Expert Eye

Whitney Biennial Curator Stuart Comer on His Shapeshifting Presentation


Whitney Biennial Curator Stuart Comer on His Shapeshifting Presentation
Whitney Biennial curator Stuart Comer. Photo by Daniel Terna/Light Industry

When Stuart Comer was appointed one of the three curators for the current edition of the Whitney Biennial, he was working for the Tate Modern in London, where he oversaw the launch of the Tate Tanks, underground industrial spaces that had been repurposed for the museum’s film, media, and performance exhibitions. Last year, while traveling the country to make studio visits for the Biennial, he took on a new position as chief curator for media and performance at New York’s Museum of Modern Art

This background might lead you to expect section at the Whitney to be given over to black box theaters and glowing screens, but the third floor of Marcel Breuer’s landmark building is packed full with painting and sculpture as well as a seeming endless variety of crossover works that defy categorization. As he was immersed in the installation process, we spoke with him about the development of the show and a few of special concerns.

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Unlike in previous years, where there was one big exhibition, you have each been given one floor of the museum to create your own show. How did that approach come about?

When it was confirmed that Anthony and Michelle and I had all been selected to curate the Biennial, they made it clear that they wanted a situation where we would each curate one floor, effectively there would be three chapters to the show. So we have been trying to stress that it was not a collaboration, but there was a discussion. We have all been regularly in contact with each other and there were regular meetings in New York. Ultimately, however, we definitely each forged our own path. 

And did you start your section with a theme in mind?

I wanted the show to come out of the work. I didn’t want to impose a notion of my own on what the artists are actually making. I began by selecting a cluster of artists who I really believe in and think represent new trajectories that art practice is taking and went out from there. Hopefully, its interesting partly because I have been living in the UK for the past few years. Maybe I have a slightly peripheral perspective on these things, even though I was often in the States. 

On a practical level, did you find yourself wanting to go back to artists you have worked with to look at them again or were you looking more at artists with whom you had never had a chance to engage? 

A little bit of both. For example, Morgan Fisher is someone who I’ve worked with for years. I presented a survey of his films at the Tate Modern many many years ago, I have written about his work and talked about his work many times, so he is someone who I’ve had a long standing investment in. But traditionally he is known as a filmmaker and I wanted to highlight these other areas of his work beyond film. So for this exhibition he’s actually produced a conceptual sculpture  

But then there is a whole generation of artists—Jacolby Satterwhite, Yve Laris Cohen, Kevin Beasley, Miljohn Ruperto—who were all mostly unknown to me before the process started and I had very exciting studio visits with them. Also, it’s been an exciting opportunity to link these younger artists with much older artists. There are several octogenarians in this show. This felt like a very exciting context into which to reintroduce their work. 

So as the selections started to come together what sort of themes emerged?

Well, I became increasingly interested in variations of hybrid identities. Many of the artists are not American but they are living in the State, for example, and there are some American artists who are working abroad. And I began to think about how these hybrid identifies are being mirrored in hybrid art practices. 

Where we once used terms like “multimedia” and “intermedia,” I think we are now entering a very different moment when a single artwork can not only encompass multiple media but they are folding into each other and morphing into one another through the process of the work itself. So I basically want to show work that was kind of poly-vocal and has a lot of layers. It became hard to locate whether a specific artwork was an object or an image or an action or something in between those. 

Does this impulse on your part come from the fact that your have spent so much of your career working with film and media and performance. Did it feel like a chance to break out and look at painting?

I actually painted myself up until shortly after college and I studied Italian Renaissance painting at a certain point in my academic career. So I have a long time investment in a more “conventional” art forms than just performance and media. I like to see media and performance in a continuum with all those other art forms, and maybe that’s what this show is about. Trying to de-ghettoize film, video, and performance and create a more holistic conversation with painting and sculpture and other kinds of media. 

Also, I read the invitation from the Whitney this year as an open invitation for the three of us to really take a specific position on what’s happening in contemporary art, not just to survey it. I hope that the shows could be read as essays with a sort narrative of works. 

I’ve been using the term shapeshifting a lot to describe my narrative. That applies to a number of things. It applies to everything from technological change, which of course is radically impacting the way artists work, as it always has. But there are increasingly more technologies to work with, so that’s a factor. 

The term also refers to the artists. Lately there have been a lot of revisitations to the 1993 Biennial and its core issue of identity politics. I thought it would be interesting to consider what identity has become and what it means now, when most people have very hybrid identities. That was something that was first being approached in 1993, but now the conversation has evolved. So I thought it would be interesting to take stock of where that concept might be now. 

And again the term could apply to the idea of what the impact of time-based media—performances and film—have had on other disciplines, especially painting. I wanted to push beyond the idea of “multimedia,” which is more like a montage between media, to think about works that are really morphing and completely hybrid. 

