Two Watershed Shows About 1993 Help Make Sense of 2023

A lot happened in the early 1990s: In about four years, the world saw the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Gulf War, a bombing of the World Trade Center, the beating of Rodney King and the riots that roiled Los Angeles, a peak in the AIDS crisis, a market crash, and the withdrawal of funding of controversial artists by the National Endowment of the Arts as part of a larger culture war.

In the wake of these events — just a partial list — two exhibitions on opposite coasts seemed to metabolize the tumultuous moment. One was the controversial, even infamous, 1993 Whitney Biennial, curated by Elisabeth Sussman along with Thelma Golden, John G. Hanhardt and Lisa Phillips. Often labeled the “multicultural” or “identity politics” biennial, it was excoriated by critics for seeming to privilege diversity over “artistic merit.”

The other exhibition was “The Theater of Refusal: Black Art and Mainstream Criticism” at the Fine Arts Gallery (now the University Art Gallery) of the University of California, Irvine. Organized by the artist Charles Gaines and the artist and writer Catherine Lord, it looked at the way art world structures — including art criticism — relegated artists of color to the margins.

Installation for “The Theater of Refusal: Black Art and Mainstream Criticism,” 1993, organized by Charles Gaines at the University of California, Irvine. Artists, from left: David Hammons, Renée Green, Gary Simmons, Pat Ward Williams. Credit…Catherine Opie

Thirty years later, at a moment where we seem to be dealing with so many of the same issues — pandemic, realignment of geopolitical boundaries, war, police brutality, economic crisis — “RETROaction,” at Hauser & Wirth, revisits these two art world events. It is curated by Kate Fowle, the former director of MoMA PS1 who joined Hauser & Wirth in March, in a collaboration with Gaines, Homi Bhabha, a Harvard professor and contributor to the ’93 Biennial catalog, and the art historian Ellen Tani. The show asks how to interpret 1993 today — artistically, critically and politically.

In a recent conversation, Fowle said the idea for the presentation was inspired by the large number of artists represented by the gallery who had participated in one — and sometimes both — shows, among them Lorna Simpson, Glenn Ligon, Gary Simmons, Cindy Sherman and Gaines himself. “It felt important to see these two things in relation now,” she said. “You can start to juxtapose things that weren’t necessarily related but were aligned in time and in intention.”

The first two floors of Hauser & Wirth on East 69th Street are devoted to the 1993 Biennial. Fowle invited the six living artists on the gallery’s roster who participated to choose their works from that time. (Curators added original art by Ida Applebroog and Mike Kelley, who died.) The contemporary resonances are sometimes startling. Many of the works seem like they could have been made yesterday, not three decades ago.

Cindy Sherman, “Untitled #245,” 1991. Chromogenic color print in “RETROaction.” Original photos in the 1993 Whitney Biennial responded obliquely to the history of slavery in South Carolina. Credit…Cindy Sherman, via Hauser & Wirth

Back in 1993, Ligon showed “Notes on the Margin of the Black Book” (1991-93), in which he juxtaposed his written reflections with Robert Mapplethorpe’s compilation of idealized, homoerotic photographs of nude Black men, interrupting the photographer’s white male gaze for his own Black and queer response.

In “RETROaction,” we now find Ligon’s “Red Portfolio” (1993) — a suite of nine gelatin silver prints showing only printed text, with captions taking the place of images. The words are the religious broadcaster Pat Robertson’s descriptions of Mapplethorpe’s work, which he wrote to scare up donations for his Christian Coalition during this moment of gay panic. Some of the accounts conjure actual Mapplethorpe photos, while others are deeply, troublingly fictional. (One, for example, refers to a photo of a naked adult man alongside naked children, a subject Mappelthorpe never broached.)

Its resonance today — as anti-trans bills are being passed by legislatures around the country, and QAnon-fueled conspiracy theories obsessively revolve around accusations of pedophilia — couldn’t be clearer.

