On the 1993 Whitney Biennial and its place in the present
Randy Kennedy: Before we start in earnest, I wanted to ask each of the curators here: When did you become aware of the 1993 Whitney Biennial and the reactions to it? It’s interesting to think about where you all are in your careers and how early on that exhibition might have established some terms in your mindset.
Kimberli Gant: I always think about the fact that I never had the chance to see it in person. I’ve only ever understood it as a thought exercise, basically, or as a way of understanding how the art world shifted in the ’90s. A lot of people really only understand that biennial through the criticism of it, which makes it hard to form your own conclusions. I was thirteen years old when it happened, after all, and I think the earliest I became aware of it was in graduate school.
Jessica Bell Brown: For me, it has this kind of recursive presence in my understanding of what museum practice looks like, in a vulnerable way, if that makes sense. As Kimberli said, the criticism of the 1993 Biennial has become an object in and of itself. I didn’t really get to spend time with its impact until grad school, either. Then many years later, when I was teaching a course at Bard on the relationship between museums and societal discord, we had a one-week seminar that focused on the 1993 Biennial and also on “Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary Art,” the first group show that Thelma Golden organized at the Whitney, which opened the next year. For me, the 1993 Biennial has always been a true watershed. It’s B.C./A.D. of contemporary art in America, you know, before the 1993 Biennial and after it, in terms of how the art world functioned.
Xiaoyu Weng: I didn’t come to the United States until I was twenty-two, for graduate school, so before that there was a void of a very particular kind of American art history for me. The 1993 Biennial for me was mostly present through Daniel Martinez’s metal museum buttons reading, “I can’t imagine ever wanting to be white,” which created a huge stir. That work made a very big impression on me. I guess because of my background as an international student, the show made sense in terms of its world-historical moment, that it came only two years after the fall of the Soviet Union, and the perception from outside the U.S. of the country’s apprehended and contested idea of multiculturalism, which had undertones of the fear towards socialism that had defined the Cold War. I read the show through those kinds of contexts.
Elena Ketelsen González: I remember reading, as an undergrad, the essay that Homi wrote for the 1993 Biennial catalogue. My degree was in philosophy, and I was really focused on critical theory and aesthetics. I read his piece not so much in the context of the exhibition but more within the kinds of theoretical conversations about postcolonialism going on with thinkers like Homi and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. I hadn’t really spent time in New York, so I wasn’t yet totally aware of a lot of the artists in the show.
In 1993, I was only three years old, which I think is fun to note. I was still in Costa Rica. It was before my family migrated, and it was a time in the wake of the treaties being negotiated around the wars in Central America, as well as new trade agreements. An interesting coda for me was that I worked at the Whitney as an assistant for a few years around the time of the 2017 Biennial, which also had a big public moment partly around Dana Schutz’s painting of Emmett Till and the reaction to it. All of that helped me to better understand the collective fears of all of those people who worked on the biennial back then.
Homi K. Bhabha: Just listening to you all, I’m trying to think my way back into that moment, and you’re quite right that there was a fear of this thing called multiculturalism, which is always a leopard with many spots, always only what people want it to mean. A little parenthesis: I’m using that word now because it was in currency back then, but for me the problem was never the “multi-ness” of multiculturalism. Xenophobic fear, or patriotic paranoia, doesn’t come from the fact that there are multiple cultures in play at any given time. The anxiety that leads to social aggression and racial violence has two origins. First, the claims to power, rights and representation on the part of minorities and migrants that unsettles the majoritarian assumption of political sovereignty and culturalracial supremacism. And secondly, the rage against racial miscegenation and cultural hybridity that has its modern roots in slavery and colonization. The desire here is to protect the cultural “purity” of the population—an impossible and implausible project—furthered by ethno-nationalists globally, and by American “exceptionalists” locally. This leads to a massive cultural and political “projection” on minorities—racial, sexual, cultural, the disabled—that plays out in perverse and persecutory forms of violence. As Claudia Rankine puts it in a veiled reference to police violence: “Because white men can't/ police their imagination/ black men are dying.” Thinking specifically about museums and cultural institutions, one has to consider the role of ideologies of national sovereignty in dening who belongs to “the public,” whose rights are respected, whose security is assured, Daniel J. Martinez, Museum Tags: Second Movement (Overture) or Overture con Claque—Overture with Hired Audience Members, 1993, in the 1993 Biennial Exhibition, Whitney Museum of American Art. © Daniel J. Martinez 71 whose interests are best served and whose bodies are protected from phantasms of violent racial projection. In short, as Justice Sotomayor once put it, law and politics must protect those who are increasingly part of a growing body of “carceral citizens.” When we think about outreach, when we think about education, when we think about curation, when we think about artists making work, I always feel that it’s not simply about representing a minority as a minority. It’s about representing minorities within the larger context of how agency and personhood is defined, in the larger context of: Who are “the people?”
