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.”
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.
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.