Northern Exposure

With Fort Worth’s Michael Auping as a curator and nine of the state’s artists participating, this year’s Whitney Biennial puts a New York spotlight on the art of Texas.

“The Whitney Biennial is the exhibition that everybody loves to hate,” says Michael Auping, the chief curator at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth. “You will hear virtually thousands of artists, critics, and dealers complain about it. You will not find a single artist in this country who doesn’t want to be in it. That’s an interesting irony. And it has to do with the fact that there is no other exhibition in this country, maybe anywhere, in which every two years an institution decides to take the temperature of what’s going on in America.”

Since 1932 New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art has showcased (biannually since the early seventies) what its curators consider the most salient cutting-edge art of the moment, an often riotous ritual that has become one of the most eagerly anticipated surveys of our nation’s cultural climate—and a predictable target of outraged sensibilities inside the art world and outraged punditry from without. The 2000 Whitney Biennial, delayed from its usual odd-year scheduling to make a millennial splash, is an exception only in that the public sniping began a year before the show’s March 23 opening. Within days of the announcement that, for the first time in the Biennial’s history, a team of six outside curators, none of them from New York, would canvass the nation and choose the artists to be represented in the show, New York Times critic Roberta Smith pointedly wondered if the Whitney’s plan wasn’t a “recipe for disaster.” Among the six interlopers was Fort Worth’s Auping, a respected museum veteran who had already served as the commissioner of the American Pavilion at the 1990 Venice Biennale, the international artfest that matches the Whitney show both in the prestige afforded participants and in the unmerciful barrage of criticism that accompanies it. “I was flattered to be chosen for the Whitney Biennial, but I did have to think about accepting because of all the political baggage that goes along with it,” Auping says. “But it’s a bit like jury duty. If you want the system to work, you have to do your part. Another thing that swayed me was that I did think it would potentially—but not necessarily—be good for Texas.”

While Auping insists that he made a conscious effort “not to think in terms of bringing home the bacon” (and each of the 97 artists was selected by a consensus vote of all six curators), this Biennial will focus an unprecedentedly bright spotlight on Texas art. The nine Texas artists who made the cut—up from a token two in the 1997 Biennial—are more than any other state’s representation save California’s and New York’s, finally providing a measure of corroboration for the claim local art boosters have been making for the past fifteen years: Texas has rather quietly become the principal art-producing center between the two coasts. “The large number of artists from Texas will be a surprise to most people,” Auping says. “I don’t think it should be a surprise, but I think it will be.”

Nevertheless, the size of the Texas contingent at the 2000 Biennial probably would have surprised Auping himself when he arrived in Fort Worth six years ago, after a peripatetic bicoastal journey. “I grew up in Los Angeles wearing Hawaiian shirts and Levi’s,” says the balding, relentlessly energetic 50-year-old, whose other life as a father of two in a 27-year marriage seems to have inoculated him against a pretentiousness endemic at his level of the international art scene. While earning his master’s degree in art history at California State University-Long Beach (“My thesis was a stylistic comparison of five ancient sites in the valley of Oaxaca, Mexico”), Auping supported himself as an exhibition installer at the edgy Newport Harbor Art Museum and found himself more fascinated with living artists than ancient monuments. Following stints at contemporary art museums in California and Florida, Auping spent nine years as the chief curator at the formidable Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York, where he earned a reputation as something of a curatorial David E. Kelley, turning out critically lauded exhibitions at a pace that left his peers scratching their heads. (His subjects have ranged from vintage Abstract Expressionism to Minimalism to conceptually complex, site-specific installations.) But when Auping brought his high output and catholic taste to Fort Worth in 1993, he had no intention of adding Texas art to an already overstuffed portfolio.

“I had known about the Texas art boom in the late seventies and early eighties,” Auping says. “Texas art seemed to clothe itself in a ‘My art comes strictly out of me; I don’t need to have a historical tradition upon which to draw; I draw on this folkloric sense of place’ attitude. Maybe it was appropriate at that time for Texas artists to be extremely self-reflective, extremely self-made, because Texas is a kind of wildcatter state. But it was a little parochial for my taste. I’ve subsequently looked at a lot more Texas art,” Auping continues. “Either I’ve become more sophisticated or Texas artists have become more sophisticated, but I’m seeing better work now all over the state. What I’m seeing now among a younger generation of artists is a much broader understanding of art history—particularly post-war art history—and where their art might fit into that. They are not so concerned that they’re going to represent Texas. They know that everyone is mobile now. They may be living in New York next week, or L.A. or San Francisco or Chicago. So making ‘Texas art’ is not necessarily in their best interest. What’s in their best interest is making good art.”

That sense of mobility, both virtual and real, may well be the leitmotif of this millennial Biennial. Not only are almost a third of the artists in the show from either California or Texas, but 21 of them, including many of the New Yorkers, are foreign-born immigrants from places like Calcutta, Cairo, and Tel Aviv, cultural nomads making the late-twentieth-century version of the Grand

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