To me, the important thing is: How is a particular group of people or particular forms of differential identity heard? What are the institutions that do that? Who gives a platform? The state controls people through identitarianism, as we all know. You sit in your little island as a Parsi from Bombay. The people in power say: “We will fund you on your little island.” You sit on your African American island. As long as you keep to your island, you will find an architecture of what is, in fact, assimilation. I was never in favor of that, so I was unpopular for many years. It made everybody feel very good and comfortable to think about diversity and plurality. Well, plurality is not actually the problem. The problem is how do people who’ve been dehumanized—I don’t use the word “marginalized” because they’re not marginal; they’re absolutely central to the description of cultural industries, of cultural institutions, at all educational levels—how do people who’ve been dehumanized gain autonomy and authority—public standing—within the idea of a public? We have to think beyond identitarian clichés towards dierential and diverse structures of affiliation and solidarity. That was the aspiration of the 1993 Whitney Biennial, and it remains a work-in-progress to this day.
Kate Fowle: Homi, when you saw the show, were you shocked by any of it? Can you talk a bit about your response to the works?
Bhabha: I can’t recall my feelings in every detail, but I talked with Elisabeth Sussman— one of the show’s curators and a close friend—quite a lot at the time. I had a sense of what she and the other curators wanted to do. When I walked through the show, what struck me was that it was a very dynamic, even dialectical, environment. The art was not distinct from the critique of curation—curation and creativity, theory and performativity, were sister arts. But the underlying emphasis of the exhibition and the writing in the catalogue rued so many feathers. There was the now well-known roundtable discussion published in October, focusing on how the discourse around much of the art in the show was ignoring the signifier—the work itself—having become concerned only with the signified—the ideas and the political import or impact of the work as delineated in specific, sometimes very overdetermined ways. In other words, there was more attention, as they saw it, to message than to materiality.
My view was: Here was a show that did not hide either the conceptual creativity of the artist or the critical perspective of the curator, which I found very exciting. The curatorial team repeatedly looked back at its decisions from the perspective of an as-yet-to-be convened audience—and that is the gesture of alterity and hospitality so crucial today. I can only properly welcome you to cross the threshold if I try to understand, ethically and existentially, what it might mean to be a stranger standing at the gates of the gallery. That kind of creativity for the 1993 exhibition, which was curated in a spirit of alterity, I found adventurous and exciting. Things weren’t always coherent, because the materials and techniques were complex in themselves. But there was a triangular dynamic—or dialectic—at play across the exhibition: the work, the curatorial framework and the critics themselves, who were being forced to evolve a kind of new language for what was happening.
Fowle: I didn’t see the show as I was living in the U.K., but I was aware of the way it was being received via the press. One of the most important aspects to me was that it appeared to usher in a new curatorial approach that enabled viewers to experience research in action. It wasn’t about curators presenting a singular thesis. Instead, they created the conditions that allowed for experiencing something open-ended. Neither the critics nor academics knew quite what to do with it all. October, to your point, Homi, got Hal Foster and Rosalind Krauss and Silvia Kolbowski and Miwon Kwon and Benjamin Buchloh to discuss it “out loud” together in a panel discussion that was then transcribed, which was a different and more experimental way to frame or write about the show at the time.But it ended up sounding judgmental and out of touch, whereas the exhibition itself was far more exploratory, with lots of room for slippage and shifting meanings.
