serious focus and excellent installation, this show is ultimately no exception. As usual, it goes out of focus for long stretches of time because it presents too much art in too little space. Only few artists make much of an impression; the rest serve as fillers, blurring both the exhibition and experience, creating a kind of curatorial fudging. The current Biennial seems quite a bit less exciting than America feels from my vantage point, especially where painting and photography are concerned. But to be genuinely useful to both the general public and the rest of us the Biennial could maybe try to be even less representative and also less American. That is, it should highlight the work of fewer, more diverse artists under better circumstances.

Neville Wakefield

If the Whitney is representative of American art at this moment, what then does that representaion say of the moment? 'Not much' may be the answer, which some will say is already an improvement on the 'absolutely nothing' of notable recent shows. But given the irrevocable nature of the past two years not much may yet not be enough. And while no one would want art made to the wages of guilt for civil and political mendacity, it should not be unreasonable to glean from it a sense of something beyond the shock and awe that go with the facility for painting a Thanksgiving turkey.

Are all museum shows by definition conservative?

Dan Cameron

Is this a trick question? Obviously, I don't think museum shows need to be conservative, although it may well be the norm today. Contemporary art looks best when experienced within a dynamic visual context, but even that definition is far from simple. For example, I think a great exhibition can be made from parts that are not necessarily complementary, but where the installation design plays them off each other so that their meaning becomes charged.

Dan Fox

Not necessarily. Perhaps you should first ask yourself what you define as the flipside of conservatism? One only has to look at what, say, Pontus Hultén achieved at the Moderna Museet in the 1960s (with exhibitions such as Palle Nielsen's 'Model for a Qualitative Society') or even MoMA New York's funkier 20th-century moments (for example, Frederick Kiesler's Surrealist Gallery from 'Art of this Century' in 1942) to see that institutional spaces are not always hamstrung by accountability and sluggish bureaucracy. I think there's a pernicious conservatism masquerading as radicalism in both commercial and artist-run initiatives at the moment too.

Jennifer Higgie

I'll state the obvious. People are conservative, not materials. Museum shows are as radical or as limited as the people who curate or show in them.

Matthew Higgs

Probably a better question is 'Are all museums by definition conservative?' To which I would probably answer 'Yes'. Exhibitions are another matter: a show of work by, say, Bruce Nauman, David Hammons or Lily van der Stokker could never be considered conservative, regardless of where they are shown.

Katy Siegel

Museums are supposed to be conservative (that's why they have conservators), public repositories of the finest common culture, as opposed to the highly changeable, fashion-driven commercial scene. This of course is hogwash, although the idea lives on in complaints that the Biennial is too gallery-driven. Museums are getting more and more into the contemporary art market. And contemporary art shows have proved to be safe bets for drawing big crowds, right up there with Monet and Leonardo.

Roberta Smith

Hypothetically, no, but the curatorial profession is in crisis for any number of reasons, many of which are beyond its control, and New York's high density of galleries poses further challenges to the city's curators of contemporary art, especially in the big museums. These curators really need to be seers, to have the ability to synthesize the art seen in galleries in a fresh way and combine it with art not available in galleries.

Can curating by committee work?

Dan Cameron

Curating by committee works best when the curators know and trust each other, and when the territory they've defined is fairly circumscribed, as at the Whitney right now. It's much more difficult when a team has to survey the entire world's art production as a joint curatorial enterprise (as in Documenta or the last Venice Biennale) or when curators are chosen by committee and then thrown together (Manifesta).

Dan Fox

It depends how big the committee is and how big their egos are.

Jennifer Higgie

If a camel is a horse designed by a committee, perhaps it's because sometimes the situation calls for a camel.

Matthew Higgs

From experience I'm inclined to say that it is never ideal. The struggle for consensus — or at least the desire to be seen to be representative, or inclusive - has a habit of ironing out any loose threads or rough edges, which are often the most interesting and illuminating aspects of any group exhibition. That said, multiple points of view can be useful, especially if they are conflicting.

Katy Siegel

Yes, clearly curating by committee can work. This Biennial is, as everyone says, much better than the last one.

Roberta Smith

Surely if artists can work together, curators can too. But there needs to be imagination and vision and shared, or at least complementary, points of view. What was your favourite piece in the exhibition?

What was your favourite piece in the exhibition?

