Meet artist Michelle Grabner, Whitney Biennial 2014 curator

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Michelle Grabner, curator of the 2014 Whitney Biennial contemporary art show in New York, describes the artwork in her Oak Park home.


"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."

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