Michelle Grabner marries Midwest pragmatism to high art

Michelle Grabner outside of what will be her new gallery space in Riverwest.

Ken Hanson

Michelle Grabner outside of what will be her new gallery space in Riverwest

She made one plainspoken line after another, dragging her graphite pencil from the center point to the circle’s rim with the help of a straight edge. She tapped off the excess lead each time.

Slide. Tap, tap, tap. Slide. Tap, tap, tap.

Her daughter Ceal, her third child, sat nearby, covering a shoebox in pieces of brightly colored duct tape to make a rolling suitcase for one of her dolls.

Rip. Cut. Crinkle, crinkle, crinkle. Rip. Cut. Crinkle, crinkle, crinkle.

I didn’t notice the minimalist, mother-daughter composition, the percussive sound of hard work, until I got home and listened to the recorded interview.

That keep-your-head-down and do-the-work cadence has defined Grabner, one of the most influential figures in the art world today. She’s best known for curating the most recent Whitney Biennial, one of the most important and talked about showcases for contemporary art in the world.

Now, after a prodigious and at times controversial couple of years at the heart of the art world Grabner is making a beeline for the fringe. She’s returning to the welcome obscurity of Milwaukee, where she’ll live and runThe Suburban, an internationally respected gallery she owns with her husband, artist Brad Killam.

Grabner, a Wisconsin native, is both the consummate art world insider and an outsider, as at home writing philosophical criticism for Artforum as she is grilling brats for artists in a Packer T-shirt and cutoffs.

Her rising profile has been largely based on more recent and high profile doings — two big museum shows, representation at a major New York gallery, her time as chair at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago, her status as a critic in residence at Yale — but it’s the longer view, one that encompasses earlier years in Milwaukee, that is most telling.

A long, clear line can be drawn from friendships made years ago in Riverwest corner bars, upstart galleries and around her dining room table to the ideas and artists she’s championed.

She calls it “Milwaukee think,” a guiding philosophy and set of conditions that inform her way of being in the world and her work as a critic, artist, curator and professor.

“There comes a time when you want your audience to be profound as opposed to big,” said Grabner that day in her tidy, light-filled studio, where a poster of quarterback Aaron Rodgers hangs beside her artworks and Ceal’s, too.

For now, her studio is situated beside her home and art gallery in Oak Park, that Chicago suburb famous for another Wisconsin native, Frank Lloyd Wright, and his house-cum-work space.

The family will sell that compound, pull up stakes, and be living in Fox Point by fall. They’ll be much closer to the Poor Farm, the experimental art space they run in rural Waupaca County, and the gallery will open in Riverwest.

Back to Riverwest

“Anything but an art gallery” was scrawled in looping, purple letters on the sidewalk. Someone had declared a demand in spray paint in front of a burned-out laundromat in Riverwest.

Killam was inside, going over plans for converting the charred space into The Suburban, the gallery that will open in fall next door to Woodland Pattern Book Center, the haven for poetry and chapbook devotees.

It was one of the first pleasant days of the year. A man was screaming a half block away. Something about a parking space. Small children in pastel jumpers were scooping candy eggs into plastic Easter baskets, and neighbors were setting up for a block party.

Grabner and Ceal stood on the stoop outside, discussing where they’d root for the Badgers in the big showdown with the Kentucky Wildcats later.

Grabner showed me the sidewalk graffiti, delighted by the irony.

When a passerby asked whether someone had bought the building, Grabner told him they had. It seemed natural for her to leave it at that, offering no other details. She tends to do things on her own terms.

“We are coming back,” Grabner said though, seeming to inoculate herself against potential accusations of carpetbagging or gentrification. The streets of Riverwest are her intellectual home base, she says.

Grabner, who grew up in the Fox River Valley, started crafting a parallel art world here years ago, even while she was getting her master’s degree in art history at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in the `80s and through the 1990s, too.

She and Killam bought their first house on Gordon Place, near St. Casimir’s Church, for about $27,000. They had a tiny mortgage and two young sons then, Peter and Oliver.

She worked for a while as a nanny for Kathleen Woodward, the director of the then Center for Twentieth Century Studies at UWM and former wife of Washington Post journalist Bob Woodward. Grabner thought about a career in child care, but art history professor Jeffrey Hayes, a specialist in contemporary art and self-taught artists, won her over.

