Magazine article Artforum International

Mission Statements: Elisabeth Sussman on the 1993 Whitney Biennial

Magazine article Artforum International

Mission Statements: Elisabeth Sussman on the 1993 Whitney Biennial

Article excerpt

IN 1991, when I came to the Whitney, I felt we were under siege. It was impossible to work in an art museum and ignore what was happening around you. The conservative Republican campaign to defund the National Endowment for the Arts, which was really a thinly veiled effort to censor American artists, was in full swing. Under George H. W. Bush appointee John Frohnmayer, the NEA had withdrawn funding (later partially restored) for the group exhibition "Witnesses: Against Our Vanishing," organized by Nan Goldin at Artists Space in New York. Washington, DC's Corcoran Gallery had bowed to congressional pressure, canceling its plans to host the Robert Mapplethorpe show "The Perfect Moment." The Ayatollah Khomeini had proclaimed a fatwa against Salman Rushdie. As a curator, I could not hide from these attacks on free expression any more than I could hide from the homophobia and racism so apparent all around me.

Before I arrived at the Whitney, I'd been a curator at Boston's Institute of Contemporary Art. There, my colleagues (including David Joselit, Gillian Levine, and Robert Riley) and I developed a curatorial approach that reflected the vital exchange between the art world and what was generally referred to as cultural studies. This was a catchall term that for us encompassed a constellation of texts and theories about post-colonialism and the politics of identity while also designating an experimental impulse, a rethinking of the relationships among artistic, curatorial, and political practice; criticism and theory; literature and polemic. Out of this ferment came a productive way of working. We focused on inclusive programming and outreach to different communities of artists. Many artists we thought were important were working in video and performance, so we paired time-based art with installations of other mediums. Eventually, we produced a group of exhibitions and publications that reflected what I think of as an ICA style. For instance, the 1987 exhibition "British Edge" brought together installation, film, video, and music by a diverse roster of creators from the UK (including Mary Kelly, Derek Jarman, and Isaac Julien). Dick Hebdige's widely anthologized catalogue essay "Digging for Britain: An Excavation in Seven Parts," an experimental archaeology of British history and culture from empire to Thatcherism, is an example of the kind of critical intervention we wanted to support.

When David A. Ross left the director's post at the ICA to become director of the Whitney, I made the move to New York, too. But if there was no longer any geographic distance between me and the city's network of blue-chip galleries, auction houses, and collectors--the art world that had boomed in the 1980s--I was determined to at least maintain a critical one. The artists I was interested in, and the critical community that had grown up around them, wanted something more from the museum than a rote program of career-building exhibitions.

The 1993 Whitney Biennial was actually the first exhibition I organized as a staff curator at the musuem. If ignorance is bliss, that would explain why I plunged into my new assignment so blithely. I was not versed in institutional or New York art-world politics, and I had no real sense of what it would take to install an immense, heterogeneous exhibition in the quirky precincts of the Breuer building. Happily for me, it was a collective effort. I invited my new colleague Thelma Golden (like me, recently hired by Ross) onto the team, as well as Lisa Phillips and John Hanhardt, veterans of previous Biennials. …

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