View today of the front window at Hauser & Wirth, with an example of Charles Gaines’s “Submerged Text” highlighting words and phrases from James Joyce’s “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” that he saw as “signifiers of race” and replacing everything else with numbers. Credit…Sarah Muehlbauer

A shipping label from the Whitney show is still stuck to the back of one of Ida Applebroog’s paintings. Her canvases are stretched over deep frames, allowing them to stand on the floor, hang on the wall, or to be grouped in different combinations with each new installation. Here, we find anodyne depictions of kids sitting on Santa’s lap, fathers playing with children, a lone cow. A man eats dumplings alongside Goya-esque images of threat and violence: a wire mannequin over which a Nazi uniform is draped, a man with his hands tied by leather straps, a middle-aged woman with pistols in both hands. Applebroog’s installation, conceived before most people were using the internet, seems to capture the cognitive dissonance of today’s social media feeds, where family photos and cat memes coexist with images that capture the horrors of war and the cruelties of daily existence.

Mike Kelley is represented here by large felt banners — replicas of posters he found around college campuses from the nerdiest organizations, calling for amateur actors to take part in a Christian drama, an LGB (no T) mixer, or a luau meant to “strengthen and preserve the race.” His creations are laconic and sly, homing in on moments that contradict the macho football culture that still plagues many educational institutions. Pay attention to the details and one becomes aware of the ways in which universities are ideological battlegrounds.

Mike Kelley’s felt banner, “Untitled (6th Annual Luau),” 1993, in “RETROaction” at Hauser & Wirth.Credit…Mike Kelley Foundation for the Arts. All Rights Reserved/VAGA at ARS, NY

The purpose of “RETROaction,” according to Fowle and Bhabha, is not to relive 1993 at a 30-year remove. Nor is the show conceived as a mere retrospective, which implies, as Bhabha explained in a phone conversation, that we are looking back and assessing from a position of clarity. Rather, he said, the goal was to bring the past forward. It may seem like 1993 all over again, but the rise of ethnonationalism and the viral spread of new ideas via technology require different artistic and political strategies.

The critical response to the 1993 Biennial was almost shockingly narrow-minded: Many writers were furious that the exhibition included significantly fewer white men than usual. A critic from the Christian Science Monitor surmised that Sussman’s aim was to fashion a show that looks “like a waiting room at the Immigration and Naturalization Service.” It was too politically correct, too little focused on visual pleasure, too whiny, not interested enough in painting, too willing to sacrifice quality for good intentions — a “theme park of the oppressed,” as one of the many unimpressed observers put it.

“Theater of Refusal” opened at the University of California, Irvine, a month and a half after the Biennial opened in New York, though Gaines had conceived it four years earlier. In our conversation, he said it took aim at critical language that defined Black artists’ work in stereotypical terms and refused to see past artists’ identities to find deeper conceptual and aesthetic meaning. The riot of art writing around the 1993 Biennial found its way into the catalog of “Theater of Refusal” because it was so relevant to the show’s theme.

From “RETROaction,” left: Charles Gaines, “Submerged Text: Signifiers of Race #1,” 1991. Center: Lorna Simpson, “Screen 3,” 1986. Right: Zoe Leonard, “Mirror No. 1 (Metropolitan Museum),” 1990.Credit…Sarah Muehlbauer/Hauser & Wirth

The presentation was, as Gaines puts it, “pedagogical.” Works included were by Jean-Michel Basquiat, Renée Green, David Hammons, Ben Patterson, Adrian Piper, Sandra Rowe, Gary Simmons, Lorna Simpson, Carrie Mae Weems, Pat Ward Williams and Fred Wilson, and they were presented alongside writings by prominent art critics about each artist’s work — some of the words or phrases highlighted in red to show the bias of the time. A few of the texts were clearly condescending, and occasionally outright racist, but most were harder to parse.

The point at the time was not to shame individual critics, but to draw attention to the way criticism faltered when it came to allowing different points of view into the mainstream art world, despite postmodernism’s promise of plurality.

The strategy developed out of Gaines’s own “Submerged Text” series from the early 1990s, a conceptual artwork in which Gaines took a section of writing from Kafka’s “The Castle” or James Joyce’s “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man,” highlighting words and phrases that he saw as “signifiers of race” and replacing everything else with numbers. The result demonstrates that no matter the intention of the artist, racial difference is baked into our language. (An example of the Joyce text is in the window of Hauser & Wirth.)

