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Meet artist Michelle Grabner, Whitney Biennial 2014 curator

A key figure in Chicago's art world, Michelle Grabner takes on the highest-profile job of her career

Christopher Borrelli

11:00 AM EST, March 7, 2014

NEW YORK CITY

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A few months before Michelle Grabner presided over the final details of the prestigious 2014 Whitney Biennial at the Whitney Museum of American Art here, a white Buick LeSabre plowed into the side of her small art gallery in Oak Park. This was back in the fall, on a quiet Sunday just after dawn. She knew the car was coming, and she welcomed the impact. She even invited some friends to come over and watch.

Grabner, an artist, curator, critic and professor at the School of the Art Institute — a figure so deeply influential and ubiquitous in the Chicago art scene and beyond that artist Tony Tasset puts her at "the dead center of the art world right now" — had little to fear. As one of three curators of the 77th edition of the Biennial, arguably the most venerated trendsetting showcase for contemporary art in the world (it opened Friday and runs through May), Grabner stands atop a career apex. Explained Jay Sanders, Whitney curator (as well as co-curator of the 2012 Biennial: "Michelle, as an educator, a curator and an artist herself, defines what it means to curate contemporary art in 2014. And it means facing a hugely expanded field where a curator is expected to occupy more than one space at a time. Michelle champions the overlooked, the emerging, the conceptual, visits artist studios, can read (traditional) painting. So she's a big voice now."

Which was exactly why that car drove into the Suburban, the roughly 9-by-9-foot cinder block gallery, comically minuscule, that Grabner and her husband, artist Brad Killam, created 15 years ago.

Depending on whom you ask, Grabner receives one of a few familiar refrains: She's a community builder; she's rigorous; she's fearless.

"But sometimes now, Michelle can also function as a kind of institutional symbol. And her reputation, her rank in the art world, is such that I wanted to let some air in there, puncture that rank, make the Suburban more visible, while providing a critique — I wanted to make an argument that allowed us to see vulnerability again."

That's artist Dana DeGiulio. She drove the Buick into the Suburban.

DeGiulio's also close friends with Grabner, who once served as her SAIC graduate school adviser. But that's not to say Grabner had no reservations about DeGiulio's idea. The Suburban sits off Lake Street in Oak Park, a few feet from the back steps of Grabner's small, cream-colored home. Grabner, 51, is a reasonable person with a 9-year old daughter and two adult sons; the gallery, a labor of love, has an international reputation as a forward-thinking destination for inventive artists.

"Still, I liked Dana's idea very much," Grabner said. "It was a jarring gesture. Brad didn't think he could be there for it. But I liked it metaphorically, because after 15 years you lose sight of things. With the Whitney coming, I wanted to reframe stuff, re-evaluate. I hoped she wouldn't bring it down, but I knew she had it in her."

Indeed, DeGiulio proved methodical: To pay for the 1996 Buick, she sold a piece of Grabner's art, which Grabner herself had given DeGiulio as a present; DeGiulio even sold it to the gallery that represents Grabner, New York's James Cohan Gallery (leading to the awkwardness of the Cohan's calling Grabner to inform her a friend had sold back a gift). A week before the crash, DeGiulio — who says this was the most impersonal work she's ever done, "but I am a person, I have a history with Michelle and I felt trepidation" — removed four small trees from Grabner's side yard and built a ramp at the curb, to ensure the ramming went off smoothly.

Around 6 a.m. Nov. 17, she angled the Buick across Lake Street, hit the gas and backed into the gallery going about 18 mph.

"She actually caught air," Grabner remembered. The result unnerved everyone. DeGiulio said she couldn't make eye contact with anyone all morning. Grabner said her husband became upset (Killam said he wasn't, "just shocked at the damage"). The car tore a huge hole in one wall and buckled the others. The roof leaks now.

The Suburban's future is iffy.

"I thought carefully about why Michelle agreed to do it," DeGiulio said. "I got emails later that said I was a narcissistic terrorist and that I took advantage of the way Michelle will allow an artist to do what they want. But Michelle knows what she's doing. She let me do it because she is an artist and I'm an artist and, though I had to ask something hard and dangerous of her, Michelle is the kind of person who wants it to get asked."

