"Best in decades" -- that's what the right people are saying about the 2004 Whitney Biennial. That's not to say no one is carping about it. If you Google the art journals, you'll find a couple of balloon poppers, but that's because in art circles, bashing the Whitney Biennial has been a popular blood sport for years. It started because a few of the shows bordered on the ridiculous and continued in part because writing's more lively when you're ferreting out flaws. Just saying "beautiful," and "amazing" doesn't make particularly good copy. How does a critic get noticed? By criticizing.
The Biennial's a staggering achievement that includes the work of 112 artists and dozens of off-site art events, everything from films to performance pieces, to concerts and interactive events, an installation of big sculptures in Central Park and the museum's roof, where neo Pop Artist Paul McCarthy installed a curvaceous blowup balloon. It turns the angular museum into a pedestal. A selection of Biennial artists' works are being presented in off-site locations, as well. In collaboration with the Biennial curators, Tom Eccles, Director and Curator of the Public Art Fund, has co-curated this off-site component of the Biennial, which will be organized by the Public Art Fund and will include a number of newly commissioned projects.
Remember that the participating artists are not pulled out of a hat; they're painstakingly selected after a thorough review of thousands of pieces of work in all media. Selecting and coordinating the off-site events is no small task, either, and so far everything has proceeded brilliantly.
As the Whitney directorship plays like musical chairs, the brilliant Maxwell L. Anderson, who put the show together, is now the former director. But that's the Whitney. The team of curators he put together -- Chrissie Iles, Debra Singer and Shamim M. Momin -- managed to weather the museum politics and personal differences in taste to come up with an exceedingly complex, high-level, and layered exhibition.
They mixed generations and familiar names with some exciting discoveries like photographer Alec Soth, and revived certain reputations that had fallen out of fashion. And of course, it wouldn't be the Whitney if the curators hadn't included some quirky personal choices. Generational jockeying seems to surface with young artists looking back nostalgically on the 1960s and 70's, as well as with the inclusion of some of their "ancestral figures." The show even includes some psychedelic installations created by today's young artists. The result of this mix is spirited, upbeat, often youthful, and high quality.
Unfortunately, Andrea Bowers, Sam Durant and Harrell Fletcher, among others, can't resist making political statements, which I consider poster art. Fine art tries to express the collective unconscious of a nation, not current events. However, the works of these artists do possess formal allure. And what art survey doesn't have its share of hothouse intellectuals and potent portent messengers.
There's a wistful quality to some of the younger artists' work, which, unlike some years, is highly skilled. These rising stars are entering a friendly marketplace, but the pizzazz of the commercial art world often makes new entrants feel estranged and useless, like products. In some of the work, one senses this undertone, and in others one finds an aimless nostalgia that seems to suggest the present is a disappointment.
Others are optimists. Catherine Opie, for example, photographs a community of California surfers at dawn in the gray half-light -- gorgeous images. Katy Grannan photographs strangers as she supposes they would wish to see themselves with a tender irony.
I was quite interested in Emily Jacir, who as a Palestinian-American who's free to travel both to Israel and to the Palestinian territories and who, in her work, tries to imagine a region beyond conflict. She documents small acts of individual grace she chances upon in her travels, records them in such a way as to say, "See? Peace is not impossible among men."
Overall, the show demonstrates a welcome return to painting and drawing, an international trend for the past five years or so. Drawing and painting are always around, but at times collectors are too busy buying video art or
conceptual pieces to notice. Now the collectors are in the drawing/painting game again, and this survey reflects the current enthusiasm. Some of the exhibited artists who reflect this trend are the revived David Hockney, Elizabeth Peyton, who borrows heavily from him, Dave Muller, Laura Owens, Amy Sillman, Laylah Ali, Ernesto Caivano and James Siena. All of them convey a kind of joy of process.
Many of the present biennial artists, young and old, blur distinctions among media, expanding on the concept of collage: drawings and paintings that resemble photographs and vice-versa. Some of the most successful of these include Banks Violette and Robert Longo. Jim Hodges creates photographs that, cut and folded, become like sculptures. Julianne Swartz' mixes media by including sound in her sculptures, and some artists, like Sharon Lockhart and Eve Sussman, create videos that mimic paintings.
Among the many standouts is Eric Wersley, a conceptual artist - sculptor hybrid, born, bred, living, and working in Los Angeles. He exhibits in New York, and friends have urged him to relocate. "Never," he says.
One of my favorite exhibitors is a lush painter named Cecily Brown, who's exhibited extensively around the country including in New York and California. The artist describes her work as, "lush, frenetic orgies of potent color, at once vulgar and subtle." No way is this work vulgar; it's the rich expression of a true painterly sensibility.
Another artist whose work I admire is Banks Violette, a master of drawing, painting, photography, and sculpture. His subject matter is sometimes difficult -- X-ray like depictions of Kurt Cobain's head or ambiguous objects that seem vaguely reminiscent of torture. The artist says, "I am concerned with what kind of frustrations are being navigated by this really angry seeming image, what kind of really basic human sorrow has to be compensated for by this type of language? Maybe not always sorrow, but I kind of gravitate towards a melancholic reading of things."
Cecily's work is joyful and sensual; Banks' is somber. There's room for both in the experience we call art.
David Altmejd's installation of bejeweled and rotting werewolf heads mounted on huge mirrored platforms, blends kinky sexuality with degeneration. In a way he reminds me of certain artists of the 60's and 70's, like Sol LeWitt and Lucas Samaras. Mark Handforth, a young installation artist, shows the influence of Richard Serra; various cartooning artists, like Zak Smith and Olav Westphalen, have affinities with R. Crumb, dealer Martin Muller's discovery about whom the award-winning documentary was made.
Divining ties between younger and older artists would be boring if it did not suggest something about cultural evolution, the clash of old notions and new, and their eventual reconciliation. It's also seemingly about notions of lost utopias, especially among the New York artists who have been living under the 9/11 shadow.
Conceptual artist Mel Bochner paints word associations, starting with words like nothing, mistake, stupid and meaningless, the associations becoming angrier and more obscene as he goes along. The words have a vivid color that suggests intense emotion.
I'm told the most popular piece in the show is Yayoi Kusama's mirrored room of colored lights and water. If you can make it to New York and see Yayoi's water and the rest of this thrilling show, do it; you'll come away stimulated and refreshed. If you can't, I urge you to order the beautifully done catalogue. The show will continue at the Whitney Museum of American Art, 945 Madison Avenue, at 75th Street, (212) 570-3676, through May 30.
2004 Biennial Exhibition: List of Artists
Antony and the Johnsons
Sam Green & Bill Siegel
Los Super Elegantes
Julie Atlas Muz
Brody Condon, and Joan
(the "Velvet-Strike" team)
Tracy and the Plastics (Wynne
Tam Van Tran