Our Curator and Director of Exhibitions Herb Tam wrote a response to the Whitney Biennial on his personal blog Mind Spray, which has quickly gained traction in the online art world (including as the introduction to an article in the Huffington Post.) In case you’ve missed it, we present his original post here.
Every two years when the artists list for the Whitney Biennial gets released, emotional and intellectual debates stir about who was left out and what communities went unserved. It was no different this time around as the museum released Elisabeth Sussman and Jay Sander’s selections for the 2012 version, likely to be the last in the Whitney’s current Marcel Breuer-designed building as it readies for the move to the meatpacking district. My twitter feed and various art blogs streamed early opinions – some expressed relief to see deserving artists finally make the cut, others bemoaned the under-representation of women and minority artists, there was an observation that the list seemed “Artforum-y,” etc.
All the attention is both a gift and a curse for its curators. The biennial, like the Oscar Awards, will always be judged harshly because its grand mission and history to survey the art of the contemporary (American?) moment makes it among the most prestigious group exhibitions to be included in, and also sets up an impossibly ambitious thesis to satisfy. I don’t envy the kinds of conceptual, logistical and political decisions the curators had and will have to face. The most important decisions are out of the way for them: deciding who’s on the final list. A few weeks ago artist and critic Sharon Butler, who writes the blog Two Coats of Paint, anticipating negative reaction to the leaked list, issued a challenge on her twitter (@TwoCoats): “everyone shld curate their 51-artist
So I decided to compile my own imaginary Whitney Biennial artists list, based on my conception of America as always carried along by the undercurrent of race. My decade was the 90s and my biennial would bring forth identity politics. It would look back into the 90s at how the politics of race and ethnicity were argued for, and in what kind of language. It would then recalibrate those debates in today’s terms, upon today’s means of communication and political struggle, to get a picture of racial dynamics now.
I was convinced nobody else thought this way until a few days ago when art critic Claire Barliant mentioned she had also been thinking seriously about art dealing with identity politics. How its moment had passed in the 90s, with much of the work dismissed as “victim” art, never to see critical attention return. What are the real reasons behind this, we wondered. Now was the time to do a show about this work, Claire asserted. A survey of its key works from the past and newer work that takes up the same issues today. We agreed that identity politics in art is well overdue its retrospective and contemporary attention. I was happy to hear someone else be so in tune with what I was feeling and this conversation prompted a revisiting of my list. Claire talked about identity politics as it related to sexual orientation and gender, which I hadn’t considered for my list, but which should be included in any show broadly stated as being about identity politics. I didn’t include those artists here because of time constraints.
Some of the artists in my list (see below) may be upset that their work is seen through this frame, and those that aren’t on it may be disgruntled by the omission (though I doubt that). It was a difficult list to compile, though easier because nothing was at stake. This show won’t go on, and I highly doubt I’ll ever be asked to curate one of these. Having gone through this exercise, I can only imagine the agony of the Whitney Biennial curators as they made excruciating decisions to exclude a lot of deserving artists, many of whom are their friends. But when their biennial opens the light of criticism, envy and adoration will shine brightly on them and the artists they’ve selected. For now, I hope you read these names carefully and maybe do a google search of them. Their work deserves the attention and I’m intoxicated with excitement thinking about their work assembled together some day.
Here’s my list:
Jaishri Abichandani, Manuel Acevedo, Derrick Adams,Terry Adkins, Elia Alba, Laylah Ali, Blanka Amezkua, Tomie Arai, Nicole Awai, Nadia Ayari, Radcliffe Bailey, Tamy Ben-Tor, Sanford Biggers, Karlos Carcamo, Nick Cave, Patty Chang, Mel Chin, Ken Chu, Seth Cohen, Robert Colescott, Papo Colo, William Cordova, Jimmie Durham, Brendan Fernandes, Benin Ford, Coco Fusco, Chitra Ganesh, Rupert Garcia, Rico Gatson, Mariam Ghani, Renee Green, Alejandro Guzman, David Hammons, Skowmon Hastanan, Leslie Hewitt, Donna Huanca, Arlan Huang, Yoko Inoue, Emily Jacir, Arthur Jafa, Rashid Johnson, Jennie C. Jones, Brad Kalhamer, Jayson Keeling, Swati Khurana, Byron Kim, Terence Koh, Simone Leigh, Shaun Leonardo, Lam + Lin, Bing Lee, Nikki S. Lee, Kalup Linzy, Miguel Luciano, James Luna, Tala Madani, Kerry James Marshall, Charles McGill, Yong Soon Min, Ivan Monforte, Irvin Morazan, Yamini Nayar, Manuel Ocampo, Joe Overstreet, Cliff Owens, Fahamu Pecou, Paul Pfeiffer, Adrian Piper, William Pope.L, Jaune Quick-To-See Smith, Sara Rahbar, Wanda Raimundi-Ortiz, Faith Ringgold, Athena Robles, Rafael Sanchez (the one who had a solo show at Exit Art in 2010), Jacolby Satterwhite, Dread Scott, Seher Shah, Xaviera Simmons, Jeff Sonhouse, Mary Ting, Slavs & Tatars, Sol’Sax, Hong-An Truong, Juana Valdes, Mary Valverde, Kara Walker, Kay WalkingStick, Hank Willis Thomas, Saya Woolfalk, Lynne Yamamoto
Now we want to know: what do you think? Are group exhibitions inherently problematic? Should we pursue a new model? Who would you include in a group show or to whom would you give a solo exhibition?