The Whitney was closed. It was a Monday, Presidents Day. Light snow fell in Manhattan. Grabner moved cheerfully down Madison Avenue, then reaching the museum, shouldered open the heavy service door on the side, tugged off her winter hat and walked to security to gather her visitor's sticker. Though the Biennial was weeks away, the lobby hummed with installers, assistants, artists, the sound of crates splitting open, the buzzing of drills. A curatorial assistant, Elisabeth Sherman, appeared at Grabner's side: "From here, do you want me to tell you each day what artists are coming that day, that way you can prepare for each person?" Grabner smiled a secret smile and nodded: So many personalities involved.

Grabner had arrived a few days earlier to oversee installation, insisting she didn't have much to do this late in the process. The layout of her part of the Biennial (which is the entire fourth floor of the massive museum, plus pieces spread around the Whitney, plus an off-site sculpture from Tasset in Hudson River Park, 5 miles south) had been a protracted negotiation, settled months ago. But there were still details, and many of the more than 50 artists she'd invited to the show would need something: a second opinion, an advocate, an editor. The day she arrived, Los Angeles artist Karl Haendel wanted a wall color changed; Grabner evaluated the situation, time and taste, and disagreed. "I had to talk him down."

That Monday, in the lobby, a light and jaunty bossa nova poured from an open elevator: Union art installers were working with artist Jeff Gibson, another artist Grabner invited. His piece was a dreamy video of random consumer goods — combs, meat, sunglasses — shown on a flat-screen TV fixed to the wall of the elevator. Home Shopping Network-like displays faded in and out. Gibson's point was unmistakable: The Whitney is just a department store, each floor holding gaudy commodities. Grabner walked to Gibson. The installers cleared out. The two watched the video, and Grabner leaned in: "Whatever you're doing, it works."

The music went on and on.

From the lobby, Sherman said: "I feel like I'm on hold and I'm going to yell at customer service in a minute."

"Yes, very irritating," Gibson said, smiling.

Grabner's grin filled her face — until Sherman, going over the latest developments, remembered a few things. Another of Grabner's artists, whose work is a series of postcards pre-reviewing the Biennial, wanted a live model to hand out the postcards (Grabner puffed up her cheeks and blew outward); another was trying to decide in what corner of the museum store he would place his installation (she raised her eyebrows slightly); another wanted a message printed on the museum toilet paper.

"That's more than we can do at this point," Sherman said. "We can't fabricate anything, can't add pieces and can't produce stuff."

"I don't want a carnival," Grabner said.

"And I don't want to be rude, but toilet paper, that's a non-starter," Sherman said.

But Grabner was over it, moved on. She arrived at the Biennial as the first artist to curate the Whitney Biennial, and though she repeatedly said her motivation was not to push her own ideas about art but to get her artists looked at, reality intrudes. Grabner may be known for a conceptual, theory-driven taste, but the woman herself is pragmatic, straightforward. She speaks breathlessly, like a heroine in a screwball comedy. Her hair is a helmet of curls, and her outfits veer toward hoodies and Green Bay Packers green (she's also a football-obsessed Wisconsin native). Said Chicago curator John Corbett: "There's this sense that Michelle lords over her world. But everything about her says she humbly presents others. It's funny she's seen as a power broker. I doubt she likes it."

Her down-to-earth air, on the other hand, some friends say, can be deceptive. Grabner is often blunt, matter-of-fact-direct enough to disarm you. Tasset, who lives down street from Grabner, said: "She's in her studio at 4 in the morning, stays terribly connected to everyone, acts as a visiting critic at Yale, heads to the Art Institute, seems to bake bread with one arm and curate the Whitney with the other. In the summer, at the Suburban, it's hilarious, these European and New York art people dressed in black, standing on her lawn eating brats, Michelle grilling. She's an uber soccer mom. But also ruthlessly honest, a double-edged sword."

I asked her at the Whitney if the Biennial would give her additional art-world leverage or if it made her anxious, given how the show often becomes a barometer of contemporary art, thereby prone to intense criticism.

Grabner watched an installer drill holes into a sheet of metal and said, the words coming 100 mph: "It works against me; it leaves a bunch of corpses. And one then feels responsible for the bodies. One can't do anything right: You invite an artist, you're excited, they're excited. Now they don't want to be placed alongside that artist, they don't like the catalog, nothing came out of it for them. It's a thankless duty, but it's my duty. At the same time, I do get to go back to Oak Park at the end of this, and many of these artists, they'll feel neglected. One or two will become stars. The rest — it goes downhill from here."

Just don't mistake those notions for ambivalence.

Milwaukee-based artist David Robbins, whom Grabner has known for decades (and is included in the Biennial), said: "Most people are ambivalent about what they do. I know good artists who wonder if they should give it up. Most people think of paths not taken. But that's not Michelle — she is doing what she always wanted, and when no part of you is conflicted over the role you play in the world, there's so much energy to devote."

