Sugar Rush and Stomachache: On 'NYC 1993'
The 1993 Whitney Biennial did take risks, and not only by focusing on hot-button issues like the politics of race, gender, AIDS, war and so on. What drew more attention than anything else wasn’t even an intentional work of art, but rather the amateur video showing Rodney King taking his blows from the Los Angeles Police Department in the aftermath of a 1991 car chase. Instead of purporting to disinterestedly represent the most noteworthy work done over the past couple of years in all styles, this biennial took a position on what art should do. That decision in turn implied a change in the role of the curator, and therefore of the museum itself, which now had to admit its active role in shaping rather than just responding to changes in the art scene. Furthermore, the biennial’s new profile amounted to an acknowledgment that the art scene had simply become too big and too multifaceted to allow for a true overview; taking a predetermined stance on which approaches and tendencies would be worth paying attention to might be the only way of making sense of things.
The present show at the New Museum is wider-ranging than the 1993 Whitney Biennial, but its exclusions are still evident enough to anyone who was around in those days. Abstract art is pretty much off-limits, except where it is a disguised form of representation, as in the work of Byron Kim, or uses ready-made everyday stuff in place of the traditional materials and operations of painting or sculpture, most spectacularly in Rudolf Stingel’s bright orange carpet, a color field by other means. The sole exceptions are two paintings by Jack Whitten (presumably he couldn’t be left out, as he’d been exhibited at the New Museum in 1993). And yet in the early ’90s, a group of young and mid-career painters were making a very strong mark on the New York art scene under the unfortunate label of “Conceptual Abstraction”—the title of a 1991 exhibition at the Sidney Janis Gallery, which in turn became the subject of an exhibition last year at the Hunter College Art Gallery, curated by Pepe Karmel and Joachim Pissarro. Karmel cites a string of similar exhibitions that followed in other New York galleries: “La Metafisica della Luce” at the John Good Gallery, “Aesthetic Abstraction” at Tibor de Nagy, “Stubborn Painting: Then and Now” at Max Protetch, “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out” at Amy Lipton, “Shades of Difference: The Feminine in Abstract Painting” at Sandra Gering, and “Abstract Painting: The ’90s” at André Emmerich. Many of the artists involved then remain influential today, such as David Diao, Mary Heilmann, Jonathan Lasker and Thomas Nozkowski. Yet none of them are included in the show at the New Museum; they’ve been airbrushed out of its history.
That isn’t right. If the art that was featured in the 1993 Whitney Biennial, and now in “NYC 1993: Experimental Jet Set, Trash, and No Star,” was made in explicit response to tensions that were disturbing the culture of the time, addressing “issues of identity, desire, and personal realities that the mainstream media fails to substantively address,” as Margot Norton writes of the moving image work of the era in the “NYC 1993” catalog, no less could be said of the paintings of the contemporary abstractionists, at least in their declared intention. Like so many other artists of their time, the abstract painters of the early ’90s often saw their work as essentially an art of assemblage, constructed by way of “relationships between fragments of previously existing units (historical idioms originally conceived as complete in themselves),” as Stephen Ellis, both a painter and an active critic at the time, put it. And though abstract in form, these paintings were meant to be referential through and through; as another prominent painter/critic, Stephen Westfall, wrote: “The expanded visual field of reference, the crushing omnipresence of the market, and the permeation of mass production and reproduction have created an ongoing cultural condition of hyper-contextualization. Whatever incantatory frontier of expression awaits individual painters may lie in the act of embracing, rather than rejecting this condition.” What he’s trying to say is that reality is such a mindfuck that it can’t be pictured; only abstraction on overdrive can encompass it.
Perhaps the New Museum’s curators think this wave of abstraction was already receding by 1993; that could be plausible, because it had already begun to build momentum toward the end of the previous decade. But as they give no rationale for any of their inclusions or exclusions, we’ll never know. No less odd is that a show ostensibly about New York also includes a good number of Los Angeles–based artists and two or three Londoners, but hardly any from elsewhere in the world. If the justification is the inclusion of art that was shown in the city, wherever it was made, that’s all well and good—but are we really to believe that New York’s galleries, museums and alternative spaces looked no further afield than that? The late Thomas McEvilley had just published his book Art and Otherness, proclaiming a new “global pluralization” of the art world, but you’d never know that from “NYC 1993.”
Not missing, but somewhat underemphasized, is another emergent trend at the time, a new kind of figurative painting that might be called “twisted figuration.” It’s nodded to by the inclusion of paintings by John Currin and Nicole Eisenman and a drawing by Elizabeth Peyton; Peter Cain’s painting of a weirdly recomposed car body might be a parallel phenomenon. But why exclude Nicola Tyson, Lisa Yuskavage and Catherine Howe? And to the extent that Cain, who is in the show, might be a fellow traveler of this tendency, so might Maureen Gallace, a painter of intense, awkward, haunting landscapes that seem full of displaced, unnamable psychological content. But she’s not here. And then there are the artists who belong to no particular movement or group. I could probably cite a dozen, but I’ll name just one, a particularly surprising omission as she was shown together with Whitten at the New Museum in early 1993: Lauren Szold, who was making messy, painterly, strangely repulsive/attractive floor sculptures out of stuff you keep in your kitchen—flour, eggs—plus fabric and dye. Somewhere along the way, Szold disappeared from the art scene, but the delirious energy with which she simultaneously reclaimed the idea of domesticity and turned it upside down remains one of the more memorable art experiences of the early ’90s.