Sugar Rush and Stomachache: On 'NYC 1993'
It may seem unreasonable to dwell on what’s missing at the New Museum when there’s so much on view. The show is crowded, though with islands of eerie near-emptiness, such as the fourth-floor gallery that’s filled with Stingel’s carpet; a vast, gray and grainy billboard-sized photographic image of a bird flying through a cloudy sky (the work of Félix González-Torres, as is the string of ordinary fluorescent light bulbs hanging from a couple of entwined extension cords suspended from the ceiling); and Kristin Oppenheim’s recorded sound piece Sail on Sailor, a half-sung, half-chanted text that seems to be urging the listener into the unknown, perhaps into the afterlife itself. Or am I thinking that because Zoe Leonard’s photographs of subjects like wax anatomical models, somehow more deathlike than even corpses would be, were hanging nearby?
Still and all, there’s a lot to see, with works by more than seventy artists and groups—and if you don’t think about the arbitrariness of the selection too much, one of the show’s pleasures is the way it can seem almost unedited, like a stroll through an assortment of galleries on some ordinary day twenty years ago. What’s stranger still is that the art on display looks pretty much like what you’d see strolling through the galleries on an ordinary day today. It’s hard to avoid the somewhat disagreeable sensation that not much has changed in art in the last twenty years—or rather that not much has changed in the aesthetic of art. (A new refutation of time, if not of space?) The works you’ll see in the galleries today may be a bit slicker, and a bit bigger, and they’ll have been made by artists coming from a far wider range of geographical backgrounds than twenty years ago, but the sense of what art should look like in order to feel contemporary seems to have hardly changed at all. The beau ideal remains a jerry-built construction cobbled together, as Ellis said, of “fragments of previously existing units (historical idioms originally conceived as complete in themselves).”
What else hasn’t changed is the way art, in order to maintain its credentials as contemporary, has to evoke meaning while somehow swerving away from any too-overt statement. The work might still offend some, but even then there’s usually ambiguity about the work’s true meaning. I thought at the time (and still do) that one of the most brilliant pieces from the 1993 Whitney Biennial was by Daniel J. Martinez. He’d redesigned the tags given to visitors to wear when they paid for admission. There were different tags, distributed randomly, stating: “I can’t,” “imagine,” “ever wanting,” “to be” and “white.” (A fan of yearning, I kept an “ever wanting” button for years, until it dropped out of sight after one too many relocations.) Martinez had created a floating declaration, not upheld by any person in particular, but by the mass of visitors as a whole as they moved through the museum. But what exactly was the import of the statement “I can’t imagine ever wanting to be white”? Golden, writing in her essay for the Whitney catalog—now reproduced in the New Museum’s—interprets it as “an affirmative declaration that reverses decades of negativism about all things not white.” But that idea is hard to square with the artist’s notion, as Golden herself reports it in the same essay, “that this statement has radically different connotations depending on the wearer’s race and attitude toward race.” For a white person utterly complacent in the privileges of whiteness, it could simply mean that feeling the envy, resentment and anger that might be caused by the unattainability of such privileges is unimaginable. And that position may be more interesting to think about than the ostensible feel-good message about racial empowerment. Unfortunately, at the New Museum, the piece is presented as a framed set of tags—a complacent souvenir.
The point can be generalized. A lot of the work in “NYC 1993” is most powerful when it delivers a direct, unequivocal statement that turns out to be far more ambiguous than one had originally thought. As an example (which can stand for many): Janine Antoni’s Lick and Lather is a sequence of fourteen similar-looking sculptures, seven white and seven brownish-black, in the form of classical portrait busts that seem strangely eroded and distorted. To know why these objects look as they do, you have to know something of the story of how they were made, though the visceral effect of the work doesn’t depend on this knowledge. Roman portrait sculpture, and its Renaissance progeny, monumentalized the powerful individual in all of his or her particularity; here, most of the idiosyncratic detail by which one could recognize the individual has been effaced. It’s as though one were seeing personhood itself melting away, giving way to the inexorable force of time. And the effect is terribly poignant. (I always found the scene of the Wicked Witch melting away in The Wizard of Oz poignant, even though I knew I was supposed to be cheering it on.)
The recurrently dissolving portrait is the artist’s own: Antoni made this work by taking a mold of herself, which was then cast in chocolate and soap. The title simply describes the actions by which she brought these fourteen busts to their present form. “I really feel close to the soap bust,” Antoni once told an interviewer, “because we spent a lot of time in the tub together.” But for me, imagining the process of making the chocolate ones is a more vivid experience, because I can so easily imagine the sugar rush and stomachache. In any case, the absurdity of the whole process complicates my reactions to the sculptures by taking the laboriousness of making them to such an extreme that it becomes a joke about itself. Memorializing individuality and then dissolving it, creating a representation and then abstracting it—both turn out to be the side effects of a quasi-obsessive-compulsive kind of behavior that is as impersonal as it is idiosyncratic, and we are left with a form of self-portraiture that’s been invested in gesture rather than image. Its meanings outgrow themselves, and we cast them aside as we follow their geometrical progression.
In a symposium on the 1993 Whitney Biennial originally published that year in October and reprinted in the “NYC 1993” catalog, Rosalind Krauss worries that art has become too focused on subject matter rather than form, and that therefore “the work is never thought to be layered, to be involved with a multiplicity of ideas, to be worked on.” But meanings have layers—and sometimes more of them than forms. Licking and lathering her way through her materials, Antoni reminds us that meaning is just as manifold and just as labile. For all that the show has overlooked, works like this make “NYC 1993” one of the best that the New Museum has mounted since its reopening in 2007.