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Three times a lady: Peter Plagens on the Whitney's new curators.

IS THE WHITNEY remaking itself--again? When Tom Armstrong left in 1990 after seventeen years at the helm and David A. Ross took over as director, the museum supposedly jettisoned its predilection for artists from blue-chip SoHo galleries in favor of a wide-open, video-empowering, emerging-artists pluralism. After Ross's departure to SF MOMA in 1998, his successor, Maxwell L. Anderson, nominally terminated the Whitney's trendiness and retrenched the museum in its inherent strength: solid American modernism and a collection to back it up. Both Ross and Anderson brought in new curators to implement their top-down directorial styles. Now current director Adam D. Weinberg--on the job a mere eight months--has presented a slate of three new curators: Joan Simon, Elisabeth Sussman, and Donna De Salvo, set to take up their posts in July.

Just routine personnel changes? No, says Weinberg. A former Whitney curator himself (1989-90 and 1993-98), Weinberg is loosening the directorial reins and aiming to make the Whitney more curator-friendly. "I want people who have specialties but aren't specialists," he says. "Max divided the curators into prewar, postwar, and contemporary art. With our small curatorial staff, to set up chronological or media barriers is opposite to the way the Whitney has worked throughout its history, and to how artists work." Gone are curator of postwar art Marla Prather and contemporary curator Lawrence Rinder, who's taken a job as graduate dean at the California College of the Arts in San Francisco but will stay on as an adjunct curator. It's all part of what a Whitney press release calls a "newly reoriented mission" that presumably includes--in addition to getting rid of Anderson's chronology-based curatorial "portfolios"--finding some additional exhibition space and soothing that part of its audience alienated of late by Whitney whiplash. (Weinberg calls it "trying to build bridges to some of the communities that may have strayed.") In any case, Simon, Sussman, and De Salvo, with their wide-ranging interests, would seem to fill Weinberg's elastic bill.

Simon, currently an independent curator, writer, and editor who lives and will continue to live in Paris, will be the only official "curator at large." Her CV appears to make her the polymath of the hires. "I've done work in all the channels of how to make art public: publishing, curating, artists' books, writing, directing, et cetera," Simon says, adding, "I think it's important to document work well, so catalogues are extremely important." Indeed, Simon, who was managing editor of Art in America for ten years starting in the mid-1970s and interviewed most of the hall-of-fame artists of that period, seems to have a Weinbergian specialty for just the sort of artist whose work cries out for documentation: She's written about Susan Rothenberg, edited a catalogue raisonne on Bruce Nauman, and is putting the finishing touches on a William Wegman retrospective for Weinberg's previous employer, the Addison Gallery of American Art in Massachusetts. As to her residing an ocean away from the Whitney, she asks rhetorically, "Why hire someone who lives in Paris?... I know that I can contribute more, the more I maintain an outsider point of view." With her European perspective, Simon will probably loom large in inevitable discussions of what the term "American artist" means to the Whitney Museum of American Art in this peripatetic age.

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"'American' is going to be stretched," says Sussman of the pliant designation. "But I'm probably not the curator who's going to think about those broad topics. By nature I'm a curator drawn to the individual artist. And if that artist has spent half his life in Europe, I wouldn't want not to be able to touch that artist." Sussman, like Weinberg, is an old Whitney hand (she was curator there from 1991 to 1998). Best remembered at the Whitney for having coorganized the controversial 1993 Biennial (known as the "political Biennial," on the artier streets of America), Sussman has a penchant for what you might call the more psychological artists: she's curated shows of the work of Diane Arbus, Mike Kelley, and Nan Goldin.

If Simon is the big-picture type and Sussman the artist's curator, then De Salvo, senior curator at London's Tate Modern since 2000, would seem to be the object-oriented steady hand. She organized "Hand-Painted Pop" for MOCA, Los Angeles, in 1992, and an exhibition of Giorgio Morandi for the Tate, and was responsible for commissioning Anish Kapoor to strut his super-object stuff in the Tate's giant Turbine Hall. De Salvo is also getting the job title that exudes the most stability: Associate Director for Programs and Curator, Permanent Collection.

All three curators downplay what Weinberg admits was a moment of "upheaval" for the museum--Anderson's resignation under fire (Simon, for instance, says, "I don't think it's that dramatic")--and this may be well and good. Drama is probably the one thing the Whitney doesn't need right now. It's been through a long soap opera of publicly proposed and then publicly abandoned expansion projects involving international star architects, and yet the museum is still stuck in a cramped building that each year seems more and more like a set for the Ring cycle. There have been such critically maligned recent shows as "Scanning: The Aberrant Architectures of Diller + Scofidio" and "Robert Rauschenberg: Synapsis Shuffle." The post-'93 Biennials--while perkily good-looking ticket sellers--have generated a kind of cumulative "Eh?" in the art world. Sub-bass complaints persist about the unwieldiness and fractiousness of the museum's forty-odd-member board of trustees.

But Weinberg and the three new curators promise to be rays of sunshine in the wake of stormy times. The Whitney--which began as the Whitney Studio Club in 1918--has long touted itself as the "artist's museum"; you hear that phrase in the official remarks at almost every Whitney event. But for that moniker to hold true, the Whitney must first become a "curator's museum" in the best sense. It looks like Weinberg has given the place a good shove in that direction.

Peter Plagens is a contributing editor of Artforum.
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Author:Plagens, Peter
Publication:Artforum International
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jun 22, 2004
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