Bhabha: Exactly. The show was not built for that kind of exemplary applicative criticism. You had to give yourself to it. You were to be battered by it. You were to be torn by it. That’s at least the space from which I tried to write about it, conceptually and critically.
Gant: Reading about the 1993 Biennial has always made me think about the format of the biennial or triennial and the expectation of how the works should relate to a thesis. Yet none of these kinds of shows actually have a thesis in which you can tightly fit work within, while they seem to get critiqued on how well all the work related to one. Or they get critiqued for the thesis being too broad or too fuzzy. And so there is an aspect of them being set up from the start to fail, at least in how they operate in the world.
Fowle: The biennial as a format really proliferated in the 1990s, which expanded discourses and opportunities internationally but also to your point, Kimberli, came at a time when curatorial themes were getting much looser. I once tried to count up how many began in that decade and got to thirty-two, which included Dak’art in Senegal in 1992; the Asia-Pacific Triennial in Queensland in 1993; Bamako Encounters in Mali in 1994; the Gwangju and Johannesburg biennials in 1995; and then Shanghai, Mercosul, and then the Manifesta biennials all began in 1996. As the art world opened up, I think it was both the biennial format—which is more like a festival than a traditional museum show—and the de-centering of the art world that started to change who was invited and what was being explored. That’s when biennials were crucial insofar as they ushered in the potential for curatorial experimentation and new networks of affinity between artists.
Weng: It’s really interesting to see what sometimes feels like parallel conversations between the 1993 Biennial and Documenta 15 just last year in terms of how so much of the vocabulary hasn’t changed. Of course, there were other issues involved in Documenta 15, because of the inclusion of imagery that was seen as anti-Semitic and anti-Israel, but the overall feedback was: This is bad art. Where’s the quality? The same kind of language was used in the October roundtable back in 1993. So, it’s still the question of: who’s definition of quality are we talking about? The kind of universalism that’s been pushed since High Modernism has never really gone away. It’s still there. It’s embedded in so-called aesthetic judgment. It’s this very arrogant and comfortable position that the Western mainstream art world upholds.
Brown: I wanted to return to your comment, Kimberli, about precision and the idea of a curatorial thesis. I think Elisabeth Sussman and her team for the 1993 Biennial put their framework out front and center, which was simply to take stock of art practices across America that challenged dominant ideas about class, race, gender, and power structures. That biennial said, “We all have to confront this and take our time with it and there are no easy answers here. There’s no reprieve.” That was the mission.
It’s interesting to think about the allergy to biography that we see in that October roundtable. I think part of their sense of recoil had to do with a fear of confronting the realities that different kinds of publics were facing. The 1993 Biennial held up a mirror that made that confrontation inescapable. Interestingly enough, I think that with “The Theater of Refusal: Black Art and Mainstream Culture”—the pivotal show that artist Charles Gaines organized that same year at U.C. Irvine—we can see him already parsing the reactions to identitarian politics at the very moment they are flaring up around the Whitney.
Bhabha: Can I add something here? I like very much the questions we’re asking about modernity, universality, the notion of things not being containable, appropriable. I think one of the really important issues at that time and that continues today is the question of risk. For those who want to look deeply at the significations of modernism and its formal structures, what we often overlook is the risk that modernism took. We have absorbed, or appropriated, that risk. In the early ’90s, the risk to life represented by AIDS threw its shadow over the production of art and its institutional arrangements. At the same time, the risk to living with, and within, a pandemic was a central issue in defining what citizenship and community meant to all of us whether, we were personally threatened or not. AIDS Lives Matter is resonant with Black Lives Matter, because, for me at least, it poses questions about the life and death of political community and cultural solidarity. To own risk, to lean into risk, is critical in seeing the link between political equality and cultural equity (and they are not the same thing!) My argument here is resonant with James Baldwin’s belief that ethical risk is essential to the pursuit of art and freedom—or freedom-as-art.