Dan Cameron

It's a difficult choice. The works that immediately come to mind are installations by David Altmejd and assume vivid astro focus and of course the Kusama room. I have to go back soon for another look.

Dan Fox

The cataclysmic threat and elemental promise evoked in Jack Goldstein's Under Water Sea Fantasy (1983-2003). Jeremy Blake's video Reading Ossie Clark (2003) — a fine invocation of ritualistic excess in Swinging London, as seen through the melancholy haze of regret rather than the rosy fog of nostalgia. And, included in Dave Muller's installation, a watercolour asking 'What would Sun Ra do?' I often find myself wondering the same thing.

Jennifer Higgie

Ones that travelled. In no particular order: Mark Handforth's shattered and rearrang-ed road took me somewhere strange I don't yet recognize. Ernesto Caivano managed to evoke in the least childlike way childhood memories of escape, and Jeremy Blake's astonishingly badly installed yet wonderful video Reading Ossie Clark (2003) dragged the dog-eared years of the 1960s on a wistful, shining trip into the present. Others that fired my imagination: Dike Blair's enigmatic confusion of Post-Minimal sculpture with figurative painting; Jack Goldstein's dreamy reminder that deep sea divers are astronauts on earth; the breezy relief of Elizabeth Peyton and David Hockney's uncomplicated elegance; Richard Prince's elegiac car bonnets; and Andrea Zittel, whose solution to cooking eggs, among other things, was inspiring. Finally, Aleksandra Mir's No Smoking signs. Wholly dependent as they are on context, authority and the displacement of something familiar, they are an odd, apt reflection in these hallowed halls of what museums are capable of, even when they're being prescriptive.

Matthew Higgs

There was a lot to like in the exhibition — for example, Aleksandra Mir's No Smoking (2004) is a witty and gently subversive amplification of Mayor 'bossy boots' Bloomberg's paranoid anti-smoking laws, but Mel Bochner's eccentric text paintings - such as Nothing (2003) - were the most singularly unexpected (and youthful) works in the show.

Katy Siegel

There were many things I enjoyed seeing, most of them by artists I already knew and liked: Fred Tomaselli, T.J. Wilcox, Amy Sillman, Dave Muller, Jim Hodges and Andrea Zittel. My single favourite art work was a drawing by Andrea Bowers called Seneca Falls, New York (1983), WomenClimbing over the Fence to Protest the Nuclear Test Site (2003). I always like her drawings and videos, but I found this one particularly moving in the context of the Biennial's purported political underpinnings. Bowers locates social change not in the past impossibility of 1968 or the future impossibility of utopia, but in a historical moment uncoloured by nostalgia, one not unlike our own. (1983 is more 2004 than 1984.) The women in her drawing are not glamorous icons of radicality like the flag-waving French fox in Mary Kelly's recycling of a Paris '68 photo. Danny the Red is a politician now and Weatherwoman Bernadine Dohrn a lawyer, but Bowers reminds us that ordinary people continue to perform direct political actions. Using the most ordinary of materials - grey pencil and white paper - the artist creates something of beauty and inspiration. Amid all the mirrors, masturbation and remixed Minimalism, Bowers' drawing, social rather than solipsistic, gives me what I want: more politics, more feeling, more art.

Roberta Smith

You can't be serious. The work I liked included: Richard Prince's installation of car hoods, because it managed to be in but not of the show; Stan Brakhage's rushing clotted films, and the way they connected to Jack Goldstein's film; Aida Ruilova's videos and assume vivid astro focus's installation; Laura Owens's painting, for rising above the fray; Dave Muller's music chart, for embracing it.

Neville Wakefield

Whether or not times of real terror find their descriptive antidote in the aesthetic terrors of the Sublime, much of the best work seemed to fall under this aegis: Elizabeth Peyton's paintings made balladic intensity of the effete, Banks Violette's dark throne adagio graphite drawings encircled ruins of another kind while Jack Goldstein's creation spectacle found the ghosts of Jules Verne and Jacques Cousteau rising from the lavas and liquids of our oceanic longings. But the prize surely went to Richard Prince, whose car hoods stood sentinel to the more local dialects of an immediate beyond. A Rothko chapel to the gear-heads of spiritual America, nothing came close to describing the dignity and despair of things that did, but now don't, work.