Biting back

The Whitney Biennial has brought out the worst in the art world -- fussing, feuding, and in-fighting. But Fort Worth's Michael Auping stands by his decision to bring a few Texans to New York.

In the end, this year's list of cross-country artists is made up of many names most people have never heard of and never expected to, which is the Biennial's newest controversy in a history rife with conflicts. If people aren't gorging themselves on one Biennial tension, then it's another, and the year 2000 has presented a wealth of fresh blood, young Fridge included.

And leave it to Texas, a brawl-loving state if there ever was one, to concoct its own bitchfest about the list. To wit:

"Where are the women?"

Vernon Fisher's selection to the Biennial has been the source of much local grousing -- though no one has seen the works selected to appear at the Whitney.
Mark Graham
Vernon Fisher's selection to the Biennial has been the source of much local grousing -- though no one has seen the works selected to appear at the Whitney.
Michael Auping, curator of the Modern Art Museum in Fort Worth, initially considered turning down the Whitney's request to help curate its Biennial exhibition.
Mark Graham
Michael Auping, curator of the Modern Art Museum in Fort Worth, initially considered turning down the Whitney's request to help curate its Biennial exhibition.

"Too many from Houston."

"One of the artists is a Biennial curator's golfing partner."

"They left out [fill in the blank], who obviously should have been included," or the reverse of this complaint: "Why the hell did he get in?"

Leave it to the sprawling, restless, opinionated Lone Star art scene to find something to complain about in its healthiest Biennial turnout ever.

The catalyst for the conflict lay in this year's very process: For the first time in the Biennial's history, a committee of six non-New Yorkers has curated it. Noted museum curators from across the country were selected by the Whitney's new director, Maxwell Anderson, for the daunting task of taking America's feverishly hot temperature -- a symptom of finding itself in a sort of post-modern purgatory. (And the Whitney, after its last Biennial in 1997, gave the next Biennial more weight by holding off a year so it would open in 2000). It's a task made more complicated by the fact that this committee, six vastly different personalities from various museums and institutions around the U.S, would have to agree which finalists they should hoist from this purgatory and reward with the limited spotlight of the exhibition.

Which of these six curators could possibly have sniffed out and nominated the quiet Fridge? Michael Auping, of course.

Auping is the curator of Fort Worth's Modern Art Museum, the very place Fridge reports to work five days a week.

Now you're getting the picture.


"I didn't really want to do this at first. I was honored, of course -- I mean, this is the Biennial -- but my first inclination was to turn down the offer," Michael Auping says of his first phone call from Maxwell Anderson. Auping is casually picking his way through a plate of sashimi in one of Fort Worth's few Japanese restaurants. Sushi is hard to find in Cowtown, but it's a perfect reflection of Auping's place in this surprisingly cultured little city: He's relaxed but worldly, making himself at home simply by homing in on what he wants.

He continues. "I thought, 'Do I need this headache?' And even after the first meeting with the others, I was still really doubtful. It just seemed like an impossible task -- six individuals agreeing on what the Biennial was supposed to be."

The native Californian isn't relaying his story with any angst or frustration. All that is in the past, the emotional burden of a year ago that eventually gave way to his joining the committee and, for him, the satisfying results.

"We weren't charged with picking artists from our own regions -- that's not what was expected of us, and we all looked at art outside our areas," he says. "But obviously, we're all going to be more familiar with the art we see around us every day."

The first committee meeting in Chicago early last year was as inspiring as it was disconcerting. Each curator was asked to make a list of 50 artists to compare and contrast with the others' lists, which they hoped would grant them enough common names to form a jumping-off point.

"Not a single overlap," Auping says, still a bit awed by this result. "We all turned in our 50 names, and [there was] not one artist in common. I mean, I nearly walked away then. How were we supposed to agree on the finalists if we can't even come up with a corpus of common names, a basic starter list?"

Anderson agrees, explaining that he believed the lack of consensus was a potential deal-breaker. Yet he had originally concocted the curator list -- younger and older experts from a range of American institutions -- hoping to forge a variety of perspectives, to find artists where they work and live.

"Sure, it was risky, but the Whitney has always taken risks," he says via phone from New York. "Certainly there were other artists we would've liked to include, but in the end I think it makes a credible snapshot of art in this country."

Auping was on Anderson's shortlist from the beginning because, he says, the Modern Art Museum's curator "has so much eminence in the field. Auping is closely watched these days, especially with the Modern's new building going up."

Auping, the Modern's curator since 1993 (after a prolific nine-year stint as chief curator of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York), won't come straight out and say which artists he brought to the committee table. Drifting gossip and his own conversational bent leads you toward the general idea, though: Texans Fisher, Hancock, and Fridge, along with non-Texans such as rising star Doug Aitken, a California-based film and video artist.

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