Exhibit of the week: NYC 1993: Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star
In the early 1990s, the art world received “a massive blast of new energy.
The New Museum, New YorkThrough May 26
In the early 1990s, the art world received “a massive blast of new energy,” said Jerry Saltz in New York magazine. Muscular painting and mild-mannered deconstructionists had dominated the previous decade, but that scene fizzled after the 1987 stock market crash. The Whitney Biennial of 1993 announced a shift. At that show, installation and video took center stage, and the focus of much work turned to the body and issues of identity. Messages about race and gender proliferated, and several works advertised the sexuality of their openly gay creators. Many critics weren’t ready for this, including me: “It shames me to admit now how challenging and difficult I found some of this work at the time.” But I recognize now that the ’93 Biennial marked “the moment in which today’s art world was born.” The time capsule of a show now appearing at the New Museum includes many works from that landmark exhibit, honoring a wave of New York artists who clearly changed art for the better.
“The human body gets a vigorous workout on every floor,” said R.C. Baker in The Village Voice. Andres Serrano’s large-scale morgue photos, created at a moment when the AIDS epidemic was near its peak, reveal the thin line separating animate flesh from lifeless carcass. Charles Ray’s sculpture of two adults and two prepubescent children—all 4-foot-6 and nude—is a “Freudian free-for-all” that “asks questions you don’t really want answered.” The show’s weaker works-—like Lina Bertucci’s photos of famous artists and Sean Landers’s endless scribbled musings about his place in that firmament—tend to address art-world audiences only. Then again, even they feel very 2013. In the Internet era, “self-absorbed bloviating” is practically all we do.
But a retrospective must challenge received wisdom, said Holland Cotter in The New York Times. Yes, the 1993 Whitney show was indeed significant, but “less because it introduced new ideas than because it consolidated impulses already in the air.” While other exhibitions of the time were more revolutionary, only the Biennial put the new aesthetic on display on Man-hattan’s Upper East Side. Shouldn’t the role of the smaller fry be acknowledged? At least we see much individual work of undeniable power here. Nari Ward’s Amazing Grace, created for an abandoned Harlem firehouse, binds together in an oval 300 cast-off baby strollers and is accompanied by a recording of Mahalia Jackson singing the titular hymn. Appearing in the New Museum’s annex, the piece evokes a church interior or a slave ship and stirs thoughts of Harlem children long since grown and perhaps departed. “It’s a deep experience.”