The Whitney Biennial: Art Sucks, Let’s Go Shopping


What do you do if you’re a compulsive shopper and sale time is still months away? While I mark the calendar, counting the weeks between now and the Fourth of July, when the overpriced clothes I covet will finally approach second-markdown status, I’m left with plenty of downtime.

So, wild with boredom, I decide to do what cultivated, intelligent people who don’t spend all their time shopping supposedly do: I go to a museum. I pick the Whitney, which I have always thought of as the square one (as opposed to the Guggenheim, the round one), because it’s the midst of its Biennial, a famous exhibit by young artists who are insufferably groovy and too cool for school.

I check the museum’s exact address on its website—I know it’s up near Prada somewhere—and notice that it has a program with the revolting name “Whitney Wees” that is meant to introduce the Biennial to four-year-olds. That’s probably just my speed, I think, since I spend most of my times in museums wanting a snack, visiting the gift shop, and looking for the bathroom.

But I’m not four—I’m a big grown-up girl and I can do this, I tell myself as I gawk at an installation on the very first floor, which is called Thearola and appears to be some kind of fucked-up theater with tons of unpopped popcorn on the floor, scattered video screens, and stupid hand-made signs that say things like “Filling with whole green peas by weight not volume.” I am giving myself a lecture on keeping an open mind as I step into the elevator—the doors say “The End” in gothic script—and alight on the fourth floor, where I am confronted with a big cardboard box with a sign in front that reads Sculptures Involuntaires. Behind it, a giant canvas features words that are painted to look like rivets expressing such sentiments as “No it can yes it is live do evil reveler.” A few feet away, streaky black letters on cheap white paper inform me that “Freedom must work for it” and “Truth must live with truth”; one flight down, an entire room is devoted to wooden panels on which are inscribed the names of organizations like “Shining Path Sendero Luminoso,” “Kurdistan Workers Party,” and the fanciful “Nuclei for Promoting Total Catastrophe.”

Hello? What is it with all this sermonizing? Call me a philistine, but what is with all these words? You don’t see me going around drawing a picture on my Voice page, do you? You’re supposed to be an artist, so stop with the inane sayings, OK? If you must, confine your pretentious musings to the title of your work, like the creator of While Enhancing a Diminishing Deep Down Thirst, the Juice Broke Loose (the Birth of a Soda Shop) has done. (This installation, big as your bedroom, is made up of wooden platforms, potted flowers, towels—some of which are wadded up on a windowsill nearby—and a lot of other stuff, including several large fish tanks through which Gatorade is being pumped and purified, though I would be hard-pressed to tell you exactly why.)

But perhaps the zenith—or nadir—of all this exposition is the vast display that is described thusly on the wall text: “The installation comprises outsized clay components created by the Biennal’s curators during a workshop in which they were given a full list of keywords attached to the stock images on view to choose from as they watched a performance by the artist on the rhetoric of new capitalism.” Lucky me: No similar performance on the rhetoric of new capitalism is taking place on the day I visit, but the fruits of the curators’ creativity are on display, mostly in the form of 3-D words spelling out “focus group,” “toothy smile,” and other non sequiturs in a substance that looks suspiciously like it’s ready for the pooper scooper.

When they aren’t writing the great American novel, Biennial artists are busy either a) making videos or b) deconstructing the detritus from construction sites. I completely ignore the former, even though they target such worthy topics as Hurricane Katrina. Pardon me, but I have a hard time believing that training a camera on someone and letting him or her talk while the camera rolls constitutes a work of art. (I once expressed this opinion to Jerry Saltz, the former art critic for the Voice. Saltz, up to that point a perfect gentleman in his dealings with me, broke down and called me an idiot.)

Not pausing to watch the films leaves me plenty of time to ponder the construction deconstructions, which range from unfurled wire-fence material to a bunch of cracked Lucite cubes stacked on top of FedEx boxes to a huge lump of resin, wood, and polystyrene that has been painted in rainbow colors to a glitter-topped discarded mattress. Taking up a fair amount of floor space is a pile of broken pieces of concrete, similarly glitter-topped, that remind me of the cobblestones that French students ripped up from Parisian streets and hurled at cops 40 years ago, during the famous uprising known as Mai ’68.

Of the many commemorations for those heady days taking place this month—the French jeweler Dinh Van has even issued a pendant in the shape of a rock (“Un bijou symbole de liberté, né en 68,” according to the designer)—my favorite is the small display of reproduction posters in the window of the Paul Smith store on Greene Street in Soho.

Here is the famous image of the raised fist that appears to be emerging from a burning building and has the legend La Lutte Continue; another banner shows a nasty rat and the words Action Civique Vermine Fasciste; still another has a drawing of a comrade being removed on a stretcher with the mordant caption L’ordre Regne.

Unfortunately, the posters are part of a gigantic book that Paul Smith is selling for $2,500, and of which there are only five copies in the U.S. Twenty-five hundred dollars? I asked the guy behind the counter. Is the money for charity or something?

He looks blank. He doesn’t think so, but he does tell me that in a moment of perfect symmetry, whoever has issued the book has made exactly 68 copies. (Well, that’s $170,000 if they all sell.) I’m about to walk out empty-handed when another clerk directs my attention to a jar on the counter containing $2 buttons with pictures of the posters. I rip the Whitney sticker off my velvet coat and pin on a La Lutte Continue badge. Who says I don’t like art?