There’s 1848, 1492, 1066 and all that, years whose significance everyone knows: conquest, discovery, revolution. And then there are years more or less like all the rest—middling, and consequently disquieting in retrospect, because they seem to impart no special lessons. They are years, as John Ashbery wrote in “Soonest Mended,” “Solid with reality, faces, namable events, kisses, heroic acts,/ But like the friendly beginning of a geometrical progression/ Not too reassuring, as though meaning could be cast aside some day/ When it had been outgrown.”
Surely 1993 was one of those unexceptional years. Of course, if you go fishing for significance in it, you’ll snag some: Bill Clinton was inaugurated president, making it the year in which the baby boomers took the reins of power from the putative “greatest generation,” whose last representative in the executive branch was the onetime naval aviator and combat hero George H.W. Bush. It was the year of the Rodney King trial, NAFTA, Nannygate, “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” the Unabomber, wars in Somalia and the former Yugoslavia, and the Oslo Accords.
For me, 1993 was a year of recession, even though the recession had officially ended some time before. The art market was starting to revive, and with it opportunities for critics to write were slowly picking up. But the magazine I’d been editing had folded the previous year. In the question period following a panel discussion on art criticism, someone asked how critics supported themselves on the slim earnings of our trade. I responded, “I collect unemployment.” Afterward, my wife Carol chided me: “It would have been more honest to say, ‘My wife supports me.’” She was probably right. Anyway, the Snugli and the stroller had become indispensable equipment for my rounds of the art galleries, and my daughter’s afternoon naps defined the limits of my writing time as I plumbed the meaning of being a househusband and primary caregiver. I still wonder how I managed to be as productive during those short spans of time as I am now during an entire day.
But enough about me and the daily doses of history that were delivered by the morning headlines. (Readers too young to remember what a newspaper looks like can Google it.) None of that explains why the New Museum chose the seemingly unremarkable year of 1993 as the subject for its current exhibition, “NYC 1993: Experimental Jet Set, Trash, and No Star,” on view through May 26. Nor does the exhibition catalog illuminate the reasoning behind the choice, let alone the methodology by which specific works were chosen out of the countless number produced or exhibited in the city that year. Not even the catchy subtitle, taken from an excellent but otherwise atypical item in the estimable back catalog of the now presumably disbanded Sonic Youth, is explained. Why not have called it “That’s the Way Love Goes,” after Janet Jackson’s number one hit that same year, or “Party and Bullshit,” the single by the Notorious B.I.G., or “Reachin’ (A New Refutation of Time and Space),” from that year’s album by Digable Planets, any of which would have been just as suggestive and apposite? As so often in the art world, and at the New Museum especially, a lazy arbitrariness reigns.
In the New York art world, however, there was a Big Event in 1993, and the present show at the New Museum and its catalog make it clear enough: the Whitney Biennial, curated by Elisabeth Sussman with Lisa Phillips (now the director of the New Museum), John G. Hanhardt and Thelma Golden. This was the notorious “political biennial,” remembered by Phillips, still clearly feeling the sting of a twenty-year-old censure, “as the most controversial and critically reviled edition of the show, considered an affront by many.” That’s an overstatement, considering that the biennial has been a fat target for disparagement. Phillips exaggerates again when claiming that “the chief art critic for the New York Times began his review by declaring, ‘I hate this show.’” Michael Kimmelman did write those words (or almost—he had “the” rather than “this”) in the Times of April 25, 1993, but not in the opening of his piece; more important, his comment was not part of the paper’s official review of the show, which had been written seven weeks earlier by Roberta Smith, who, while not the chief critic, was already by then—as she is now—the doyenne of art criticism in the city. Besides, Smith’s response was more nuanced than Kimmelman’s: she thought the biennial was “a pious, often arid show that frequently substitutes didactic moralizing for genuine visual communication,” but that nonetheless it was “a watershed” that “in some ways…is actually a better show than usual, simply because it sticks its neck out.”