"I now find myself on the other side of the curtain."

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Installation view Jacqueline Humphries, Sterling Ruby,  Dona Nelson, Pam Lins and Amy Sillman and Pam Lins. Whitney Biennial 2014, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, March 7- May 25, 2014. Photograph by Sheldan C. Collins

An Interview with Michelle Grabner 

Michelle Grabner is the first artist to curate the Whitney Biennial. A painter, she also teaches and writes. Her first mid-career retrospective, “I Work From Home,” opened in November at MoCA Cleveland, and she doesn’t live (or work) in New York but in Oak Park, Illinois, where she appropriates the language of the middle: middle class, Midwest, the mid-sized car, even middle age. In her official portrait for the Whitney, she wears a gray sweatshirt. Her screensaver is the Green Bay Packers, and she says “fine” like fawn, with those flattened accents of her native territories. There in the middle, she and her husband, painter Brad Killam, also run two art spaces. One is in their garage, The Suburban, and the other, The Poor Farm, on a former poor farm in rural Wisconsin, where they’ve shown Matthew Higgs, Andrew Zittel and Luc Tuymans. We talk here about putting together the Biennial. This year’s has three curators, none from New York City (though one recently moved there), and they each got one floor. I wanted to know how you approach something as mythic as the Biennial, particularly with the added meaning of this being the last installment in the old Breuer building before the museum moves downtown next year.

—Jennifer Kabat

THE BELIEVER: Can we start at the beginning? A biennial takes ages to plan, right?

MICHELLE GRABNER: I received a long, detailed email from Elisabeth Sussman and Jay Sanders in August of 2012.

BLVR: What did they say? And were you surprised?

MG: Yeah, we’d had a Suburban opening, and I was dropping an artist off downtown. Going home at a stoplight, I looked at my phone. It was a Sunday—getting this on a Sunday was also weird—and yeah, one shouldn’t check mail while driving. I kept glancing down at the email and “Whitney Biennial” and “curating” kept popping out. At home I said to my husband, “Brad, read this to me. I can’t understand what they’re asking.” As an artist I’ve had visits by Whitney curators over the years but never made it into the show, and here they’re asking me to consider curating it? I never saw that coming. Being included in the exhibition was something I always hoped for, but curating it was something I never considered.

BLVR: That’s almost funny, you’ve never been included in the show you end up curating.

MG: It’s a bit like being department chair at a school that wouldn’t let me into its MFA program.

BLVR: Wow, that’s doubly funny-painful. 

MG: Which is why the email was so confusing. In their email Jay and Elizabeth said they wanted three independent curators from outside of New York City. Each would get their own floor of the Breuer building. They asked me to put together a proposal, and I discussed my interest in artists working off center, suggesting that isn’t necessarily a geographic position. I also gave a list of artists I’d include, which was risky being so specific, so early on. But so much of the art world runs on nebulous behavior and shadowy value-building. Sure, I understand the potential in the speculative, but it drives me nutty.

After the names of the curators went public, my friend Jake Palmert, the director at Reena Spaulings, said the artists he knows in NYC went mwah mwah mwah. They thought they had no chance in hell with three outsiders.

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Sterling Ruby, Basin Theology/Butterfly Wreck, 2013, Ceramic, 28 1/8 × 39 3/8 × 41 inches (71.4 × 100 × 104.1 cm). © Sterling Ruby. Photograph by Robert Wedemeyer

BLVR: So how do you approach this knowing everyone scrutinizes it so much?

MG: Honestly I didn’t care. I approached it as an artist who’s deeply influenced by other artists. I knew I wanted to feature these artists no matter where they lived, whether Williamsburg or Sebastopol.

BLVR: Tell me about visiting Rochelle Feinstein [an artist in the Whitney Biennial]. She’s got such a deadpan sense of humor and her reaction was like, “Wait, I’m a painter, and I’m in the Biennial for… video?”

MG: She showed me some great footage of the last ever Galapagos turtle Lonesome George and said, “I want to do a video about this.” I could’ve easily given Rochelle’s paintings space, instead I wanted to offer her the Biennial as a platform to work instead for work. She was emotional about George but also intellectual and funny about him and his sad, mythical narrative. She’s wise and critical, knowing the Biennial’s hype can really mess with an artist’s head.

BLVR: What about your being an artist/curator here? Everyone has such big IT’S-THE-BIENNIAL expectations.

MG: A year ago I was in New York for my annual trip with my students from the Art Institute and realized the artists we were visiting were acting strangely, less relaxed than the year before when we’d gone to their studios. I couldn’t figure it out, then realized they thought they were having a studio visit with a Whitney Biennial curator. Everything changed. They were performing for me. They were nervous. My instinct was to take their hand and tell them that inclusion in the Biennial is meaningless. Hard work and dedication is what counts, but we all know that’s bullshit.

