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.

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?"

"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.

Auping visited somewhere between 75 and 100 studios, including spaces in Los Angeles, St. Louis, and Santa Fe. It was a daunting task for such a busy man. If you multiply one curator's diligence by six, since the other curators did the same, you get an impressively wide scope of previewed art, considering that in the past, the Biennial's solo or paired curators couldn't cover nearly that much ground. And Auping points out he wasn't the only curator who visited Texas artists' studios.

Reportedly, Valerie Cassel, a former Houstonian and now director of the visiting artists program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, hit plenty of Texas studios, as did Lawrence Rinder, the San Francisco-based curator, who was recently named curator of contemporary art at the Whitney. They and the other curators met a handful of times over the course of about eight months to discuss their findings and argue for their favorites using slide presentations and stills. They all tried like hell to convince the others of their picks while keeping their own minds open to each presentation.

"And we had a secured Web site, just for us, where we could download images and give information about our artists and look at everyone else's," Auping says. "That was indispensable. I wonder if we could have even done this without computers."

And with that, Auping has half-stumbled into this Biennial's unofficial theme. "The electronic Biennial," he ventures, and he's just trying to assuage the public's need for labels, considering that recent past Biennials have garnered nicknames such as "the beauty Biennial" and "the identity Biennial." Auping is mostly referring to two emergent elements: plenty of video art -- by the likes of Fridge, Aitken, and Shirin Nashat -- and this year's addition of an Internet-art contingent, repped by such graphic extraordinaires as the New York-based Fakeshop and ®TMark.

"The Whitney has introduced several new art forms in its Biennials over the years," Anderson says. "In the '70s, it was performance art. More recently, video art. The Internet is, as another publication wrote, 'the shot heard round the world,' and I agree and want to recognize that."

But given the scope of 99 artists from all over the country, which makes this a larger roster than usual, no one can really pinpoint either the personality or the aesthetic direction of the exhibition. Why this seems "a recipe for disaster," as it was called by New York Times critic Roberta Smith, or "more than a little unwieldy" to Artforum's Katy Seigel, is suspect.

These are New York-based writers accustomed to New York's domination of the show. In fact, New York claims about half of this year's finalists. But with the other 50 or so artists who have either resisted New York's call or haven't yet answered it, this may be the first Biennial to ever behave as democratically as its ideals suggest -- the first Biennial to place its massive finger on the true pulse of what art in America, not just in New York, is up to at the turn of the millennium.

"I've been to New York one time, and I really liked it." A shy, clear-eyed Brian Fridge sits on a bench outside the Modern in Fort Worth. He's on break from his shift to talk about his acceptance into the Biennial. Despite his education and the sophistication of his artwork, there's an aw-shucks element to his answers.

"I've looked through the [1997 Biennial] catalog a lot," he says. "Some of that work is really good."

If Fridge doesn't quite come across as a cocky shooting star who all but placed bets on his spot in the exhibition, it's because he's as shocked by his inclusion on the list as anyone else is.

"I mean, most of the artists I know got letters from Michael Auping requesting examples of their work," he says. "I submitted some stuff, and then later he asked me for a videotape." Fridge's matter-of-fact retelling of the events leading up to his acceptance rings of two tones. One, he hasn't absorbed the impact this could have on his career as an artist; and two, he takes his work very seriously.

His is work that, over the last two years, has been taken more seriously by others. A onetime member of Denton's Good/Bad Art Collective, Fridge started dabbling in video work a couple of years ago and, more specifically, started filming rotating crystal formations inside his own freezer. Using a vacuum to create the languid movement and letting the camera roll in darkness, the result is a screen filled with a swirling galaxy of starry, glinting specks against a black night. It's hypnotic, the very best of ambient, and when shown on a large monitor (or projection screen, as it will be in the Whitney), it's as mysterious and vast as a meteor shower.

Fridge describes the scenes as borrowing from the painting vocabulary, as evocations of the gaseous and nebulous. And he says the video aspect makes it more accessible, while the freezer refers ironically to both the interior and domestic -- two decidedly non-galactic elements making up such an epic illusion. And he's dead-on, more articulate about his art than most artists out there. Still, he's anxious.

"Do you really think galleries will take interest in me?" he asks incredulously when reminded of the Biennial's impact on its artists. "I mean, I've heard about that kind of thing, but..." His voice trails off.

