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.


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?"

Twitter @borrelli

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