As an artist I was also curious about why curators don’t tell artists when they’re not included in exhibitions like the Biennial. I’d had visits from previous curators, and they’d never say they were here conducting Whitney Biennial research, nor that I wasn’t included. Needless to say, I wanted to do it differently. I asked curators at the Whitney why they don’t share this sort of information with artists and they said, “Because we don’t want hurt feelings.” What? We get rejected all the time. Clearly there’s something else going on here, and it’s about curatorial authority, not curatorial discretion.

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Installation view Basin Theology/Butterfly Wreck, 2013, ceramic by Sterling Ruby.Whitney Biennial 2014, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, March 7-May 25, 2014. Collection of the artist; courtesy of Hauser & Wirth Photograph by Bill Orcutt

BLVR: Then there’s the Biennial’s mythology. With a creative career, it often feels like there’s a world of decision-makers on the other side of the curtain. For artists that’s curators and dealers, and suddenly you have this power.

MG: The Whitney, the institution, the curator, is invested in protecting that mythology. Institutions work with art and often work with artists, but they’re in the business of developing their own narrative and perpetuating that. I now find myself on the other side of the curtain; one of the most important things I can contribute is to make the curatorial process as transparent as possible, to the point where I’m an irritant to the institution.

BLVR: How so?

MG: I regularly brought artists’ proposals to the institution that are challenging, if not down right impossible for the Whitney. Darren Bader wanted to reattribute some of the work on the 5th floor. A Georgia O’Keefe would be attributed as a Glenn Ligon. Darren and I both knew the museum would say no, but I felt it was important to put it in front of them so they could hear themselves say no.

BLVR: With Biennials I often think of 1993, which everyone hated, but is so respected now that the New Museum did an entire show off the back of that one Biennial’s importance.

MG: I hope to make an exhibition that’ll have resonance 30 years down the line. But if I had to be honest, I’m afraid it’ll be discussed within the context of economic excess. In ‘93 we were wrestling with the politics of difference. Money changed everything, and this isn’t lost on me. So, when you get off the elevator on the 4th floor one of the first things you’ll see is Dawoud Bey’s portrait of President Obama. It’s an official portrait taken in Chicago when he was still a Senator from Illinois.

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Dawoud Bey, Barack Obama, 2008. Pigmented inkjet print, 40 × 32 in. (101.6 × 81.3 cm). Collection of the artist; courtesy Stephen Daiter Gallery, Chicago

BLVR: When I looked at the list, knowing there are three curators with three floors, it was like a scorecard. Who picked what? What are the themes? Obviously there’s Chicago, but also older artists and women and painting. Which I realized is: older, women painters. There are also people who died recently like David Foster Wallace and Sarah Charlesworth.

MG: I was going to visit Sarah’s studio the day before she died. It was always my intention to include her. Her name was on that original list in my proposal. But I promised myself I’d only invite someone after going to their studio, and I still regret Sarah never knew she was in the show. But it’s true many of the artists are my age or older, and many are “artist’s artists,” including several independently minded creators. Also I intentionally included artists who are pivotal in shaping younger artist’s practices as teachers and mentors.

BLVR: The catalogue also seems really pro-artists. You asked yours all to be in conversation with someone, and that seems about empowering them.

MG: In my part of the catalogue, everyone gets treated equally. Whether they’re represented with a two-minute short in the film/video program or 65 feet of wall space, each artist has an image page and a lengthy conversation. I want to hear what artists have to say so they get to talk with whomever they want—a sports figure, another artist, a designer, a spouse….

BLVR: That approach seems anarchic and inclusive, also it fits nicely with our talking here.

MG: It also fits with Tony Tasset’s Artists Monument. Last spring I heard he was planning a piece in Berlin where he’d cover the gallery with the names of 400,000 artists from Art Index. [For the Whitney Biennial] he’s installing his monument in Hudson River Park etched with the names of 400,000 artists.

BLVR: I love that idea, and that the museum was worried about artists’ looking for their names.

MG: Me too, it’s a grand gesture of inclusivity in an exhibition conditioned by omission.

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Dona Nelson, String Beings, 2013 (back). Acrylic and painted string on canvas, 82 × 82 in. (208.3 × 208.3 cm). Collection of the artist; courtesy Thomas Erben Gallery, New York

Jennifer Kabat is co-founder of The Weeklings. She lives and writes in rural, upstate New York. Recently she received a Creative Capital | Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant for her criticism. You can find her here too: http://www.jenniferkabat.com/