Grabner went to grad school with Dean Sobel, who would become a curator at the Milwaukee Art Museum, and Debra Brehmer, a local critic and editor of the culture mag Art Muscle. Grabner and Killam became chums with Peter Doroshenko, too. He founded Inova at UWM and organized a worldwide network of curators.

She’ll admit now that being a tough-minded feminist came easier when it was a purely academic exercise. Integrating her life as a mother and an artist was a challenge. Like farmers of a century ago for whom work and family were more entwined, Grabner and Killam worked to create something less compartmentalized, more whole.

In a marriage of high art and Midwestern pragmatism, they created a series of projects that involved the family directly, including one experimental film about changing diapers. And they gathered people around their home.

When their curator friends brought famous artists like Felix Gonzalez-TorresMaurizio Cattalan and Pierre Huygheto Milwaukee, the couple would host meals and get-togethers. Social and intellectual pursuits were one and the same.

“I feel like that whole scene kind of begins and ends with Brad and Michelle,” said Sobel, referring not only to the 1980s and `90s but some of what’s come out of that informal but influential culture since.

It was in that context that Grabner “grew up” intellectually with Nicholas Frank, she said, referring to close colleagues in familial terms as she does.

Frank opened the Hermetic Gallery then, showcasing challenging contemporary art. Everyone seemed to be in a band, like Frank’s The Singing Flowers. They played pickup gigs in corner pubs, amateurs who magically seemed to rise above their skill sets.

Grabner got to know Paul Druecke‘s work when he applied for a local grant. Grabner sat on a jury with artist Tom Bamberger and photographer Dick Blau, patriarchs of the art scene . Neither of the men were keen on Druecke, who was creating humble paintings with sticks back then. Grabner saw something they didn’t, though. She dug in. Druecke got his money.

Thanks to Sobel, her work was included in a museum show for the first time in 1995. “25 Painters” was an auspicious and tightly focused coterie of heavyweights and soon-to-be heavyweights. She and Killam were invited to organize their first museum show thanks to Sobel, too. They hung red-and-black checkered hunting jackets alongside a modest grouping of old paintings, a conceptual conceit that also had the intended effect of making people feel oddly at home.

It’s a legacy marked by idiosyncrasy and integrity, Druecke said.

“I can’t think of anyone else like her in the world,” said Sobel, now the director of the Clyfford Still Museum in Denver.

“There are no distinctions between everyday life, art, teaching… everything is creative for her,” he said, “and it was all there in the 1980s… none of what she is doing is different from what she’s been doing all along.”

Grabner’s curriculum

In the days leading up to last year’s Whitney Biennial in New York, a parade of preview parties were brimming with bankers, starlets and art-worlders.

Hours before the official opening, lines were forming outside the museum. But one last clique was ushered past the guards for an exclusive peek. They were from Wisconsin. Grabner’s mom and dad came to New York City for the first and presumably the only time. Siblings, aunts, uncles and other sundry kin — nearly 20 in all — were there, too.

Like many Midwestern families, the gathered Grabners represented the reaches of the political spectrum, with a few on the deepest blue side of the divide and more gravitating toward saturated red. Many find one another’s politics cringeworthy, Grabner said.

“But we’re family,” she added.

The Grabners huddled beneath a portrait of Barack Obama on the sprawling fourth floor of the museum. The image of the president, hung high as it might be in public schools or offices at the Department of Defense, signaled that they had entered Grabner’s classroom.

She called her show “a curriculum,” after all.

When she was young, Grabner assumed she’d end up a nurse, a nun or a teacher. Later, she fastened onto the idea of being an art teacher.

“When I see her up there talking, and I think of her as a little girl, I think wow she’s really come a long way,” said Grabner’s mom, Rosie. Her dad paints taxidermy fish. They call her “Shell” or “Shelly.”

With the same script she used for fat-cat collectors and critics, Grabner guided her family through the galleries and the persistent philosophical questions about art that interest her. Ceal was often up front, listening carefully to her mom but confidently wandering off to do her own looking, too.

While the biennial can be a showplace for rapidly shifting fashions in art, Grabner was rescuing and relishing old questions, ideas that track back to her 1987 master’s thesis and beyond. She talked about the ways we “feel our way through the world” today, mentioning how terrorism threat levels are doled out in colors: red, orange, yellow and so on.

She pointed out a work by a little-known artist from Menasha, Philip Vanderhyden, and his project to resurrect an `80s sculpture about the churn of mass media.

