Bedlam reigned in the lead-up to Monday night's panel of Whitney Biennial curators past and present, with ticket-holders battling for entry to the auditorium and another 200 milling art fans being turned away. Is the frenzy -- popularity overwhelming planning? -- a sign of things to come in the "Whitney Biennial 2006," Mar. 2-May 28, 2006? "Ask again later," says the Magic Eight-Ball.
Organized by the tastemakers at Artforum magazine and held at New School University (now comically renamed "The New School: A University" on the advice of some marketing firm) on West 12th Street in Greenwich Village, Jan. 23, 2006, "Curating the Whitney Biennial" brought together no less than six power-curators to talk about their experiences on the contemporary art world's version of the firing line. From the way-back machine was Marcia Tucker, curator of the Whitney from 1969 to '77 (and founding director of the New Museum, 1977-99). She was joined by Elisabeth Sussman, overseer of the notorious "identity politics" bonanza in 1993; Klaus Kertess, mastermind of the "return to painting" biennial in '95; Louise Neri, who co-curated the '97 biennial with then-Whitney curator Lisa Phillips; and the two co-curators of the 2006 show, Whitney film and video curator Chrissie Iles (who also worked on the 2004 version) and Walker Art Center curator Philippe Vergne.
Despite their varied portfolios, the panelists had one thing in common -- their Whitney Biennial shows had been harshly judged by critics and the art public.
The panel was helmed by proud-bald Artforum editor-in-chief Tim Griffin, who piloted the event like a benign Captain Jean-Luc Picard -- though his mission seemed rather less probing than that of his Star Trek doppelganger. Griffin kicked things off by reading snippets of those above-mentioned negative reviews, as if to say "we're all in this together, right?," pre-empting any tension that might be brewing. As a moderator, Griffin's edgiest contribution came at the end, when he requested that the panelists "talk about one thing that you would do differently, looking back." Somebody stop this guy before he starts a fight!
And so it went for most of the evening. Being fundamentally political creatures, the curators managed to reveal very little of substance or compelling interest. Instead, the request to "just talk about being a curator" produced a stream of idle curatorial trivia, i.e., Chrissie Iles doesn't drive. Sensation-seekers were reduced to reading between the lines. For instance, to some, Kertess' demure claim that he "can't remember having felt any sense of competition with Elisabeth's biennial" sounded as convincing as Sam Alito's assertion that he "can't remember" being a member of the ultra-right-wing Concerned Alumni of Princeton.
To be fair, the 2006 Biennial sounds pretty good [see Artnet News, Nov. 30, 2005]. But the historical focus of the Artforum roundtable distracted from, rather than highlighted, the most interesting issues surrounding the forthcoming show, to wit, the significance of the changes that Iles and Vergne have wrought this year. The 2006 installment is the first biennial to be titled ("Day for Night"), making it another advance for theme-based curating over the simple sampling of current art-market enthusiasms.
What's more, as everyone knows, for the 2006 biennial the Whitney has finally abandoned its signature devotion to "American Art," instead announcing plans to "feature both American and foreign artists working in places across the globe." Vergne's careless quip that an alternative title for the show was "Post-America" went largely unremarked.
Can the Whitney Museum pull off such a "post-national" event, becoming a kind of more focused version of the Venice Biennale? Is the move a timely gesture reflecting the reality of our globalized world? Or is it a retreat into some kind of affluent global bohemianism, in which local politics are elided, precisely at the moment when real value might be found in carefully thinking them through?
The answer to these questions is, of course, yes and no. But this discussion didn't have much to say about it one way or the other. We'll just have to wait for March to see.
BEN DAVIS is associate editor of Artnet Magazine.