The 30-year-old University of North Texas graduate has shown his video work in various regional group shows. He also had a sold-out one-man show of his other trademark work -- large, graphite-coated spheres that look as dense and elegant as hardened mercury -- in the Conduit Gallery's tiny Annex. Still, Fridge isn't officially represented by any gallery. And he wonders if or when he ever will be. "Boy, that would be great," he says with a sigh. "But I'll believe it when I see it."

Oddly enough, Fridge's employment at the museum and the potential nepotism that could be read into his situation haven't been an issue. No one in the local art scene has a real problem with Fridge's inclusion -- he's the ultimate talented underdog who deserves a shot as much as the rest of Texas' young unknowns.

When Auping descended the office stairs at the museum to shake Fridge's hand and announce his slot in the Biennial, some of Fridge's co-workers wept with joy. For them, it was the Biennial finally delivering on its promise to show the best of the newcomers.

"Oh, I'll definitely go to the opening," Fridge says, "and I'm excited, but I'm also pretty nervous about it. I mean, are people going to ask me questions about my work?"

Fort Worth's Vernon Fisher, on the other hand, is a juicy subject of in-state controversy. Not because the culture contingent doesn't appreciate this veteran's work; Fisher's paintings have long held the attention of curators and dealers in Texas and beyond. It's just that he's already done the Biennial, and people fear his imagery hasn't changed enough over the years to be a reflection of a revitalized career -- one of the Biennial's favorite motifs.

"Yeah, I was in it in 1981," Fisher says of his last Whitney experience. "But a lot of artists have been in the Biennial many times: Jasper Johns, de Kooning. There is an emphasis on younger art, but established artists always make a showing."

Fisher, an art professor at the University of North Texas, is represented by power-player Talley Dunn of Dunn and Brown Contemporary in Dallas, as well as Charles Cowles Gallery in New York. The Modern in Fort Worth owns several of his works.

Having watched the Biennial closely for 20-plus years, he says that the controversy comes with the territory, that it happens every time. If detractors aren't arguing about geography, they're arguing about favoritism of certain galleries, or even blackmail.

"A New York dealer might say, 'I won't let you show my artist unless you also show my other artist,' and so on," Fisher says. "And as far as Texas being heavily represented, well, turnabout's fair play. Texas has usually only had one, maybe two artists in the show, which makes you wonder when you think about the amount of work being done here. And half of this show is still New Yorkers anyway."

Non-Texans don't have a problem with Fisher as a finalist. He's one of the few established Texas artists they've even heard of, one of the very few with a track record that stretches up to shows in the Big Apple. Even Artforum writes: "Texas should also feel the glow: with Fort Worth...favorite Vernon Fisher leading the charge."

On the one hand, it's true that Auping and Fisher are buddies. On the other, it's also true that Fisher's detractors haven't seen his newest work; their moaning seems to be the stuff of knee-jerk reactions. But Auping has seen the new paintings, as have the five other curators who had a vote on Fisher's fate.

So Auping wonders "how anyone can criticize Fisher as a choice when they haven't even seen the paintings that'll be in the show. These are new paintings, amazing paintings unlike anything he's done. They're fresh, and they say something about the decadence of painting and art today."

Fisher admits he has "been frustrated in years when I wasn't chosen." It's a confession from a critically acclaimed artist who has worked as steadily and thoughtfully as any New York painter, and his tone betrays a wisdom, if not cynicism, of the ages. It's quite a departure from Fridge's humbleness. Then again, the Whitney is supposed to recognize the nation's artistic diversity.

And, after all, who are we to dictate Auping's social network? Do we really expect a local curator to ignore the affinity he might have for one of the region's most noted painters? The art world, including Texas', is too small and precious to turn your back on the people you actually like. Auping doubtless has countless art friends who didn't make the Biennial cut -- friends he didn't even bother bringing to the table, knowing the other curators would nix his nomination. Again, Fisher's place in the survey isn't merely Auping's doing. It's a whole committee's.

But the most pointed accusation of nepotism, although about a veteran, is not about Fisher. It's Houston's Al Souza, chosen by Biennial curator Hugh Davies. It's the golfing, see. Davies, the director of the Museum of Contemporary Art in San Diego, often tees off with Souza, and people noticed that Souza didn't receive a single Biennial curator in his Houston studio before making the cut.

