The Whitney Biennial

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A sobering thought struck me the other day. In the 10 years that I have lived in New York, not once have I seen a Whitney Biennial I liked, never mind one I could defend. "Why should that be?" I wondered, as I made my way up Madison Ave. for a second viewing of this year's model.

It can't really be that I'm getting older (I've become, if anything, less demanding with age). It can't be, as a few lazy reviewers suggested after the 2000 Biennial, that the Whitney's poorer showings actually reflect the state of the artistic union (there is too much good contemporary work in museums, galleries and artists' studios to believe that nonsense). It can't be that the Whitney Biennial as an idea?as some folks seem to argue today?requires a lowering of critical expectations to meet this underachieving survey halfway (few people would seriously make the same argument for similar exhibitions). So what is it, then, that regularly makes this, the United States' premiere biennial of contemporary art, consistently such an irredeemable mess?

For one, there is the ur-American expectation that the Biennial be representative not of the best work produced in the U.S., but of the nation's shifting demographics, passing value from the work itself to the question of who made the work. There is the perennially uncritical love affair with fleeting countercultural trends and subcultures, a mirror image of savvy corporate marketing strategies and our widespread national obsession with youth (few people understand that not all countercultures are created equal or that, since the easily co-opted 1960s, these seem only to get dafter and more commercial every year). And then there is what can only be called our prevailing postminimal curatorial orthodoxy: an unmovable rock of an ideology, holding sway from here to Kuala Lumpur, that implicitly declares that the ideas behind an exhibition are more important than the particular forms through which they are conveyed.

Curiously enough, the ideas animating this year's Biennial are remarkably positive and generous, especially when one compares them to the Biennials of the last decade. Not so, unfortunately, the rambling, anemic art that illustrates the exhibition's otherwise interesting and even thoughtful curatorial notions. For every mention the exhibition catalog makes of the "powerful sense of conviction" and "sincerity" chief curator Larry Rinder sought out for the 2002 Whitney Biennial, there are seemingly a dozen works, each more bloodless than the next, that illustrate the institution's fundamental overreach and its classically academic contempt for art that engages either serious esthetics or, unbelievably enough, objecthood. This is after all 2002!

Fuller than ever of ephemeral performance pieces, conceptual film and video projects, muted sound works, unsightly and meandering computer displays (Whatever happened to Frank Gillette's dictum that art dealing with new technologies only comes into its own when it is used with the ease of a pencil?) and loads of retinally challenged art, the 2002 Whitney Biennial presents the plainest and most polite of Janus faces to an expectant public. Oh, it promises great things on paper, but what it delivers is tried, tepid or run of the mill. For those who have long been clamoring for greater pluralism, a multiplicity of mediums and new youthful faces in their contemporary art, this should, by all lights, be their Biennial. As the drunk at the bar of the Titanic said, "I asked for ice, but this is ridiculous."

Of the 113 artists on view inside the museum (only 51 of these are not in the film and video program or otherwise involved in live performances, sound or digital installations) and the far more successful curatorial in Central Park, few manage work that, as one intelligent observer put it, is not "with precedent." Among the few artists who buck this general trend are Robert Lazzarini, whose anamorphically distorted telephone booth defies our sense of the real with uncanny precision; Christian Jankowski, whose perfectly hilarious bleed of art into life features a televangelist expounding the virtues of contemporary art to a live audience; the late Margaret Kilgallen, whose sprawling, graffiti-inspired installation of boho street scenes raises her sad-sack art way beyond the sociology of a subculture; Stephen Dean, whose video installation Pulse captures a dazzlingly chromatic Indian festival in which celebrants toss handfuls of pigment at each other; and Roxy Paine, whose 5000-pound stainless-steel tree in Central Park is by far the exhibition's best piece and should be tapped for the Biennial's $100,000 Bucksbaum Award.

Long on innovation, conceptual grounding and visuality, these artists are the exception that confirms the rule. Other names that bear mentioning are Evan Holloway, Anne Wilson, Peter Sarkisian, Luis Gispert, Jim Campbell and Yun-Fei Ji. Each of these artists contributes several works of notable interest and novelty to a Biennial sorely lacking both. The rule, on the other hand, is upheld by a long list of works by other, often very young artists, many of them from outside New York. A spotty trend in Biennial-making that was picked up in 2000 and pushed further by this year's curators, the impulse to look outside New York and L.A. for young talent is one of the cornerstones of a new and utterly shortsighted brand of curatorial populism.

Having failed to find much unadulterated, 70s-style, anticommercial conceptualism in "the market-dominated trends of the mainstream art world" (read: New York), the Whitney's curators cherry-picked it?albeit in a softer, user-friendly guise?from locales as far off as Birmingham, AL, and Brown Deer, WI. This partly explains why so much work in the Whitney's latest Biennial looks like it was copied straight out of illustrations in old books and art magazines. In looking "beyond the pale of the contemporary art world as it is normally defined" for work that fit their criteria, the Whitney's curators were bound to come up with one of two things: tin-eared versions of old hits or largely irrelevant outsider art. In the case of the present exhibition, as the results make perfectly clear, they got an unhealthy and unsightly dose of both.

The 2002 exhibition was, for many reasons, a Whitney Biennial that many (including myself) wanted to like. Coming on the heels of the dismissal of the museum's previous director and his curatorial team, it appeared to open up room for a break with the museum's predictable p.c. past (which it has) and for a more significant breach with curatorial business as usual (which it has not). Instead, this year's Biennial has muddied the waters a bit, skipped over an entire generation of acclaimed artists in the "mainstream art world," ruffled remarkably few feathers and once again reconfirmed the primacy of content over form?namely, the curator's content over the artist's form?as the guiding principle for exhibitions in "mainstream art world" institutions like the Whitney. Stuck between the end of relativistic postmodernism, to which curators and curatorial studies owe their very existence, and whatever comes next, the 2002 Whitney Biennial has merely gone halfway to putting sound, original ideas into practice.

"2002 Whitney Biennial," through May 26 at the Whitney Museum of American Art, 945 Madison Ave. (75th St.), 570-3676.

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