Finally, the Whitney Biennial does everything everyone always complained it failed to do. It has curators on intimate terms with art being made outside New York. It has unexpected works by unfamiliar names, artists of color, and foreign-born artists. It’s not weighted with the predictable biggies, doesn’t play footsie with the art dealers, even makes a case for painting in a range of idiosyncratic modes from compulsively figurative to explosively abstract. It’s more intelligently installed than usual and stands up to the challenge of P.S.1’s hardly flawless “Greater New York.” What more could we ask? It even has the quasiscandal of Hans Haacke’s Sanitation, maligned before anyone laid eyes on it, indeed before Haacke had finished it (no wonder it’s tame).
Bravo? No way. Up pop the usual gripes about missing artists, unmemorable work, lack of theme. Never mind that hardly ever are there more than a handful of truly memorable works in any big survey (statistically speaking, 18 out of 55, crankily cited by Jerry Saltz in these pages, ain’t bad). And when did a Whitney Biennial ever have a theme? But that’s not the point, nor is the fact that this one is better and fresher than most. The point is that no matter what this Biennial did, the local heavies wouldn’t want to like it. The source of the pique is not really the art. It’s the meta-narrative: This bad guy from beyond, a suave art historian, no less—let’s call him Mad Max—came galloping into town, stormed the fortress, routed the rightful occupants, and hijacked the Biennial.
Even more unforgivable, he reinvented it in the image of the show we always wished it was (how Clintonian). So, of course, everyone is gunning for this Biennial, even if they don’t quite realize why. The Whitney’s not to blame if artists are veering toward the apolitical, the disembodied, the splattered, or the heartless. It’s not Max’s fault (though it may in a way be Rudy’s) that much new art with a capital A (for advanced and adventurous) is deserting our city or alighting from abroad. We’re in the decentered and porous 21st century now. The Whitney Biennial is not the show we love to hate anymore. We want it, we need it, but there’s no way the denizens of the New York art scene—smack in the middle of its own provincialism and convinced (like Parisians were in the ’60s) this is still the center of things—are ever going to love it.