As an American who has lived in Britain for over a decade—until recently, he was the Curator of Film at Tate Modern—Stuart Comer admittedly struggled with the direction of attempting to define “American” in a survey devoted to American art, “especially one with as much history behind it as the Whitney Biennial,” he writes. “I have been compelled by artists whose work is as hybrid as the significant global, environmental, and technological shifts reshaping the United States. The work I have brought together for the Biennial reflects this.” Taking on subjects like gender politics, globalism, and appropriation, Comer brought together over three dozen artists, literary collectives, dancers, and more, working in a range of mediums and across generations, from 89-year-old Etel Adnan’s subdued paintings and textile wall hanging dealing with geopolitical issues of the Arab world to Ken Okiishi’s data-driven mixed-media video. “The surfaces and spaces of the gallery respond in kind, playing multiple roles—from white cube to theater to cinema to publishing forum, and sometimes all of these at once.” We posed five questions to Comer, encompassing subjects from curatorial tools to Twitter.
Artsy: Can you describe one or two works that are the ‘centerpiece’ of your floor, or that anchor a theme or underpinning—visual or conceptual—in some way?
Stuart Comer: Two of the first artists a visitor will encounter on my floor are Etel Adnan and Ken Okiishi. Adnan, 89 years old, is a highly regarded writer from Lebanon who has taught for many years in Northern California and lived between Beirut, Paris and the States. Recently her work as a painter has become recognized, and I want to highlight her importance as a cosmopolitan figure who fuses visual and literary logic and makes us ask tougher questions about the relationships between images, language and ourselves. Ken Okiishi represents a younger generation who has emerged in a culture profoundly impacted by digital media. His gesture/data series of paintings on flatscreen monitors links the history of gestural painting to contemporary media technologies, bringing together radically different means and histories of recording the traces of human presence. Rooms dedicated to Semiotext(e) and the curatorial and archival work of Julie Ault also provide a kind of codex to my interests in developing this exhibition.
Artsy: This is the last year the Whitney Biennial will take place in the Breuer building. Did this influence your selection process at all and if so, how?
SC: Yes. I have always been very fond of the Breuer building, and the uniquely tactile nature of its surfaces. Several of the artists I’ve invited have responded similarly, particularly those working in sound, like Sergei Tcherepnin, Pauline Oliveros and Kevin Beasley. Their work will respond directly to the building and give it a “voice.” I have also invited Radames “Juni” Figueroa to “tropicalize” the Breuer building with a project in the sculpture court. He is based in Puerto Rico and creates makeshift structures from available materials. I was interested to contrast this kind of improvisatory “tropical architecture” with the aims of Brutalist architecture like Breuer’s Whitney, and the genre’s associations with socialism, cultural centers and frugal construction.
Artsy: Can you offer a Tweetable line about your floor that you would want someone like the New York Times’ Roberta Smith (or another notable art critic) to release to the (virtual) world?
SC: I’m tempted to quote Etel Adnan: “Where do you want ghosts to reside?” But to be a bit more pragmatic, “Art has become increasingly borderless, and this exhibition examines the fault lines, morphing, shifting and celebrating polyphony.”
Artsy: What is your most important “tool” as a curator and why?
Artsy: What’s next for you?
SC: I am very excited to dig into my new position at MoMA [as Chief Curator of Media and Performance Art] and have begun to develop several exhibition, performance and publishing projects there in addition to many new acquisitions.
Learn more about the Whitney Biennial 2014 on Artsy. Information on visiting the Whitney Biennial here.