Fowle: Perhaps we can think together about another notion you have been working through Homi—that of “the now,” or “nowness.” It feels proximate to your concept of unpreparedness and of risk in relation to interpretation. In part, the “now” has to do with the question of “what is history?” but it’s also an attempt to understand the contextualization of art in the present: It’s impossible to see an artwork that directly speaks to the time in which it was made, say in 1993—or 1963 or 1983—in the same way today. What does it mean to re-present works out of the context of their time, if they are so much a part of their time?
Brown: I find myself thinking a lot about the space of the museum as one that’s always about making something crystallized, knowable, ascertainable. And artists are quite often working against that. So we as curators are engaged in an enterprise that has deep inherent tensions built in. I think the success of many shows that end up having a transgressive effect are shows that try to get closer to where artists are.
Museums are constitutionally averse to that kind of open-endedness, partly, I think, because they operate as public trusts. You have to be careful about saying “always,” but the best artists are always trying to imagine or articulate a possibility—or maybe you would call it an affirmation—of an experience. And the source of acknowledgment of the experience remains somehow outside of the making of the object. Time becomes the conduit for the connection to be rebuilt.
Sometimes the acknowledgment happens close to the moment of creation when a piece is first displayed. But sometimes it takes many, many years to be able to see something in a way that’s aligned with how the artist imagined it. History is always subject to revision and restoration. For the show “A Movement in Every Direction: Legacies of the Great Migration,” Ryan N. Dennis, my co-curator, and I worked very hard to put aside what we thought we knew about the Great Migration and to go where the artists wanted to go with it. I wonder what it would have been like to have been in the room with Elisabeth Sussman and Thelma Golden and the curatorial team in 1993, because something special had to have happened in those discussions and also with the artists. You don’t get a show as transgressive as the 1993 Biennial without being committed to setting the museological soft architecture aside for a second and being as close to artists’ visions as possible.
Weng: In terms of 1993 and the question of talking about it now, about re-presenting work, I do feel that we have new vocabularies today that didn’t exist in the same way thirty years ago, to articulate some things and give the public ways to think about work that weren’t possible in 1993, because the work was so close at that time. And I feel optimistic about that, in terms of what we can do. I like to think about specific examples of artists and artwork. One artist who’s been getting a lot of traction and recognition lately is Trinh T. Minh-ha. A lot of her films and works were made in the late ’80s and ’90s and are only starting to be seen for what they are now. Her intersectional and postcolonial perspective is so important, as are the theories she was putting forward, like the idea of looking with instead of looking at, establishing a horizontal relationship with her subject matter. It’s finally being widely discussed today and coming into the so-called mainstream. It does usually take that kind of delay of, I don’t know, maybe thirty years, for some artists to be caught up to or for their work to be understood clearly.
Fowle: When we think about people seeing a work for the first time, what do you all think about interpretation? How much does it matter? Can we see it from the now without needing to know where it’s from?
Gant: It kind of goes back to the October conversation, because part of that was asking what audiences are expected to know. What are they coming with? What are we assuming they know? What are the artists thinking about and assuming publics know? On Jessica’s point about the space of the museum, when you get the opportunity to go along with the artist, saying, “Let’s take the risk,” as a curator, we still have to convince those higher up to go along as well. Then on top of that, there’s the expectation, not only within the institution but I think also from the audiences, that you will explain things to them in certainties, even if you don’t think it’s a good idea. There are the hard realities of the regular eighty-word wall label and the limitations that get placed on you when a work that contains so much, but as the curator, you’re limited to these eighty words in which to try to say something about it. And then your educational colleagues have their input. Maybe they want more conciseness. And both you and the artist say: “Hey, that’s not the only explanation. That’s not the only way to interpret this.” So then you hope that the viewer will take more away from it by using their own experience. You hope they’ll say, “This is what they’re telling me but I’m not accepting just that. I’m going to add on other layers of understanding because of where I’m coming from and who I am.”