In early February I visited Grabner in the large attic studio that she and Killam built in the garage behind their home and the Suburban. Grabner was hunched over one of her tondos (essentially a Renaissance term for a circular work). Behind her, the walls were plastered with her daughter's crayon art, a large photo of a football player on television (magnified until the image had became dense and grainy) and a promotional poster featuring Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers. She worked with a hypnotic rhythm, sliding a stylus filled with silver up and down a round canvas, drawing narrow line after narrow line until the artwork resembled an optical illusion.

"I like the repetition," she said, not stopping. "People call it meditative. It's radial. The silver is more active than my participation, because the silver will tarnish and make the work dynamic.

"It's not uniquely inventive, but I'm not interested in invention. Showing one's hand is not something that floors me. Making something you haven't seen yet? That's one definition of art for some people. But I went to art school in the 1980s, the height of postmodern art, and things were undercut, appropriated. Pop culture picked up on it better than art did. Still, I liked that stuff. I guess it makes me more of a conceptualist, because art that circulates in the world, shows in a gallery, gets assigned a price, has never interested me as much. Though that is a reality."

Grabner grew up in the Fox River Valley, outside Green Bay. Her father painted taxidermy fish, her uncle carved duck decoys; she expected to teach art in a high school some day.

"Really, it was like coming from a socialist state," she said. "No diversity. It's humiliating to have too much money and humiliating to not have enough."

The rest, her path, is so winding, reductiveness is inevitable: Undergraduate years at University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee; graduate school at Northwestern University, where she became friends with painter Ed Paschke, making sexualized drawings of Mr. Ed, photographing stills off TV screens. After college, Grabner married Killam (they met when their work was in the same Chicago show) and moved to Milwaukee.

"Having ambition, with nothing else around, you create the scene you want to see," Killam said. By the mid-1990s, Grabner's art was drawing acclaim and gallery interest, her acute criticism was appearing in major art publications. But also, she and Killam were curating shows in major local museums and storefronts alike.

Said Nicholas Frank, a Milwaukee artist: "Michelle and Brad were resolutely set on remaining local and connected to the wider world. That felt new. Milwaukee had a closed-off art scene, and they were can openers, learning to foster a cultural exchange between wherever they were and people they connected with." Nevertheless, a late '90s show of Scandinavian artists, curated by Grabner and Killam and held in museums and galleries throughout Chicago and Milwaukee, put them on the map in Chicago. So, to be closer to more opportunity, they moved to Oak Park in 1997; she had joined SAIC in 1996. Flash forward a decade: By 2009, eager to move the school in a more a theory-driven curriculum, she was chair of painting and drawing.

"Really, she revitalized the department," said Lisa Wainwright, SAIC's dean of faculty.

In 1999, she and Killam opened the Suburban; in 2008, they bought a 19th-century farm in central Wisconsin, naming it the Poor Farm and creating yet another celebrated destination for contemporary artists. Grabner had perfected the art of keeping one foot inside the mainstream, the other at the periphery.

"You know the thing about having to move to New York to be an artist?" asked John Riepenhoff, owner of Milwaukee's Green Gallery. "Michelle just invited everyone to her. Which is radical. But to her, it's normal."

If you cast a casual eye on the art world now, there are moments when it can seem as if Grabner is everywhere at once. In the past year alone, her work was spotlighted by Chicago's Shane Campbell Gallery; last fall, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Cleveland devoted a large survey to her work (the curator was a friend); even the small Hyde Park Art Center had a Grabner-curated show about appropriation in Midwest art. That's just for starters. Concurrent with the Biennial, New York's Armory Show and James Cohan Gallery will also feature Grabner's work, which Cohan calls "a combination of intellectual rigor and beautiful objects, a marriage of appropriation and tradition, all with an unusually high curiosity toward the wider world."

At the Whitney, one moment she was in the lobby greeting conceptual artist Saul Ostrow — she warned he could be cranky, but he exploded in toothy smiles and bear hugs when he saw her — the next she was moving briskly through cluttered, unfinished galleries, asking if a certain painting was already hung. (The assistant's reply came fast: "Michelle, we would not hang anything without asking you first.")