When Gaines and Tani were invited by the gallery to revisit the exhibition, their research led them to conclude that criticism has changed markedly over the past 30 years, with more critics of color writing about art, and an increased focus on artists’ interviews and essays in their own words over hard-hitting analysis — criticism no longer functions as a gatekeeper to art world success, they said. Nor is marginality the most pressing question for artists today, given the increasingly prominent place Black contemporary artists occupy now, Gaines told me.

Rashid Johnson’s “Monk,” from 2014. A scorched red oak painting surface holds a ghostly abstraction comprised of black soap and wax — the wood’s damage offset by the healing properties of those materials. Credit…via Rashid Johnson and Hauser & Wirth; Photo by Martin Parsekian

Instead, the curators decided to reimagine the show with four new artists to reflect what Gaines characterizes as a “decolonial” impulse in contemporary practice.

Rather than addressing racism head on, and thereby constantly “critiquing the status quo,” as the wall text says, Torkwase Dyson, Rashid Johnson, Kevin Beasley and Leslie Hewitt are exploring new approaches to Blackness. Their forms are often deeply abstract, even when they use everyday, recognizable materials.

What does remain consistent between the 1993 version and today’s installation is the presence of a reading room at the center of the show. Thirty years ago, the nook was filled with texts — mostly written by white men — that limned the landscape of criticism in which Black artists had to find their own footing. Today, we find a range of titles, largely by artists of color, that represent the touchstones of artists’ own thinking.

A contemporary remake of the 1993 show “The Theater of Refusal” includes, on floor, 2022 sculpture by Leslie Hewitt and 2023 sculptures by Torkwase Dyson on wall in wood graphite, acrylic and string.Credit…Matt Grubb/Hauser & Wirth

Blue-chip galleries have been the site of some genuinely museum-worthy exhibitions lately — “A Foreigner Called Picasso,” which runs through Feb. 10 at Gagosian (with loans from private and public collections) and “Roma/New York” at David Zwirner earlier this year are two examples. “RETROaction” is similarly ambitious, though much smaller. (The “Theater of Refusal” remake will be remounted in a larger form in the gallery’s Los Angeles outpost in February.) As Fowle, a museum alumna, admitted, such a historical reckoning could only have happened at a private gallery because of its independence from museums’ institutional histories and rivalries.

But that has its drawbacks. The eight Biennial artists in “RETROaction” — out of the 82 that participated back in the day — may have started on the margins but they ended up being represented by top-tier galleries. What is missing here is the work of some of the most interesting and provocative historical interventions, including Pat Ward Williams’s billboard-size photo of five young Black men, with the confrontational title spray painted over it: “What You Lookin At,” hung in the Whitney’s front window in 1993. And why not include Daniel Joseph Martinez, who created metal tags that museum visitors wore inside, printed with some combination of the words “I can’t imagine ever wanting to be white.” The critic who called the ’93 Biennial “a theme park of the oppressed” got one thing right: It did have a carnivalesque, even scrappy mood, artists doing what they could to fight for their lives. ‘‘RETROaction,” for all its interest, can’t quite capture that.

Installation view of the 1993 Whitney Biennial museum window on Madison Avenue with “What You Lookin At,” by Pat Ward Williams.Credit…Geoffrey Clements/Whitney Museum of American Art
At the 1993 Whitney Biennial, Daniel Joseph Martinez’s “Museum Tags” from 1993.Credit…Geoffrey Clements/Whitney Museum of American Art

And that’s what we need now, it seems to me — ideas for how to keep on creating. My conversations with artists over the past few months indicate that many are trying to figure out how their art can remain vital, relevant and enduring when the problems of the world loom so large. While “RETROaction” leaves a lot unsaid about the two groundbreaking 1993 shows, at least it underlines the fact that art is always political in its moment, whether you’re photographing models on a runway (as Zoe Leonard did in 1990) or making abstract bronze sculptures (as with Leslie Hewitt in 2022). For those of us spending more time doomscrolling than generating things lately, it’s a start — a reminder that, as Toni Morrison once said, it is precisely at times of dread that artists must go to work.


Through Jan. 27 (gallery reopens Jan. 2), Hauser & Wirth, 32 East 69th Street, 212-794-4970,

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