As the youngest of the trio of curators helping this year’s Whitney Biennial, Anthony Elms is also the one with the most concise presentation of work within the show—but what it lacks in numbers it makes up for in depth and conceptual heft. An associate curator at the ICA Philadelphia who also runs the underground artist publication organ White Walls, Elms has interests that run across disciplines, including performance (he is featuring many in the exhibition), literary pursuits, and that old chestnut, painting. Viewers, however, may walk away from his dedicated floor of the Biennial with a slightly more nuanced understanding of each.
Undergirding all the work on display on the second floor of the Breuer Building is a core conceit, which may or may not be so easy to discern: when putting together the show, Elms asked himself the same question posed by architect Marcel Breuer when building the Whitney’s soon-to-be vacated home, “What should a museum look like, a museum in Manhattan.” We spoke to the curator about some of the deeper themes embedded within his show, the ascent of the artist book, and why he believes in ghosts.
This year’s biennial was an unusually collaborative enterprise with three curators determining what would be shown throughout the museum. What area of focus did you bring to the show?
It’s a difficult thing to answer, because I don’t know if any of us have a focus, per se—it’s not like we split things up, with “you do this, and you do this.” We all went on a lot of studio visits, and quickly, because you don’t have tons of time to work on the show. We brought stuff together that we’re interested in seeing. But, in fact, there weren’t very many overlaps on our lists, and in those couple of cases we would just ask each other, “How interested are you in so-and-so.” But we’re all interested in different artists, mostly, and our choices were driven out of the studio visits we were doing with people.
Just looking at the backgrounds of the three curators, you can tell that each has a different specialization, be it that Michelle Grabner is a painter herself who also teaches, and Stuart Comer is the head of MoMA’s media and performance department. That didn’t play into your decisions at all?
Well, it’s not as Stuart was the only one who reached out to video artists—we’re all working with lots of video artists. We’re all working with people who perform, and we’re all working with painters, we’ve all got sculptors. Obviously we were picked because we have different viewpoints and interests in different histories and traditions, but I didn’t think, “I’m not going to look at painting because Michelle is the most interested in painting.” I wanted to bring in some painters who I think are the best, and who she’s not going to be picking. And Stuart and I are sharing the lobby gallery to present a series of performances that will trade of between us, since we have different performers coming in—in fact, I asked for most of the artists who will strictly be preforming. Then there’s a screening room on the second floor that we’ll all be sharing, trading off weeks so that we each get it for a month in total.
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