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.

February 2000By Comments

“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 Tour. While New York remains the magnetic pole of the art world, Houston has also become an important destination on the postmodern, postgraduate tour; among the Texas nine is 26-year-old Buenos Aires native and current Houston resident Leandro Erlich, a 1997-99 Core Fellow at the Houston Museum of Fine Arts’ Glassell School of Art. (Both Texas-based artists in the previous Biennial, Annette Lawrence and Pakistan native Shahzia Sikander, were also former Core Fellows; Lawrence has gone on to teach at the University of North Texas in Denton, while Sikander has moved to New York.) “In doing this Biennial I’ve traveled to a lot of cities,” says Auping, who visited studios in Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego, New York, Santa Fe, and St. Louis. “Without a doubt, for me at this moment in time the most interesting and sophisticated city is Houston. You go into the artists’ studios and they know what they’re making, why they are making it, and how to talk about it. The artists in Houston are very art-smart in an unpretentious and open way.”

And in an age of global connectivity, ideas are moving even more freely than artists; this Biennial will be the first to feature Internet art, and much of the jurying for the show was conducted via Web site postings and e-mail discussions among the curators. “You can have a guy in El Paso making something almost exactly like someone in Aachen, Germany, at exactly the same time,” Auping says, citing a postmodern simultaneity that has vanquished terms like “regionalism” and the more pejorative “provincialism” in favor of the current notion of a “global academy.” “The Texas artists in this Biennial are an interesting microcosm of the whole. There’s nothing uniquely Texan about them that I can see.”

Perhaps the most visible characteristic of the new globalism is artists’ tendency to mimic the means if not the messages of mass media. “Rather than casting things in bronze, now artists have mini-production companies to make video projections,” Auping says. “Their production model is cinema and television and the world of advertising.” Two of the Texans work in video: Dallas’ 48-year-old Nic Nicosia, who participated in the 1983 Biennial as a still photographer, this time around essentially assumes the role of a sitcom actor-writer-director in his video Middletown Morning, a wry study of suburban family life. Brian Fridge, an unheralded thirty-year-old from Fort Worth, emphasizes Webcam-like low production values in a black-and-white video shot in his refrigerator freezer (yes, Fridge is his real name); the seven-minute, unedited Vault Sequence is a sort of science-project view of a beguiling miniature cosmos. And even the artists working in more traditional media, including well-known veterans like Fort Worth painter Vernon Fisher, who is 56, and Houston sculptor Joseph Havel, who is 45, have reinvented themselves with new works that often appear to be fairly conventional gallery fare but on closer examination offer a jolt of Gen X-style irony; Fisher’s painterly abstractions are speckled with lifelike cast-epoxy flies, while Havel’s seemingly weightless draperies are actually massive structures of cast bronze.

Completing the Texas representation are two other established artists with new looks—56-year-old Houston painter Al Souza and El Paso sculptor-photographer James Drake, who is 53—and two relative unknowns: visual autobiographer Trenton Doyle Hancock of Paris, at 25 the youngest of the Texas bunch, and 38-year-old former corporate lawyer Franco Mondini-Ruiz of San Antonio, who will display his whimsical re-creation of a traditional Mexican American botanica vendor’s cart on Madison Avenue, just outside the museum.

When the dust finally settles on the 2000 Biennial, perhaps the most far-reaching effect of the hefty Texas representation won’t be long-overdue respect from outside the state but increasing attention from curators working in the state. “I swore when I got this job that I would never do a show of art from Texas, because I think it’s pandering,” Auping admits. “I think that good Texas artists don’t want to be known as Texas artists and they want to be shown with artists from all over. But during my travel around Texas for the Whitney Biennial I realized how much good stuff is going on at this particular moment. And as a result I’m doing a show titled ‘Natural Deceits’ [opening May 14] with art from all around the state. However, I refuse to put the word ‘Texas’ in the title. Just because I think it’s demeaning to the artists. Not because ‘Texas’ is demeaning, but because you don’t see, for example, shows called ‘California Artists’ anymore. The only place truly provincial enough to do something like that is New York.”

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