This year, three women decide who makes it into the world's two most influential modern art exhibitions
March 1997
RoseLee Goldberg
Photography Director: Alison Morley

The Whitney Biennial seems to raise the hackles of even the most mild-mannered reviewer, since it purports to present the most important developments in American art during the previous two years. "Critics want to attack the organizers," co‑curator Lisa Phillips says evenly, "and pronounce what they would have done if they had curated the show."

Undaunted, Phillips and co‑curator Louise Neri, the United States editor of the international art magazine Parkett, crisscrossed the country for eighteen months, visiting hundreds of studios, museums, and galleries before narrowing the field to about seventy‑five practitioners of painting, drawing, sculpture, video, film, photography, dance, and performance. "Accessibility was the criteria we used most often," says Phillips, who, in her twenty years at the Whitney, has been responsible for well‑received shows including "Image World: Art and Media Culture." Adds Neri, "The work we gravitated toward is not theoretical, it is not abstract, it is not shocking"‑a provocative way to describe an exhibition that has often been criticized precisely because it was at least one of those things. The work they've chosen is sophisticated, refined, intense. "In response to a chaotic external world," Phillips says, "artists are focusing on their own constructed worlds, many of which are hallucinatory in quality." Chris Burden's vast thirty‑by‑sixty‑foot installation, Pizza City, for example, is a massive environment that Phillips calls "part futuristic, part archaic, even medieval in its themes and styles." The curators say it became a touchstone for the Biennial's dramatic range of scale. At one pole are large installations by Diana Thater, Jason Rhoades, Jennifer Pastor, Louise Bourgeois, and Kara Walker; at the other, very small works, some miniatures, by Shahzia Sikander, Bruce Connor, and Aaron Rose. In between fall pieces by Sue Williams, Michael Ashkin, and Lari Pittman that Neri describes as "micro‑macro"‑grand works made up of small details.

Double Vision: Louise Neri, right, and Lisa Phillips, co-curators of the Whitney Biennial.

Phillips invited Neri to join her because as a museum outsider, Neri (a freewheeling Australian‑born editor and curator who is based in New York but travels frequently to Europe) would offer a fresh perspective‑and because she enjoyed their lively exchanges. "You have to be constantly articulate when there are two of you," Phillips says. "We had to convince each other." Together, they enthusiastically refute recent complaints that this isn't a good moment for contemporary art. "We've seen extraordinary work in all fields," Neri declares. "We feel this is the best time."

"Documenta," opening June 20, is a sprawling international exhibition presented every five years in several buildings and plazas in Kassel, Germany. Its curator, Catherine David, was surprised she got the job, and not because she's the first woman to run the show in its fifty‑year history. "I am not fascinated by big shows," she said in a phone call from Germany, "and I have been very critical of them." David, until recently curator at Paris's Jeu du Paume, made her reputation with thoughtful, adventurous showings of young artists. For "Documenta X," David focused on broad cultural and political debates (for example, can high art fight the homogenization that global TV and the Internet bring?), consulting with intellectuals around the world and inviting them to participate in a daily program of theater, film, and lectures. (If there is a "female" quality to the curating of either "Documenta X" or the Whitney Biennial, it is collaboration‑David's network‑building, the partnership of Neri and Phillips‑and an absence of power‑brokering.)

Selecting the artworks-which range from grand masters of '70s conceptualism, such as Marcel Broodthaers and Pistoletto, to younger artists, such as New York‑based Andrea Zittel and Switzerland's Erik Steinbrecher‑was a grueling three‑year process that "sometimes has felt a little like military service," David said. Her aim was to present "the chaotic nature of this fin de siècle." She'll consider the show a success, she said, if viewers are reminded that art, with all its paradoxes, is an antidote to a boring, standardized world.