A week earlier, she was in Chicago, delivering a My-Biennial-in-40-Minutes primer to the staid board of governors of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

It was a character-revealing performance, a one-woman show delivered in her breakneck rat-a-tat: Grabner, before 50 or so board members — most in dark blue, carrying black bags — launched into a hilariously blunt deconstruction of the Biennial and how she thinks about it, complete with info graphics. Her other two curators, she told her audience, are Stuart Comer of New York's Museum of Modern Art, and Anthony Elms, a former Chicago curator now at the Institute of Contemporary Art Philadelphia (each of whom get their own floor to curate). There are about 100 artists in the show (typically it presents lesser-known artists). She invited more than 50; the others about 25 each. Her search took her to scores of studios, nearly every corner of the country. And in the end, she personally knows more than half of her Biennial invitees.

Two board members in the back threw each other knowing glances.

As if answering their probable thoughts, Grabner continued: She offers this information upfront because she wanted the process of curating a show as important as the Biennial to be transparent. In other words, she wanted people to know it is not fair: "I was looking for artists who influence art today, and influence me." Many of the artists she invited are friends, some were students, some teachers, some Art Institute colleagues. Eight of the 17 Chicagoans in the show are her picks, though not because they are from Chicago, she stressed. (Later she said the city's art scene does not impress her, its "provincial disposition" being a "terrible waste of energy.")

She continued.

She is not interested in using the Whitney "as a platform for bringing someone to you that you can market and move through the (traditional art) system." So, for example, she included elaborately annotated notebooks from writer David Foster Wallace, and another artist will fill a table with discounted catalogs of art shows that once graced the Whitney. Another moved to Amsterdam and whittles pencils into sculptures (more eye rolls from the back). She told of "summerlong" fights with the Whitney to include a piece by artist Gretchen Bender, who died a decade ago; Grabner wanted (and eventually received) permission to invite artist Philip Vanderhyden to re-create a Bender installation. She also told of endless arguments about the work of Donelle Woolford, "who is a fiction, the invention of a white New Jersey artist who hires models to play the role of 'Donelle,' a black, up-and-coming artist. Donelle does not exist." ("Donelle" is also the only African-American woman in Grabner's part of the show, which concerned the Whitney, she said later.)

The Whitney's Sanders, instrumental in hiring Grabner, told me a few weeks later he didn't have a problem with revealing how the sausage gets made. In fact, he sympathized: "Michelle being an artist, making value-judgments of other artists has to be intense. Transparency is how you handle it."

On the train back to Oak Park after the board meeting, Grabner grew teary.

"They were lovely," she said, "but they come from an affluence I don't understand or value. I showed my graphics tongue-in-cheek, and they stayed so straight!" She said she was terrible. Later, Walter Massey, president of SAIC, sent a note: He's on the committee for the future Barack Obama presidential library, which needs to stay up on contemporary art, and would she do her presentation for them too?

"Of course I said yes."

Back at the Whitney, the Tuesday after Presidents Day, long into an already long afternoon, Grabner pushed her hands into her coat pockets and surveyed the fourth floor, stepping around workbenches. Her floor, full of grand gestures and physically huge pieces — Shana Lutker, one of the artists there, said the floor plays "like a series of exclamation points" — required endless consideration of electrical cords, painters, sheetrock preparation, union rules, whether the sidewalk outside was too slushy to unload a fragile work.

She showed no exhaustion. Even when an assistant reminded her they had four days to finish installing her part of the Biennial, she looked less worried than delighted by the variety and density of work around her. She seemed as comfortable here, and easygoing, as she does back at the Suburban.

Later, asked if he imagines Grabner and her ambitions staying much longer in Chicago, Robert Storr, a South Side native, influential curator and dean of the Yale University School of Art, lamented: "Chicago, as an art center, has never thrived relative to the coasts, but then it also never used to look to the coasts for validation the way it does now. It needs the synthesizing energy that (Grabner) brings. It needs to hold on to people like her."

Theaster Gates, one of Chicago's most celebrated artists (and a 2010 Biennial alum), said: "A moment this big should take pressure off Michelle and lead to more opportunity — Berlin, Venice."

But Grabner told me that she would move back to Milwaukee eventually and felt no loyalty to Chicago, and though she expected a "career unwinding now," she showed no sign of pressure or melancholy. We walked to a ledge at the museum holding vases from artist Shio Kusaka. You might assume, for an artist who once let another artist plow into her gallery with a car, Grabner would find a row of fairly conventional vases to be overly pedestrian.

"Elegant," she said instead.

Then added: "I enjoy them as things. But en masse, it's compelling: Could be an art installation. Could be a display at Bed Bath & Beyond. High and low. Quite interesting, no?"

cborrelli@tribune.com

Twitter @borrelli