post by Rachel Pastan
“You never know what’s going to happen at auction,” Meredith says, “because you can get outbid in a minute.”
“And if you don’t,” Bryan says, smiling, “you wonder why.”
We are in Meredith and Bryan’s spacious apartment not far from the Whitney Museum of American Art where, earlier this afternoon, members of ICA’s Leadership Circle and Art Council enjoyed a private tour of the Whitney Biennial.
The tour was a prelude to ICA’s annual Winter Salon, a chance for donors and curators to come together for a drink and some conversation about art. Bryan and Meredith, an ICA board member and his wife, are enthusiastic Penn alums and art collectors. You can see their passion hung on every wall, even in the children’s rooms.
“Are there pieces you fall out of love with?” Ingrid asks.
“I won’t say who the artist is,” Bryan says, “but the first piece my wife and I bought we couldn’t live with anymore.”
“At first we liked it because it was so disturbing,” Meredith explains. “But then it was so disturbing.”
“I’d rather have the story than the piece of art,” Bryan says.
The talk shifts to the Biennial. Ingrid teases out some of its connections to ICA shows of the past: work by the Cologne artists Kai Althoff and Jutta Koether, who ICA showed in “Make Your Own Life” (2006); artist-as-curator installations by Nick Mauss and Robert Gober, à la Set Pieces, Virgil Marti’s tableaux staging of works from the Philadelphia Museum of Art (2010); Dawn Kasper bringing her whole studio into the Whitney as Anthony Campuzano did at ICA in 2010, delighted to make art for a hot July in air conditioning.
Artist and ICA board member Sarah McEneaney casts further back: “Dawn Kasper’s installation made me remember when Janine Antoni spent seven nights in ICA preparing for her exhibition. She slept in the gallery, recording her brain waves while sleeping and weaving them into a piece… with threads from her nightgown!”
Another connection is the emphasis on performance. For this Biennial, the Whitney has dedicated the fourth floor to music, dance, theater, and special events. If you’re in Philadelphia, you can follow our own performance series all spring and summer in the new ICA exhibition First Among Equals.
Performance is on Anthony’s mind, too. When Ingrid asks him—jokingly—what he hated most in the Biennial, he says, “What I hated most was what I loved the most. It’s kind of tiring when you realize that you’re going to miss the Biennial if you don’t go back every week.”
The performance emphasis is bemusing in a slightly different way to many here who come to art as collectors. There is a sense that this Biennial’s goal wasn’t to put objects a person might want to live with in room, but—as one Salon-goer put it—privileging artists’ studios and processes over the things themselves. “Do you feel this biennial is continuing the tradition of what a biennial is supposed to do?” someone asks Ingrid.
“I do,” she answers. “This was about turning down the volume and listening to artists.”
ICA prides itself on taking that attitude all the time: listening to artists about what’s interesting to them, looking at what they’re looking at, thus presenting work that other museums aren’t—or at least aren’t yet. Sometimes I wonder about the gap—now narrowing, now widening—between what artists look at and what the rest of us want to see. Artists are like brave Away Teams on old Star Trek episodes, investigating unknown planets that may prove, ultimately, inhospitable to life.
Often these conversations come around to taste. As Len, a long-time ICA supporter, says, “At the end of the day for me, it’s about do I like the work or do I not like the work.” In the next breath, however, he credits ICA for opening him up to art that was unfamiliar to him: video art, for example.
This is the line the ICA, the Whitney, and every other museum that presents contemporary art negotiates, each in its own way: how to give the viewer shows that will delight, but that also push us a little further, that open up new territory. That explore strange new worlds and new cultures…
I think an art exhibition should feel like a new world, with its own colors and textures, its own atmosphere and customs and seasons. We want art to transport us, to make us feel we’ve stepped through a portal to another way of seeing—of being—even as we stand still.
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