Circling back, can you tell me about a couple of the older artists you introduced in dialogue with the youngest generation here?  

Etel Adnan is somebody I was first introduced to as a writer—she is a major figure in Arab literature and poetry. She has also been producing paintings for the last several decades. In a way the paintings function almost like diaries so its sort of another register of diaristic practice that exists in both literature and painting. She makes these paintings she calls leporellos where the painting and writing come together as accordion fold books. I am showing some of those as well as her most recent paintings and a new tapestry. But I think all of them highlight this interesting interface in her work between writing and painting. And for that reason a lot of younger artists right now are very interested in Etal. 

She is ironically less well known in the States, even though she taught in Northern California for a long time. Her rediscovery has really taken place in Europe and there was an exhibition of her paintings in Documenta two summers ago. That show neglected to make the connection with her writing, however, which I think is critical. 

Another octogenarian is Pauline Oliveros who is a really major figure in experimental music. I think she highlights my interest in several artists who are really experimenting with the physicality of sound and using the Marcel Breuer building and how it interacts with sound. I see a lot of interesting connections between her work and younger artists like Sergei Tcherepnin and Kevin Beasley. 

Pauline is going to be dong an installation that draws on her text scores which will be projected and then preformed impromptu by members of the ICE ensemble and then she’ll also be including another work that will explore her interest in deep listening—moving listening beyond the act of merely hearing to a process that involves your whole body and the space around you. 

Kevin Beasley, who is better known as an object maker and sculptor, will be doing a performance in which he will be rigging a series of objects with contact microphones which will record the space and then he’ll remix those sounds and create a new composition out of it live while he’s preforming with the object. 

Sergei Tcherepnin and I talked about my long standing love for the ceiling in the Whitney’s lobby with its grate of lights which always reminded me of the backdrop in Picabia and Satie’s Opera La Velas. Tcherepnin’s own family history has ties back to Eric Satie. So he explored Satie’s idea of furniture music, which links very strongly to Sergei’s recent work where he activates objects including furniture, so that they produce sound. It’s not about putting a speaker on the objects, but rather transforming everyday objects into speakers or transmitters of sound. So he has taken a selection of the lighting fixtures designed by Breuer in the lobby and turned them into sound transmitters, and he’s composed a series of compositions that will activate the ceiling in the lobby. 

In addition to the individual artists’ works, you have included a couple small shows curated by artists.

They work as shows within shows. There is a room of work by Tony Greene, and Julie Ault curated a room in which she has included works by David Wojnarovich and Martin Wong among other artists. All three of those artists died of AIDS. I really want people to think a bit about the legacy of these silent voices, and how we might be able to bring them back into a conversation about contemporary art when they were robbed of that opportunity by the epidemic. There has been a lot of reflection on the legacy of AIDS in the last couple years, not least through some very important documentaries. I thought it was important to include that range of voices, which in a way, provide a missing link to generations today. 

Twenty years ago, 1993 and 1994 marked a period when so many artists died. For whatever reason, a lot of artists died at that moment. It’s the twentieth anniversary of Derek Jarman’s death this year. So 20 years later it is beginning to hit people now in a different way. Now we know what that loss means. There is such a blind spot in the culture today. 

Cathy Opie and Richard Hawkins put together the Tony Greene room. I did not know Tony Greene. I certainly knew about his work. When I moved to Los Angeles in 1991, it was a year or two after he died, and I remember hearing about him from a number of artists who had all gone to CalArts with him. I have always been interested in the painters in particular who came out of that program because it is known as this hardcore conceptual program. Moreover, at the moment of Act Up and very politicized work, he was kind of going back to what probably at the time seemed like a conservative gesture, but now seems like a very interesting and contrarian gesture. Catherine Opie and Richard Hawkins are both incredibly important and different artists and I liked the idea that they represented a community that was selecting him. I wanted to reflect on the figure of Tony Greene within a community history. 

Julie Ault is somebody who I have been interested in for a long time, and certainly Group Material, the collective that she was working with in the 1980s and 1990s, was very formative for me. She had an exhibition in Switzerland last year that surveyed her own private collection, and when I invited her I didn’t realize that show was going to come to Artists Space here in New York. In a way it worked out beautifully because, this is sort of an afterward to that show. Rather than drawing on her personal collection, it draws on the Whitney’s institutional collection but then tries to draw a personal narrative out of that more institutional history. 

She chose David Wojnarovich and Martin Wong as pressure points for this project and they tie back to these histories of downtown New York in the 1980s and 1990s. But then she took the discussion way outside of the boundaries of the mythology of downtown and began to involve discussions and collaborations she has actually had with other artists and travels that they have all undertaken together in the Sierra Nevada and other parts of the West. The whole thing evolved out of the Whitney and the official histories of downtown New York into this very poetic reimagining of the United States.

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