The Whitney Biennial is a train wreck with survivors. Of the 55 artists whose work is installed in the museum (not counting film, video, Web sites, and whatnot), 18 make an impression. About one-half of these make a very good impression. The rest might as well not be here.
What’s good is really good. The problem is, what’s bad is really bad. At times I felt like the little boy in The Sixth Sense who said, “I see dead people.” I kept seeing lifeless art. Like the poor souls in the movie who don’t know they are dead and can’t interact with anyone, these artists seem to be reworking aesthetic moments they can’t let go of. “If only I could talk to them,” I thought, “then they could disappear.”
The whole point of Biennial 2000 was to demonstrate that there’s a lot of good work outside the art centers—both stylistically and geographically—that never makes it into the big top that is this show. This premise was built into the design of the exhibition, with its six curators selected not only from outside the museum, but as representatives of different regions of the country. Not a bad idea on paper.
Maxwell Anderson’s controversial structure—born in a whirlwind of defections and something of a curatorial vacuum—created an enticing possibility for us insiders. We would walk into this Biennial as never before—as people who didn’t know many of the artists in the show. We would be surprised and informed.
On one level, we are. The demographics are evenhanded. Fifteen of the 55 artists were born outside the United States, 20 are women; almost that many are some degree of color. Ages range from 26 to 80. Several have been in Biennials before, and most have shown at least once in New York. About half live here, nine reside in California, seven in Texas, with the rest spread out over 10 states. Every Biennial should have stats like these, and maybe in the future they will.
Unfortunately, all this sounds better than it looks. This show has remarkably few surprises, and most of these aren’t that good. With several notable exceptions, too many of the underknown artists here turn out to be that way for a reason, which is the weakness of their work. This suggests two possible explanations. Either the centers are more permeable than we think—that is, “good art” finds a way to get known—or the curators were too narrow.
They advance mediocre examples of painting, sidestep hotbeds of photographic activity, dis L.A. by including only five of its middleweights, ignore artists who have recently proved themselves in the trenches, lend support to false and tired claims that these are so-so times when nothing good is going on, and fall back on networks of acceptable names like Hans Haacke, Krzysztof Wodiczko, and Luis Camnitzer (all born outside the U.S.). They should have been replaced with Takashi Murakami, Udomsak Krisanamis, Maurizio Cattelan, Mariko Mori, and Wolfgang Tillmans, all of whom hail from foreign shores, but have made the U.S. their part-time home. Have Camnitzer, Wodiczko, or Haacke (whose contested piece is tepid and academic) made more of a contribution in the last two years than Laura Owens, Alex Bag, Tom Friedman, or Elizabeth Peyton?
Obliviousness and piousness here masquerade as inclusiveness. Choices are egalitarian but moralistic; high-minded but slow of eye. The curators are interested in what’s out there, as long as it’s not too hot or controversial. Conservative to the core, they cut an unusually nerveless path through a safe center. They forget that there is no concept more at odds with art than fairness.
One of the best things about this show is how impeccably it’s installed. With ample real estate given over to walk-in video installations, but for a bottleneck or two, there’s a space for everything. Nothing is too messy. Only Sarah Sze’s startling, swirling double helix of a sculpture, which springs out of the Whitney’s trapezoidal cyclops window, seems untamed and out of control. Made of ladders, lights, mirrors, magnifying glasses, toothpicks, and thingamajigs, this untitled work, whose details have details, occupies space in a ravenous and forceful way.
In contrast to Sze’s unpredictability, or the three pieces by Robert Gober that show this supremely strange artist going in stranger directions still, E.V. Day’s exploded dress in the lobby is a one-liner. Chakaia Booker’s Pollock-meets-Lee Bontecou inner-tube wall work is well done but familiar. Similarly, Tara Donovan’s ripple-effect floor piece, made of a zillion snippets of cut electric cable, looks refined, but too much like generic installation art. And Rina Banerjee’s elegant mixed-media wall piece isn’t much better. Annette Lemieux’s figurative bits and pieces suggest this able artist is searching for the lost thread of her art.
The uncanny Sixth Sense feeling produced by these works is amplified on the fourth floor, where the curators lay out one of their ideas about painting. This subsection looks more like a university faculty show; there’s almost no juice here.
It is said that once tuberculosis comes to a region it never leaves. If that’s true, then academic formalist painting (unoriginal or derivative meditations on painting’s condition or process) is the tuberculosis of the art world, and one of the reasons this show feels so dead. The fourth floor offers a textbook example of that germ carried through three generations. There are the unremarkable abstractions of Suzan Frecon, 59; the boring almost-monochromes of Joseph Marioni, 57; the nondescript canvases with flies attached—perhaps the show’s low point—of Vernon Fisher, 57; the tall drapery-things, cast for no reason at all in bronze, by Joseph Havel, 46; the slick stripes of Linda Besemer, 43; the sexed-up but bland paintings of Ghada Amer, 37; and the flashy splash of Ingrid Calame, 35.
Several painters stand out. John Currin and Lisa Yuskavage look very good here. Both no-brainer picks (as are Gober and Sze), either could have been in the last Biennial, so their inclusion here is happy but not surprising. Yuskavage especially ups the ante of her surfaces, relinquishing some of their polish (references to Penthouse pinups in one work titled Day, however, could spell trouble). Richard Tuttle’s 12 paintings on wood are a burst of fresh air, while Trenton Doyle Hancock, 26, looks promising because of a single drawing with two cutout heads pasted to the surface.
You can forget photography, because the curators almost did. Of the few that are included, John Coplans looks good in four smallish pictures, but my favorite is Chris Verene, with pictures of middle-aged men who, under the guise of “camera clubs,” photograph seminaked younger women. It’s a voyeuristic view of voyeurism in which all parties look pathetic, playing out private fantasies and sexual stereotypes.
The video installations save this show. Their removal would trigger the equivalent of a fatal hemorrhage. Paul Pfeiffer, 34, is already one of those artists you can’t wait to see again. He looked good in P.S.1’s “Greater New York,” and looks great here. Pfeiffer contributes the most riveting image on view: the tiny, altered, silent video projection (fittingly titled after a Francis Bacon crucifixion) of basketball player Larry Johnson, as he is apparently wailing like a wounded animal, striding back and forth on an empty court, lights flashing all around him.
Doug Aitken, another no-brainer selection, who was in the last Biennial, and who won the International Prize at Venice last summer for the same piece on view here, provides one of this show’s high points. Electric Earth, a walk-in eight-screen video projection, features a young black man from New Jersey who moves through deserted urban L.A., imitating the wavelengths of objects around him. After twitching his hand to the sound of a dollar bill being rejected by a soft drink machine, he says, “This is the only now I get.” Also looking impressive in this arena are Dara Friedman, Carl Pope, and Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle.
This show makes you wonder what would have happened had ex-Whitney curator Thelma Goldin finished the job she started as the original curator of this Biennial. We’ll never know. As it is, the show is a triumph of mediocrity. Maybe the exhibition’s catalog cover, a scene from Aitken’s Electric Earth, is a metaphor for the entire proceedings. An empty shopping cart stands in a vacant parking lot. Sometimes you go into a supermarket looking for nourishment and still come out wanting.