After the Houston Press (a sister paper of the Dallas Observer's) dangled this slice of admittedly rank gossip in front of Davies in December, he replied, "Believe me, there are a lot of people I play golf with who aren't in the show." He then went on to remind critics that he alone couldn't ordain Souza or Souza's "drop-dead beautiful objects." He says he exhibited Souza's works long before they were friends, which makes sense: We gravitate to those who impress and fascinate us in the first place. The committee's built-in system of checks and balances ensured that no one curator could build his or her list on something as unaesthetic as friendship. If Souza's work weren't Biennial-worthy, it certainly follows that the other five curators would have recognized that fact and blown the whistle.

And veterans such as Fisher and Souza make up only a sliver of the finalists.

"We wanted more of an emerging-artist focus," Auping says of the ratio of rookies to veterans. "The Biennial always shows more emergent artists than established artists, but we really went for it. There's just so much impressive work being done by relative unknowns."

Which is where Argentina-born Leandro Erlich comes in. Houston's Erlich, at age 24 the youngest artist in the Biennial after New York filmmaker Harmony Korine, won raves for a piece he created while he was a Core Fellow at the Museum of Fine Art in Houston -- a "swimming pool" piece everyone still refers to with swooning tones. No one is surprised at his selection; the greener art sector of Texas has no more suitable rep than Erlich, who receives the blessing of just about everyone. But many folks thought Denton artist and Good/Bad member Erick Swenson deserved the same fate, since they refer to his work the same reverent way, and Swenson didn't make the cut.

Swenson's idyllic, creepy-sad sculptures of fantastical animals in diorama installations have won the favor and attention of nearly all who lay eyes on them. A one-man show of his works at Dallas' Angstrom Gallery in late '98 still has people talking. So when Texas art lovers peruse the Biennial list to find nine Texans and no Swenson, eyebrows shoot up. How did this happen?

"I didn't really get to know Erick's work until too late," Auping says, the merest hint of regret in his voice. Oddly, Auping missed the Angstrom show. By the time he had secured the necessary slides of Swenson's work, he says, "the selection process was too far along. But I love his work; I'm putting it in an upcoming show at the Modern."

But was Auping too late or just not interested? Word among local art insiders is that Auping had slides of Swenson's art in plenty of time; he just didn't push it on the other curators. Speculation abounds on the local grapevine, which is about three inches tall, but those are the breaks. The hard truth about art is its subjective nature: masterpiece to one, problem to another, near-perfect for some, confounding for the rest.

Auping, for instance, adores Trenton Hancock's unraveled, stream-of-consciousness drawings, which first appeared on the walls of Gerald Peters Gallery in 1998. The young Hancock, a graduate of Texas A&M University-Commerce, deals with questions of race and socialization, and his decidedly comic-book style charms some and alienates others.

"Trenton will be great when he figures out what he wants to do," says one Dallas art dealer. "There's enough in his work to suggest that one day he'll arrive. But if the Biennial was going to include one wild-card young Texan, you have to wonder if Trenton deserved that spot." Certainly, Hancock's representation by Talley Dunn carries weight, as does his easy appropriation of pop-culture iconography, which invades just about every niche of current art trends.

Again, it's subjective, and that's what people seem to forget, this year and every Biennial past. There's simply no formal way to rank the quality of art. The closest any rating process has of being fair might be had in this year's Biennial system -- checks and balances by committee. The end result is that far more deserving yet unexpected artists make it in, rather than deserving yet expected artists getting left out. We can argue Swenson's denial or Fisher's inclusion all day long, but we could also point out that Auping and company overlooked, say, Ted Kincaid, Robert Jessup, or Kirk Hayes -- acclaimed Texas artists in their prime. Considering the number of studios visited and the vast interest of the six curators, this year's Biennial has a far more profound and diversified reach than ever before.

But any show that has Brian Fridge making the rounds at the Whitney on opening night, balancing a glass of Cristal while rubbing shoulders with the likes of Mary Boone and Matthew Barney, must be doing something right. It's democracy in action.

For now, Fridge heaves his lanky frame from the outdoor park bench at the Modern in Fort Worth, smooths his navy blazer, and lopes back toward the museum -- the museum that may one day employ a security guard to watch over a Brian Fridge original masterpiece.

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Christina Rees