She told them not to miss the historical markers Druecke made, incorporating scrawled graffiti from a sidewalk and using commemorative language in a poetic way. Like official looking plaques that blend into the cityscape, they were all but invisible to many visitors.

“How deeply moved I was to see Paul’s work in that context,” said Frank, who wrote an essay for the exhibition catalog about David Foster Wallace, the late author whose notebooks were included in the biennial. Druecke’s work is, after all, ephemeral and doesn’t fit the gallery system, Frank said. The biennial never seemed like an option.

Many of the Grabners seemed drawn to the expressive, colorful paintings by women, of which there were many. Sterling Ruby’s giant, womb-like ceramic basins were a hit, as was a huge spill of yarn, a sculpture by Sheila Hicks.

Billy Joel’s “Piano Man” intoned from a back corner, a video work by David Robbins, Grabner’s longtime friend and intellectual compatriot. It was a comedic TV commercial for contemporary art featuring an entertainer plunking at the keys at Milwaukee’s airport.

When the tour was over, Grabner’s parents stepped into a room that had been turned into a giant camera obscura by artist Zoe Leonard, who placed a lens in a window, causing the Manhattan skyline to spill backwards and upside down onto the walls, ceiling and floor. The experience takes time. They waited for their eyes to adjust.

Throngs had crowded into the museum by that time, many consuming art voraciously and fast, racing through Leonard’s installation before their perceptions could possibly catch up.

Rosie and Michael Grabner sat on a bench and whispered about what they liked, works of art that reminded them of home for reasons they couldn’t quite pinpoint. They liked the “big stumps,” a glittery curtain with farm implements hanging from it, whittled pencils and rows of humble pots that seemed more poetic as a collection.

“Shelly likes simple things,” her mom said, adding that Grabner had meticulously kept collections of plants as a girl. “She’s always been like that.”

Small acts of labor

After hours of work, Grabner had completed a fraction of her tondo, a work that no matter how subtle and contemporary has the faint echo of all of those circular paintings of the Madonna and child from the Renaissance.

Black. Abstract. Minimalist. She’s been making these artworks for a decade now, using her formulas, a series repetitive, mundane moves. It’s like handiwork, one line after another, one dot after another.

It’s as if she’s making a point, there’s no dramatic, testosterone-fueled flourishes here, just small acts of labor, the kinds that make the world, like stitches sewn and seeds planted.

“Specialness is for others,” she once wrote.

She was making a tondo for every artist she included in the biennial, an act of friendship, the kind of non-institutional move that raises hackles among some about conflicts of interest.

Ceal was with us still, content and watching “Gilligan’s Island” with her headphones on.

It was not long after the biennial had opened but before Grabner would become a controversial figure a few times over, first for being dismissed as “soccer mom” by a New York Times critic and later finding herself at the center of a poignant discussion about race.

A predictable barrage of biennial takedowns had been hitting the press. Grabner’s contribution to the show, which had two other guest curators, each taking a floor of the museum, had fared the best. Still, the show was called “unadulterated (expletive deleted)” by the Huffington Post and the biennial of “angry women” by The New Inquiry, to name a few chestnuts.

Grabner, the first working artist to curate the biennial, which got its start in the 1930s, was angry that day. Too many critics had been caught up in the curatorial conceits rather that the art.

“It’s just lazy ass,” she said, in a kind of motherly defense of artists. “Throw me under the bus, I don’t care, butlook at what these artists have done.”

She hoped her curatorial choices would crack open some important discussions, including about institutional racism. She suggested a symposium on the subject, in fact, but the Whitney didn’t bite. Reactions in the press were delayed and hotheaded, she said.

For Grabner, who is about to open her first solo show at an encyclopedic museum, the Indianapolis Museum of Art, Milwaukee is a “reset button.” It is a welcome distance from an art world weighed down by its hierarchies and orthodoxies, a bunch of people working a clearly failed system.

Milwaukee represents a hand-built system, one that is both subversive and sincere. It is a place to get things done. It’s a place to work, she said.

Mary Louise Schumacher is the Journal Sentinel’s art and architecture critic. Email her at mschumacher@journalsentinel.com. Follow her on Twitter (@artcity) and Facebook (www.facebook.com/artcity).

About Mary Louise Schumacher

author thumbnailMary Louise Schumacher is the Journal Sentinel’s art and architecture critic. She writes about culture, design, the urban landscape and Milwaukee’s creative community. Art City is her award-winning cultural page and a community of more than 20 contributing writers and artists.

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