Weng: I’d say the limitations of an eighty-word wall label are a fairly American institutional tradition, because of all the different stakeholders in the institution. And sometimes that interpretation ends up being more of a diplomatic act than a creative or educational one. The history of museum pedagogy plays into it, in terms of the politics of interpretation.
Bhabha: Right, but I would add something to that, ask you a question, perhaps. Isn’t it also true that, as great and adventurous curators work to get closer to the artist— the charisma of the artist, the enigma of the artist—the artists themselves, in my experience, are living productively in the world of conceptual charismas and the theoretical enigmas that preoccupy critics and curators? There is a dialogical relationship, a shared quest, among artists, curators and critics that allows for a dialogue of reverberation rather than a discourse that is rebarbative. This is not collusion. It is more like conictresolution, which always fails, but as Samuel Beckett said, we learn to fail better—together! And the best curators, like yourselves, are able to listen for that unspoken word in the work. I think that’s something that happened very much in 1993, the catching of something that was not said. And yet the incompletion of the not-saying was so stimulating— not only in one work but in the way in which the echo of the un-worked-out, as it were, reverberated through all the works in the show.
Ketelsen González: I also think now we’re in a position now in which we—and audiences—question the authority of institutions much more than ever before. I think even thirty years ago, it was much more of a given that whatever was on the label, whatever the museum said about a work, was seen as the primary truth, the meaning. And now there’s a wider understanding of multiplicity of meanings and many more ways that audiences are given to engage with a show.
I recently tried to find anything that had been written about how the education department at the Whitney dealt with the show in 1993. I found a mention in The Los Angeles Times that quoted a curator of education talking about many programs to make the exhibition “comprehensible” to a wide audience. And I can only imagine what that meant, because educational practice at museums has changed so much. In the ’90s, there was still a lot of what Paulo Freire, the Brazilian philosopher and educator, called the “banking method” of education: Oppressed people came to a classroom and knowledge was deposited in them, as he said. There was no exchange between student and the educator, no path to critical thinking, no questioning of the knowledge. In the October conversation, there were a lot of assumptions around what the audience brought to the 1993 show.
People now talk about “community,” which is often code for Black and brown and Indigenous people, people of color, working-class people. And there’s often the question: How do you make something comprehensible to these communities? But the question should be framed differently, to ask what those people are bringing to the work. In some cases, I’m sure they’re the people who brought the moxst to many of the works in the 1993 show. I think about Lorna Simpson’s Hypothetical? (1992), with its wall of gridded mouthpieces for horns and the sounds of breathing presented alongside a newspaper clipping quoting Los Angeles mayor Tom Bradley in the wake of the 1992 Los Angeles riots. A lot of white critics at the time wrote about the inscrutability of the piece, its frustrating ambiguity. But I’m sure many people of color saw it, brought their own experiences to it, and took away profound meaning.
In the writing around the 1993 show, there’s often something at odds that seems linguistic. For example, a lot of work in the show has been framed as decolonial. I don’t think you can decolonize a museum that was founded on principles of settler colonialism, and many people would agree with that now. But it is possible to engage in anti-colonial work within these spaces. The same thing goes for the notion of multiculturalism, which came out of 1980s pedagogical practice. Now we talk about anti-racist pedagogy, which is a very different practice. It is a language of liberation that I don’t think was part of the reception or discussion of the show back then. As a curator, I would now frame a lot of this work looking through those lenses.
Brown: One thing I wanted to touch on briefly about the 1993 Biennial is that it has always had this reputation as being a loud, in-your-face set of declarations and provocations. However, there was also a lot of quietude and irreducibility, which are things I’m very interested in. Charles Ray’s Family Romance (1993), the four-part sculpture of the denuded white nuclear family, got so much attention for its shock factor. But the sculpture he had outside, in front of the museum, Firetruck (1993), the larger-than-life-size toy fire truck—which on the face of it wasn’t shocking at all, just an enlarged child’s toy—I think signaled the anticipatory sensibility that we’ve been talking about, around museums being in a state of emergency. Our world is in a state of emergency.
