Biting back

Brian Fridge doesn't look like he's about to become an art-world celebrity. With his shorn head, thick glasses, and stiff blue blazer, you'd swear he was just another museum security guard. Standing very still, his long-fingered hands clasped low in front of wrinkled khakis, he casts a faraway gaze over rooms hung heavy with the works of Jackson Pollock and Susan Rothenberg, Robert Motherwell and Mark Rothko.

This young guard passes his time -- hour upon hour, day after day -- standing watch over a venerable collection of undisputed American masterpieces as waves of schoolkids, the sporadic grad student, and pairs of nervous first-timers file through the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth. These crowds never so much as glance in the young guard's direction. Oh, sure -- Fridge may have to get little Joey to take his finger off the Bill Viola projection, or ask Susie Bohemian to step away from the Cindy Sherman photograph, but he's quite shy and cautious even about that. Mostly, his slender figure is invisible to all these art and culture hounds. The irony.

That's because on March 23, this unassuming museum employee will join the ranks of Pollock and Rothenberg, Motherwell and Rothko.

You see, young Fridge makes art too, on his off time in his modest Fort Worth apartment. And the powers that be have decided Fridge's artwork is important enough to include in the nation's most influential exhibition, one that takes place in New York every two years and, during its two-month run, consumes the international art world, drawing thousands of viewers and launching careers.

Since its inception in 1932, this exhibit has established the reputations of America's most revered artists; each and every one of them begins and ends at the Whitney Museum of American Art. For these past 70 years, every artist who is Somebody -- Pollock and Motherwell, Sherman and Viola included -- runs through the very narrow gauntlet called the Whitney Biennial. And Fridge, the quiet security guard with the blue blazer and thick glasses, is next.

"It was so unexpected," Fridge says. "I know it's supposed to be a big deal, but it hasn't really sunk in. What's a guy like me doing in a show like this?"

The Whitney Biennial has been called by many "the exhibition everyone loves to hate," but that's far too simple a description. The survey, held every two years since the early 1970s, is a cross between a personality profile and weather forecast of American art -- i.e., here's what our best and brightest have been up to lately -- and by this we might also predict where art is headed. It's a highly subjective biopsy indeed, considering it's usually curated by one or two Whitney insiders.

Critics and artists, dealers and collectors look to the Biennial as the oft-controversial bottom line for both new and established talent. The Whitney's only competition in this realm is the international Venice Bienniale and Germany's equally cosmopolitan Documenta. And with so many of the same artists appearing in all three, so many aesthetics overlapping, these exhibitions come off as neck-in-neck competitors for the art world's attention and affirmation.

The Whitney Museum of American Art, a polished yet outspoken sibling in Manhattan's undisputed family of this nation's venerable museums -- the Metropolitan, the Modern, the Guggenheim -- was originally an answer to the need for more wall space for this country's artists. During the first few decades of the 20th century, New York's art radar was still fixed on Western Europe, and as American artists' rank and ingenuity swelled, the Whitney rose to meet the challenge, most crystallized in its Biennial. And until this year, its New York curators and decidedly Manhattan egocentrism have become synonymous with the show. It reflects this nation and the world's view that as far as American art is concerned, New York is -- and has always been -- ground zero for U.S. talent.

But this year's Biennial ignores that established assumption. This year's Biennial makes room for such non-New York obscurities as Fridge, along with eight other Texas artists -- unheard of in past Biennials, which have never included more than one or two token Texans at a time. This radical departure from Biennial tradition is the art-world equivalent of, say, a militia uprising, or, more pointedly, a scrappy revolution about the high quality of regional art. In fact, Texas has more representatives in this year's Biennial than Los Angeles, traditionally the second-most represented area after New York.

Who besides Fridge are the ordained Texans? First off, there's Vernon Fisher, a long-established North Texas artist who makes his second Biennial appearance this round. Then come Dallas filmmaker Nic Nicosia, Houston's Leandro Erlich (the youngest and most applauded shoo-in), Trenton Doyle Hancock of Paris, and Franco Mondini-Ruiz of San Antonio. In addition to Fisher are such big-leaguers as Joe Havel and Al Souza of Houston and James Drake of El Paso. Though with Erlich newly installed in New York and Hancock in Philadelphia (possibly en route to New York), Texas can only claim those two by default. Which, being Texas, it does.