Celebrations, Broken Hearts and Autopsies


My friend, artist Michelle Grabner has recently been tasked with being one of three curators of the upcoming 2014 Whitney Biennial. For many of us who have followed Grabner’s career, this came as thrilling and welcome news. Michelle is a Chicago-based painter. Since 1996 she has been the professor and department chair in the Department of Painting and Drawing at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She writes criticism for Artforum magazine, and is a contributing editor at Xtra contemporary art quarterly. For the past 15 years she has run The Suburban, an artist project space located in her backyard with her husband and fellow artist, Brad Killam. They also founded and operate The Poor Farm, a space located in Wisconsin on the site of a poor farm built in 1876. The Great Poor Farm Experiment, or as they put it “The Suburban’s rural cousin,” presents artist projects and year-long exhibitions.


-Interviewed by Griff Williams



Portrait of the artist. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui. Courtesy of the artist.

Portrait of the artist. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui. Courtesy of the artist.


Michelle and Brad began exhibiting their work at Gallery 16 in 1998 and we are looking forward to their fifth exhibition with the gallery in 2014. As part of our 20th Anniversary Conversation series I posed some questions to Michelle about her plans and challenges in curating the Biennial.


Over the past decade you and I have frequently talked about various power imbalances in the art world and your anti-curatorial positions. And yet here you are, one of three curators for the upcoming Whitney Biennial! Does the challenge of selecting living artists and specific artworks for the exhibition pose conflicts with your philosophical position?


Yes, let’s take a moment for that ridiculous bit of situational irony. It is one of the artworld’s many peculiarities: as soon as you tell it to fuck-off, it wants your attention. But to get at your question, I will claim the high ground and say curating the Biennial does not compromise my position. I remain critically opposed to a very specific kind of ‘curatorial think,’ specifically that which flows wholesale from curatorial studies programs. Jens Hoffman, a practitioner of this type of curatorial practice describes the condition by saying, “Exhibitions became the creative principle of so-called exhibition makers who were described as exhibition directors and who became catalysts between the creative individual and society.” That smells like an opportunistic middleman to me. It is a new celebrity industry, professionalizing the curator/ artist in all of us.


But regarding my approach to the Biennial, I will organize my part of the exhibition by featuring artists who are dedicated to their ideas and to contemporary artmaking. I will not deploy other artists’ work as a means to illustrate my subjective conceits. No Themes, no thesis, no poetic title.



The Suburban, Oak Park, IL. Courtesy of the artist.

The Suburban, Oak Park, IL. Courtesy of the artist.


The Suburban’s greatest success, in my estimation, is in its Midwestern humility and your grounded value system which is at odds with careerist art-world predilections. Your intention was not to redefine the roles of the art world but instead champion art, artists, and their imagination without concern for the market. Do you see your work as an example of how artists can and must create their own value systems in opposition to existing market driven paradigms?


Market driven value systems are a reality and I encourage artists to make use of them if and when they are appropriate to the work. Another reality in our artworld is that contemporary criticism is embedded within art’s commercial enterprise. But because of the staggering number of contemporary artists and fast money rapidly pulsing through the system, commercial success no longer guarantees critical evaluation.


Unquestionably, artists today have to accrue influence. That can mean a combination of critical, institutional, and even commercial recognition. But most importantly it demands that you gain the respect of other artists. So this means that one must be devoted to working and to committing a long protracted life in this work. Sure, The Suburban and the Poor Farm invert institutional power structures and make interfacing with art’s unseemly features tolerable. But in the end, Brad and I just want to be close to artists of all stripes, and in continuous proximity to their ideas, work, and processes.



Portrait of the artist. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui. Courtesy of the artist.


I’ve been interested in your comments about “community” as it relates to your activities at the Suburban and Poor Farm and as it relates to my experience at Gallery 16. You have said that after 15 years of operating The Suburban “I am not convinced that a proper community has announced itself (which might not be a bad thing.) Or conversely, its community is always being refigured, and I just can’t put a finger on it. What is certain and why I don’t dwell on the question of community is becuase that I am an unyielding supporter and enthusiastic viewer of every single project. So with Brad and the kids we have a solid community of five. That is really enough.” This is an important and frequently ignored question that goes back to artists defining their own value system irrespective of external pressures.


That is why, despite the many miles that separate Northern California from the Upper Midwest, I feel that we are not only peers, but that we are also long-time neighbors, sharing value systems shaped by criticality and responsibility, as well as our fondness for family. For one thing, we both choose to live in locations that allowed us to develop and evolve our own principles for shaping our theoretical and practical understanding of art and life. I also think we are both distinctly aware and committed to challenging the conventional frameworks we choose to embrace. It is also a political choice to do what we do. Even if critique is overshadowed by a bevy of freedoms afforded by today’s free market, I still feel a profound sense of responsibility toward critical awareness within those freedoms.



Michelle Grabner and Brad Killam, “Down Block”, Steel, paint, gesso, wood, 2010. Courtesy Gallery 16.

Michelle Grabner and Brad Killam, “Down Block”, Steel, paint, gesso, wood, 2010. Courtesy Gallery 16.


Are the curators Anthony Elms, Stuart Comer, and yourself collaborating or are you working independently to develop your exhibitions?


We each get one floor of the Marcel Breuer building and we will share the interstitial spaces offered up by the museum: lobby gallery, courtyard, theater, etc.



Michelle Grabner and Brad Killam, “Down Block”, Steel, paint, gesso, wood, 2010. Courtesy Gallery 16.


How many studios do you expect to visit this year?


This year, conversations with artists will encompass much of my waking life. And as you can imagine, studio visits are the agreeable part of the whole Biennial process.


If at the end of this Biennial experience you have achieved your objectives,
what will that look like?


I am not interested in using this platform to “talent hunt.” Instead I am hoping to foreground artists who have made a life out of their dedication to art making.


What excites you most with respect to the upcoming year?


Disappearing into Elaine DeKooning’s old studio on Long Island once the Biennial is launched next March.



gallery 16 installatio view 1

Michelle Grabner and Brad Killam, “Down Block”, Steel, paint, gesso, wood, 2010. Courtesy Gallery 16.

Now to the broken hearts question — given the incredible number of artists
you have worked with over the years, have you had to change your phone number since you were announced as a Biennial curator?


Nope. But my inbox is endlessly populating with unsolicited jpegs.


And the autopsy question! The art-world is strewn like a battlefield with the
corpses of previous Biennial curators. What motivates your decision to do it
given it’s such a thankless job?


It didn’t even occur to me that I could say “no.” This is a big deal and a chance to shape it
from an artist’s perspective. Besides, I get to walk away from that pile of corpses and head to my studio in hopes of someday landing on the other pile of corpses, that of previous Biennial artists.


Does the body count of former curators simply point to the inherent subjectivity of these endeavors?


Over the years, the institution has selected curators for various reasons. Early on in the
Biennial’s history, curators were practical, in-house choices, sometimes with advisory teams. Obviously in the recent past there was a move toward celebrity curators with international reputations. But happily even this is changing. In 2012 and 2014, the institution selected curators who represent the contextual shifts going on in the contemporary arts. It is not a coincidence that none of the 2014 curators are from New York City. Regardless, there will always be a body count as long as curators are named. The first Biennial Exhibition (1973) was curated by its “curatorial staff.”


Will you wear your Packers knit cap to the Biennial opening?


You will see a green and gold knit cap on my noggin even if the Giants win the Superbowl in February.


This interview was featured in Issue 13 of SFAQ’s print publication.