That sculpture felt like a kind of Trojan horse, a container for what was to come for museums and public institutions and culture in these thickets of conflict and tension, shaped by both global and national forces. I think it’s important to put a finger on that kind of space—a space of irresolve, if you will—and to hope for an art world and a museum infrastructure that can hold space for both the loud pronouncements and the quiet ones, too. It was very much a part of what the 1993 Biennial did, making space for autonomy and self-possession, space for artists to work out their bad attachments, their bad objects.
Bhabha: Very much so. And there needs to be more room in the way that institutions conceive of their voices and their approach to their audiences. I think a lot about the wall label and what kinds of history we are producing by labels. Much of it depends not on who we think the “people” are, singular, but the “peoples.” And it’s not only the history of “then” and the history of “now,” or the criticism then and the criticism now. Each is more complex.
I think what you’ve got to do is make room for work that hasn’t been given authority to speak, to spit, to dream and desire. And that’s not just in relation to identity. I always say: Isn’t it amazing that those who were denied identity for so long, whatever identity may mean, are now being told by white institutions: “Give us your identity. Tell us your history. Tell us your stories. We welcome you now!” In response, of course, we say, “Hang on, hang on. You know, my story may be so much a part of the story you don’t want to tell about yourself that you really should think, self-reflexively, about yourselves, through the questions you’re asking me.” Now we’re ready to talk. You’re not going to be able to do this in a way that makes everyone happy and feel good and reconciled. But it’s that complex psychic ambivalence, that political ambivalence that is useful. I’m interested in that tension—a real tension—being created in the “now.” And whenever we invoke the time-signature “now,” whether it is to talk about the “present moment” of the Whitney Biennial in 1993 in the past, or the” future moment” yet to come, we have to come to terms with the peculiar temporality of “now.” As we use it to signify the present moment of our reflections and actions, “now” is really a temporal threshold. Retrospectives require a confidence in the pinnacle of the present as the summit from which a career or an idea is best surveyed. But what if the curatorial “present” is a time of aesthetic uncertainty and institutional turmoil— retroaction instead of retrospection—and the curator-critic takes her stand on uneven and striated grounds? As the passage of time marches across a threshold—back and forth, entering and exiting, iterative and interruptive—we see the present moment—the now— emerging before our very eyes as a double figure of time: the past-in-the present, 1993-in-2023, and vice versa.
“RETROaction,” an exhibition about the 1993 Biennial, developed in collaboration with Homi K. Bhabha, opens November 15 at Hauser & Wirth New York’s 69th Street location.
Homi K. Bhabha is the Anne F. Rothenberg Professor of the Humanities in the English Department and Comparative Literature Department at Harvard University. He is the author of numerous works exploring post-colonial theory, cultural change and power, contemporary art and cosmopolitanism. His works include The Location of Culture, which was reprinted as a Routledge Classic (2004), and the edited volume Nation and Narration (1990).
Jessica Bell Brown is the curator and department head for contemporary art at the Baltimore Museum of Art.
Kate Fowle is the curatorial senior director at Hauser & Wirth. Previously, she has served as director of MoMA PS1, chief curator and artistic director of the Garage Museum of Contemporary Art in Moscow and executive director of the New York–based Independent Curators International.
Kimberli Gant is the curator of modern and contemporary art at the Brooklyn Museum. She has written art historical scholarship for catalogues, academic journals, and book chapters.
Elena Ketelsen González is an assistant curator at MoMA PS1, New York, where she works with artists, activists, and organizations to create programs and exhibitions.
Xiaoyu Weng is a curator and writer based in New York. Her practice focuses on the impact of globalization, decolonization frameworks, and the intersection of art and technology.
Photos by Geoffrey Clements and Courtesy Whitney Museum of American Art, unless otherwise noted