Tuesday, March 4, 2008


The Whitney Biennale will open this week, with a mix of expected and unexpected artists - expected to the extent that regardless of the included artists, there will be those that believe that someone else should have obviously been included. Of particular interest is John Baldessari, the prodigal son returning after being featured in the Whitneys of 1969, 1972, 1975 and 1977. One can only wonder how he could have then been overlooked for thirty-one years. (Disclosure - I have had the pleasure of including John in two exhibitions, one in 1997 and the other in 2005).

Also of particular interest to me are Walead Beshty, Coco Fusco, DJ Oliver, the Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black, Ruben Ochoa and the late Jason Rhodes. Of course, by the time I have the chance to see the show in person, probably well after it has opened, the critical discourses will have already hailed the exhibition either a critical success or an abject failure, the Whitney being one of the most discussed and discoursed exhibitions in the contemporary art world today.

What seems so intriguing is that idea that the thematic exhibition, whether it be chronologically or conceptually driven, actually has the capacity to add value to the discourses of art today. One might wonder whether the connections between works, whether evident or tenuous, serve more to make the experience of contemporary practices more palatable, or, instead, whether there really are the affinities that are purported to exist. This is a question that haunts all curatorial practice, as curators, including myself, muddle ahead with the belief that reception will triumph intentionality, and, at least in part, with the complicity of the artist.

By now, the tropes of curatorial practice are well defined: the complex mix of established and emerging, the collisions of the avant-garde with the rediscovered, the attempts, always noble, to visually reveal the complexities of multicultural and multinational discourses. Yet all the while, the true spectre is lurking, and, as Marx and Engels would have remarked, it is that of capitalism. In a time of economic downturn and the fear of recession, exhibitions such as the Whitney serve as signifiers of reassurance, that both the creativity and the creative capital of the contemporary world have not faded.

It seems like a constant battle, one in which those of us who work in the world constantly reassure each other that the visual interventions in the broader culture have significance and value. Obviously, they do. But one might wonder, how does an exhibition, any exhibition, really help to entrench this belief?

No exhibition can answer these questions, but are they becoming more relevant today?

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