American Bland Stand

I'm imagining a T-shirt: "I Went to the Whitney and All I Got Was This Lousy Biennial."

2002 is the Bland Biennial. It is a paean to lukewarm temperateness. To moderation, propriety, and dryness. On first encounter it looks handsome, spacious, and well installed. On repeat visits, it turns tepid.

Under the guise of "inclusiveness," allusions to getting "beyond the pale of the contemporary art world," and assurances that the art on view is about "truth," this exhibition says to the art world, "What you've been looking at is wrong; you should have been looking at this." What it says to the wider audience is worse: "You are not equipped to view what much of the art world views." To everyone it says: "Curb your enthusiasm."

A rare high point: Margaret Kilgallen's Main Drag (2001)
photo: Robin Holland
A rare high point: Margaret Kilgallen's Main Drag (2001)

Details

2002 Whitney Biennial
Whitney Museum of American Art
945 Madison Avenue
Through May 26

Inclusion seems to have been based on a mix of who made the work and what it's about, rather than how it was made. Ideas are more important than experience. Which is a prescription for failure. As the army says, "Ideas are like assholes: Everybody has one."

Lawrence R. Rinder, the chief curator and main mind behind this year's Biennial, is, like George W. Bush, a "protectionist" trying to make it easier for his products to find their way to the marketplace. Like Dick Cheney, who wants to "open up the process" of drilling for oil, Rinder wants to "open up the research process" of curating a Biennial.

I think everyone agrees that art is coming from all over, that it isn't any one thing, and that a curator's job is to see what's out there. But surely, American art is in better shape than this.

The 2002 Biennial is the one everyone wanted to like. The one that, on paper, is more interested in discovering new artists than validating known ones; that is long on names and short on name recognition; that tries to transform center stage into alternative space and make up for the wreck of the last Biennial. Unfortunately, this show makes that one look good.

Excluding the film and video program, live performances, and the sound and digital pieces scattered about the exhibition (and five sculptures in Central Park), the work of 51 artists is installed throughout the museum. The stats and demographics for the two Biennials are nearly identical, except for a precipitous drop in the number of women artists (from 20 in 2000 to 11 this year). Seventeen artists were born outside the U.S.; about that many are some degree of color. Ages range from 28 to 66, with 23 artists in their thirties—making this the youngest Biennial in memory (appropriate for a 40-year-old curator). There are six artistic collaborations.

As for geography, the curator writes that he wanted to break the "New York-L.A. axis." Unhappily, he only breaks the L.A. half. Twenty-five of the individual artists are from New York; a paltry three are from Los Angeles (down two from 2000, and only one more than from Sante Fe). Which may be grounds for L.A. to secede from the art world and declare war on the Whitney. Northern California, meanwhile, where Rinder formerly lived and worked, boasts eight inclusions.

Evincing an off-putting habit, this curator consistently scorns "the market-dominated trends of the mainstream art world." Statements like this, combined with the scads of better artists he ignored, make this show come off as irresponsible.

This curator is as "market dominated" and "mainstream" as the next person. The work he chooses is eminently saleable. His agendas are just a little less transparent; his outside, more inside than it seems. Of the artists on view, three were in Rinder's "BitStreams" exhibition at this museum last season; several were in the Whitney's "American Century" show or in previous Biennials. Some have had retrospectives. One is a MacArthur fellow, and most have exhibited in New York galleries.

The main problem may be one of bad taste. Witness the hokey multimedia installations by Ken Feingold and Peter Sarkisian (this generation's Bill Viola). Or the conservatism reflected in Lauretta Vinciarelli's refined watercolors.

When it comes to painting, things get worse. Ouattara Watts contributes four impressive-looking, Schnabel-esque canvases (one even sports the pretentious title Face of God). You could argue that Schnabel took from African art and now an African artist is taking back. But that wouldn't make these works more original. The black-and-white paintings of Conor McGrady, purportedly about religious and political themes, are little more than illustrative. As are the blurry, cartoonlike canvases of Gerry Snyder. The almost-monochromes of John Zurier are well done, as are the stained-glass works by Judith Schaechter and the ink brush paintings of Yun-Fei Ji. But none of these artists hold the wall. The label that informs us that Peter Williams is an African American amputee doesn't make his otherwise skillful paintings less generic.

Rinder does have a feel for the recent graffiti-inspired work emanating from San Francisco, as can be seen in the vivacious, posthumous installation of Margaret Kilgallen and the over-the-top stairwell paintings by Chris Johanson—two of the higher points in the show. Trenton Doyle Hancock, whose complex narrative canvases looked promising in the last Biennial, delivers on that promise here. The spiderweb paintings of Vija Celmins and abstract quilts of Rosie Lee Tompkins—two of the oldest artists on view—are great.

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