Biting back

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"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.

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Christina Rees