An Issues-Oriented 'Biennial' Set at the Whitney


The "Biennial Exhibition" at New York's Whitney Museum of American Art will have a new look in 1993. The closely watched, perpetually controversial show--which attempts to define the state of contemporary art--is not known for sitting still. Each installment has a distinctive character because the artworks are selected to reflect the Zeitgeist. But next year's version of the exhibition, scheduled to open March 5, will bring substantive changes.

For the first time, the show will present a single curator's point of view, rather than a committee's consensus. Curator Elisabeth Sussman worked with a team of Whitney colleagues and consulted outside advisers, but the selection of artists is hers. "It was important to me that the 'Biennial' be unified by a singular curatorial vision, and Elisabeth's point of view informs every aspect of this project," museum director David A. Ross said in a press release announcing the exhibition.

Another change concerns the content of the artworks. More than ever before, the show will focus on social issues. "I wanted to look outside issues of styles and trends--the latest Neo-Geo or whatever--and see what issues are motivating artists," Sussman said in a phone interview. As a result of her research, she has selected many artists who deal with such subjects as class, race, gender, sexuality and the family. Another major emphasis is the growing influence of mass media and computer technologies on visual culture.

The number of artists--85 including members of a few artistic partnerships--is smaller than in recent years, but a higher proportion of the participants are people of color. "I haven't made a statistical comparison, but more diversity was my great desire," Sussman said. "Many of the artists have never shown their work at the Whitney and some of them have no gallery representation."

California participants include Chris Burden, Guillermo Gomez-Pena, Mike Kelley, James Luna, Daniel Martinez, Raymond Pettibon, Lari Pittman, Charles Ray, Allan Sekula, Bill Viola, Pat Ward Williams, Bruce and Norman Yonemoto and Timothy Martin.

The performing arts also will get more attention in the 1993 biennial. Film and video will be integrated in the galleries rather than shown separately, as in the past, Sussman said.

Another addition is a program designed by education curator Constance Wolf to make the exhibition more comprehensible to a general audience and to encourage discussion of issues addressed by the artists. A video project by YO-TV, a collaborative of graduates of the Educational Video Center High School Internship Program, will document the organization of the exhibition.

As usual, the exhibition catalogue will contain essays by Whitney curators. But it will also include contributions by four outside authors: Homi K. Bhabha, professor of English at the University of Sussex, cultural critic Coco Fusco, writer and critic B. Ruby Rich and Avital Ronell, professor of comparative literature at UC Berkeley.

Ross, who formerly worked with Sussman when he was head of the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston and she was a curator there, asked her to take charge of the upcoming "Biennial" but not as a permanent responsibility. "We think it is a good idea to have different points of view," she said. The 1995 version will present another curator's vision.

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