A Lame Whitney Biennial

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:53

    Whitney Biennial After a three-year wait, the departure of one director, the hiring of another, a public staff reshuffling worthy of an episode of Dallas and a recent media flap concerning New York's Mayor-turned-art-critic, the 2000 Whitney Biennial Exhibition has arrived to the unmitigated pleasure of some, the expected chagrin of others and the wholly unanticipated, head-scratching befuddlement of the majority of the art world. Truth be told, the artistic Hindenburg that is the Whitney's current roundup of American art never gets off the ground, not even for a second. Burdened by a lack of curatorial focus, an admirable if problematic attempt to limit the hegemony of New York and L.A., and a staggeringly provincial take on today's contemporary art, the 70th version of the Whitney Biennial plummets south before one can scream: Oh, the humanity!

    What is wrong with the exhibition? Well, in a word, the work. Studiedly avoiding the newest hot, young art stars and the attendant hype spun by their blue-chip Manhattan galleries, the latest experiment in Biennial-crafting reinvents the blockbuster exhibition in the guise of a regional show?of the sort held, say, at a state university art museum. Long on good intentions but appallingly short on results, the present Whitney Biennial sports work from what New Yorkers still rightly consider the artistic hinterland?Atlanta, San Antonio, Gary, IN?most of it very bad. To boot, the Whitney's attempt to connect to established, influential artists suffers from a set of terrible choices, arguing for present-day influence where there is virtually none to be found.

    How did this happen? Much of the blame is to be laid squarely at the feet of Whitney Museum director Maxwell Anderson. With him having turned the garrulous museum topsy-turvy since his arrival, the museum's biennial show was to be Anderson's signature achievement, his crowning glory. After middling-to-negative reviews of "The American Century," an unwieldy legacy from the museum's previous director, postmodern poster child David Ross, Anderson nervously bet the farm on a series of Whitney Biennial firsts.

    The 2000 biennial, for example, is the first biennial exhibition to include a section devoted to Internet art, long rumored to be a pet interest of the Whitney's pomaded director. The current biennial is also the first to actively dispense with strict matters of nationality by including 21 artists born in countries other than the U.S. (Hans Haacke, for example, this month's evil German, has lived and worked in New York for more than 20 years). But most important of all, the 2000 Whitney Biennial is the first such exhibition to be selected by a team of curators from outside the Whitney and, more significantly, entirely from outside New York.

    The curators Anderson handpicked to produce what he in hindsight calls "a national perspective" are: Michael Auping of the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth; Valerie Cassel of the Art Institute of Chicago; Hugh M. Davies of the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego; Jane Farver of MIT's List Visual Arts Center; Andrea Miller-Keller, an independent curator from Hartford; and Lawrence R. Rinder, previously of the California College of Arts and Crafts, now a spanking new appointment as curator of contemporary art at the Whitney ("he won the beauty contest," artnet editor Walter Robinson recently jibed).

    Veering wildly and reactively away from David Ross' one-curator-one-biennial formula, Anderson put his six regional curators in a room and told them each to pick 50 artists for inclusion among the 97 available slots in the 2000 exhibition. The results were astonishing: there were only three overlaps among the six lists. A measly three! Not sufficiently disturbed by this nearly absolute lack of concordance, Anderson and his highly "diverse" team caucused with an eye to "bring[ing] the collection into focus without finding the lowest common denominator." Twelve months after that fateful meeting, the 2000 Whitney Biennial opened with lowest common denominator written all over it.

    Witness, for example, the aggressively middling painting-cum-installation of William De Lottie (Eastford, CT); the astoundingly pointless film of two women opening and shutting doors by Dara Friedman (Miami); the perfectly pedestrian collage of post-its, napkins, business cards and notebook scraps by hearing-impaired "artist-philosopher-archivist-poet" (gee, what does he do in his free time?) Joseph Grigely (Jersey City); and the pseudo-political, abject-object filled room of Luis Caminitzer (Great Neck).

    But things get much, much worse. There is the godawful bronze drapery sculpture of Joseph Havel (Houston); the derivative, 80s-inspired arrangement of botanica knickknacks by Franco Mondini-Ruiz (San Antonio); the unhandsome Ab-Ex hand-me-downs of partially paralyzed artist Katherine Sherwood (Rodeo, CA; according to the catalog, Sherwood has come to depend on the therapeutic power of "art-making as a life-saving device"; lofty sentiments, certainly, but this artist is no Chuck Close); the kitschy, larger-than-life portraits of fictional opera divas by Kurt Kauper (Brooklyn); the stiff-as-a-board painted and gold-leaf panel of Suzan Frecon (NYC; Frecon offers the following pretentious chestnut to elucidate her obscure work: "A work of art can only be comprehended by looking at it?and no description is a substitute for this"); and the astoundingly self-righteous and cliched video record of a racial self-mutilation (the artist brands, surgically cuts and tattoos his body as "a battle cry for social and racial injustice") conducted by megalomaniacal Carl Pope (Indianapolis), a category-slinging, theory-babbling fellow with a ridiculously bloated sense of his own literal and symbolic importance.

    And what is Thornton Dial doing in a Whitney Biennial for chrissakes? Independently of whether one likes his overwrought, junk-filled "outsider art," there is no argument at all capable of inserting the work of this 72-year-old Alabaman into the fast-paced, highly recherche, novelty-obsessed world of contemporary art. What possible impact could the unspectacular work of a man who spent 45 years exhibiting in his own front yard have on the rarefied, self-sufficient world of contemporary galleries, museums and cutting-edge art spaces? The answer is none. How condescending is it to sling Dial into this biennial as a curio along with artists with whom he has virtually nothing in common? The answer here is extremely.

    There are certainly high points in this otherwise bottom-scraping monkey barrel of an exhibition. Out of 97 artists, the curatorial team entrusted with livening up the museum found exactly three gifted relative unknowns: there is the billowing, pool-like sculptural installation of Tara Donovan (Richmond), made from superfine, teased threads of electrical cable; the pretty watercolor droplets with which Laurie Reid (Berkeley) stains her large pieces of unframed paper; and the brightly colored "mug shots" of anonymous heads and houses by Chicano artist Salomon Huerta (Los Angeles). Aside from these, there are the more familiar names one is always glad to see: Ghada Amer, Linda Besemer, Ingrid Calame, Petah Coyne, John Currin, E.V. Day, Leandro Erlich (the best installation in the show), Josiah McElheny, Vik Muniz, Paul Pfeiffer, Chris Verene and Lisa Yuskavage. As for the Hans Haacke controversy: trust me, there is none.

    All in all an extremely disappointing biennial, though disappointing in a markedly different way from last decade's "I-Can't-Imagine-Ever-Wanting-to-Be-White" debacle. Freed from the ponderousness, programmatism and hypocrisy of 90s-style armchair ideology, the 2000 Whitney Biennial Exhibition looks back to the biennials of the 1970s for inspiration, a time when the edifying "educational" and "democratic" tenets of art still decreed that there should be and, therefore, was important art out there in the sticks. But a myth in the 1970s is still a myth today. There is no escaping the fact that the first, hugely anticipated Maxwell Anderson Biennial is, to invoke another 70s comparison, what Cleveland Symphony Orchestra recordings are to Leonard Bernstein's discs with the New York Philharmonic: a massive qualitative comedown.

    On a somber note: Artist Mark Lombardi died last week. He will be sorely missed by all those who knew him and were touched by his work and keen intelligence. We miss you and love you, man, wherever the hell you are.

    "The 2000 Whitney Biennial Exhibition," through June 4, 945 Madison Ave. (75th St.), 570-3676.