The U.S. Sends Two Unknowns to the Venice Biennale

With no Olympics in 2011, patriots wishing to cheer on America will have to be content with the thrilling international competition of the 54th Venice Biennale. The State Department traditionally sends blue-chip art stars to bear our standard–a strategy that saw Bruce Naumann bring the Golden Lion home to the American Pavilion in 2009–but next year they have chosen to present the mixed-media stylings of a pair of relative unknowns: Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla. So who the heck are they, and how did they snag the free Italian vacation?

According to Maxwell Anderson, whose Indianapolis Museum of Art put forward the winning application to run the U.S. Pavilion next summer, the process is “cloaked in secrecy.” The nearly 100-page proposal was considered by a National Endowment for the Arts panel and then reviewed by the State Department to make sure it would not damage our national image. (Reportedly, the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art applied to show James Franco.) That the government went for a proposal that promises, in Mr. Anderson’s words, an “adroit and specific critique [of] how Americans are seen in the world” was a surprise. President Obama’s first Biennale will be “self-critical,” he said. (Was the fix in? The Indianapolis Museum has also announced plans to display “Read My Pins: The pin collection” of former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.)

Born in Philadelphia and Havana, respectively, Ms. Allora and Mr. Caldazilla have worked together since 1995. In the past decade, they have trapped people inside of pianos at the Barbara Gladstone Gallery, built a musical army bunker and stuffed a white room with opera singers.

No matter how much noise they make, though, two lower-profile artists are less likely to successfully defend the American Golden Lion. Mr. Anderson, who not so long ago ran our own Whitney Museum of American Art, thinks his champions have as good a shot as anyone we could have sent. “Who knows about that?” he asked. “Those things are as political as any art prizes, aren’t they?” He said it was doubtful that the U.S. could possibly be given two in a row–a quitter’s attitude that may explain why he is working for the Indianapolis Museum of Art and not the Indianapolis Colts.

It might work out O.K., of course: Ms. Gladstone also reps superstars Matthew Barney and Anish Kapoor, no slackers.

W.M. Akers

The U.S. Sends Two Unknowns to the Venice Biennale