What does it mean when a big-time, nationally celebrated New York art curator is invited to a Midwestern city to select from its artists for an exhibition at a local art gallery and he accepts? What does it mean for the artists chosen as well as for the gallery — and why would the curator accept the offer in the first place?
In February, Aaron Timlin, director of Detroit Artists Market, invited Lawrence Rinder, curator of contemporary art at the Whitney Museum of American Art, to select artists from “Members Invitational,” an enormous exhibition of some 91 artists. In the Members Invitational Journal, written by the artists themselves while gallery sitting, one of the participants referred to the exhibition as “ninety-one sardines in a four-ounce can” and proclaimed, “Holy Mother of God, I’m suffocating.”
In the previous year, Rinder had curated the “Whitney Biennial 2002” exhibition,” which was received, as that ever-changing, anxiously anticipated exhibition always is, with mixed reviews. The Biennial featured 113 artists from all over the United States shoehorned into the Whitney’s Marcel Brewer-designed modernist fortress on New York’s Madison Avenue.
The “Selecti” show — currently at Detroit Artists Market and presenting Rinder’s choices from the “Members Invitational” — poses more questions than it can possibly answer. But it creates a fabulous equation that tells us much about the populist history and present status of both institutions, and about the weird curlicues of contemporary art.
Well-known Detroit and former New York artist McArthur Binion recently said, “In the grand scheme of things, the Whitney is a fourth-tier museum that has always focused on younger artists and really developed their collection from that base. The Whitney is not the Met [the Metropolitan Museum] nor is it MOMA [the Museum of Modern Art]. I mean, they started with America’s beloved Hopper and Marsh, not misunderstood Judd and hated de Kooning.”
Binion’s point is that, until now, the Whitney has been a kind of populist gallery in avant-garde drag. Its current contemporary curator seems to have renewed the museum’s vows to Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney’s original, benign mission, that of showcasing “recent American art.” Touring America and choosing art from coast to coast and art scene to art scene, Rinder returned the Biennial from a competitive, politically correct, cutting-edge mandate, to just that beguilingly simple one. Interestingly, a lot of the art in “Biennial 2002” may not have been fully accomplished, but it pushed the definitions and boundaries of contemporary artistic practice while letting us see what young artists are really doing. It took the “avant” out of the hands of art impostors and put it in the hands of youthful artists.
When Timlin started detroit contemporary, his first Detroit gallery project, he never pretended to represent the best artists in the city. Instead, he showed us what was happening with everyone — and it really seemed like everyone. There wasn’t an artist in the community who didn’t speak with awe about his project. Every one of his openings teemed with excited, wide-eyed, visually malnourished people. It was scary. He didn’t pretend to know which art was good for us, but rather showed us what artists thought was good art. Who knew these artists — and where did they come from? It certainly isn’t by mere good fortune that DAM has harnessed the energies of this visionary adman of contemporary art and culture.
The tag team of Timlin and Rinder are operating at cruise control in the “Selecti” show. Of the 12 artists Rinder has picked, seven are well-known locally and have gotten very positive reviews in these pages. But because of the strength of four of the other artists’ art, I was shocked that I didn’t know them. I’m still working on the fifth — since the work pushes the boundaries of sculpture into an uncomfortable mutation that combines whirligigs and craft — but I’m beginning to trust Rinder.
In a telephone interview, Rinder discussed the criteria behind his choices, the wild hybrid of styles and materials he included in “Selecti”: “It’s eclectic. There’s no hierarchy of media or content. In the seemingly conservative urban landscape paintings of [Stephen] Magsig, there is an urgency and striving after something that I feel. In all of the work selected, there’s that vitality of striving, of going after something consistently — a perception that spirit can be manifest.”
The Selecti include: Jason Brougham, Eric Meier, Robert Quentin Hyde, Maurice Greenia Jr., Sandra Cardew, Allison Warren, Andrew Malone, Sacha Eckes, Stephen Magsig, Paul Snyder, Kate Silvio and Mary Fortuna.
The outrageous abundance in these different shows — at the Whitney, detroit contemporary and DAM — proclaims that everyone wants to be involved in the economy of art, of culture, in the “iconomy,” as critic Terry Smith recently put it, where “the symbolic exchange” of visual currency transpires with passion.
In the next chapter of this exchange, Timlin has been invited to do an internship at the Whitney this summer and, with the blessing of DAM’s board of directors, has accepted.
“Selecti” is at Detroit Artists Market (4719 Woodard Ave., Detroit) through May 25. Hours: Wednesday-Sunday, 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Call 313-832-8540.Glen Mannisto writes about art for Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected]