Advertisements for the 2008 Whitney Biennial promise a
show that will tell us "where American art stands today," although we
basically already know. A lot of new art stands in the booths of
international art fairs, where styles change fast, and one high-polish
item instantly replaces another. The turnover is great for business, but
it has made time-lag surveys like the biennial irrelevant as news.
Maybe this is changing with the iffy economy.
Several fairs, including Pulse in London, have recently suspended
operation. And this year we have a Whitney show that takes lowered
expectations — lessness, slowness, ephemerality, failure (in the words
of its young curators, Henriette Huldisch and Shamim M. Momin) — as its
A biennial for a recession-bound time? That's one impression it gives.
With more than 80 artists, this is the smallest edition of the show in a
while, and it feels that way, sparsely populated, even as it fills
three floors and more of the museum and continues at the Park Avenue
Armory, that moldering pile at 67th Street, with an ambitious program of
performance art (through March 23).
Past biennials have had a festive, party-time air. The 2004 show was all
bright, pop fizz; the one two years ago exuded a sexy, punk perfume.
The 2008 edition is, by contrast, an unglamorous, even prosaic affair.
The installation is plain and focused, with many artists given niches of
their own. The catalog is modest in design, with a long, idea-filled
essay by Ms. Momin, hard-working, but with hardly a stylistic grace note
in sight. A lot of the art is like this too: uncharismatic surfaces,
complicated back stories.
There are certainly dynamic elements. A saggy, elephantine black vinyl
sculpture by the Los Angeles artist Rodney McMillian is one. Phoebe
Washburn's floral ecosystem is another. Spike Lee's enthralling,
appalling HBO film about Katrina-wrecked New Orleans is a third. In
addition, certain armory performances — a 40-part vocal performance
organized by Marina Rosenfeld; Kembra Pfahler and her group, the
Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black commandeering the Drill Hall — should
make a splash.
But again, the overall tenor of the show is low-key, with work that
seems to be in a transitional, questioning mode, art as conversation
rather than as statement, testing this, trying that. Assemblage and
collage are popular. Collaboration is common. So are down-market
materials — plastic, plywood, plexiglass — and all kinds of found and
recycled ingredients, otherwise known as trash.
Jedediah Caesar, one of the show's 29 West Coast artists, encases studio
refuse — wood scraps, disposable coffee cups, old socks — in blocks of
resin for display. Charles Long makes spidery, Giacometti-esque
sculptures — the shapes are based on traces of bird droppings — from
plaster-covered debris. Cheyney Thompson cannibalizes his own gallery
shows to make new work. With thread and a box of nails Ry Rocklen
transforms an abandoned box spring into a bejeweled thing, iridescent if
the light is right.
Devotees of painting will be on a near-starvation diet, with the work of
only Joe Bradley, Mary Heilmann, Karen Kilimnik, Olivier Mosset and
(maybe) Mr. Thompson to sustain them. Hard-line believers in art as
visual pleasure will have, poor things, a bitter slog. But if the show
is heedless of traditional beauty, it is also firm in its faith in
artists as thinkers and makers rather than production-line workers
meeting market demands.
Not so long ago, Whitney biennials were little more than edited recaps
of gallery seasons. Much of the art in them had already been exhibited
in galleries and commercially preapproved. By contrast, the Whitney
commissioned the bulk of what appears in the 2008 biennial expressly for
the occasion. If some artists failed to meet curatorial hopes, others
seized the chance to push in new directions. Whatever the outcome, the
demonstration of institutional faith was important. It means that, for
better or worse, the new art in this show is genuinely new.
And new comes out of old. Almost every biennial includes a contingent of
influential elders. This one does. Ms. Heilmann is one. Her
pop-inflected, rigorously casual abstraction is a natural reference
point for Ms. Kilimnik's brushy historical fantasies, for Frances
Stark's free-associative collages, and for a very Heilmann-esque Rachel
Harrison piece that includes a harlequin-patterned sculpture and the
film "Pirates of the Caribbean" projected on the gallery wall. (Work by
Ms. Harrison is also in the New Museum's "Unmonumental: The Object in
the 21st Century," a show that overlaps the biennial's sensibility.)
The California Conceptualist John Baldessari — born in 1931 and deeply
networked into the art world — generates another, even wider sphere of
influence. His hybrid forms — not painting, not sculpture, not
photography, but some of each — offer a permissive model for a lot of
new art, from Mr. Bradley's figure-shaped abstract paintings to Patrick
Hill's tie-dyed sculptures to a multimedia installation by Mika Tajima
who, with Howie Chen, goes by the collaborative moniker New Humans.
Mr. Baldessari's use of fragmented Hollywood film stills in his work has
opened new paths for artists exploring narrative. And there's a wealth
of narrative in this biennial, much of it in film.
The video called "Can't Swallow It, Can't Spit It Out" by Harry
(Harriet) Dodge and Stanya Kahn, is a kind of lunatic's tour of an
abject and empty Los Angeles. Amy Granat and Drew Heitzler turn Goethe's
"Sorrows of Young Werther" into an Earth Art road trip. In a
multichannel video piece called "Cheese," with an elaborate, barnlike
setting, Mika Rottenberg updates a 19th-century story of seven sisters
who turned their freakishly long hair to enterprising ends.
And there's a beautiful new film by Javier Téllez, produced by Creative
Time, that dramatizes an old Indian parable about the uncertainties of
perception. In the film the artist introduces six blind New Yorkers to a
live elephant and records their impressions, derived through touch. The
encounters take place in what looks like the open, empty plaza in front
of a temple or church, though the building is actually the vacant
Depression-era bathhouse of the McCarren Park swimming pool in
Architecture and design form a subcategory of motifs in the biennial,
partly as a sendup of the luxe environments that much new art is
destined to inhabit, but also in line with the show's concern with
transience and ruin. Alice Könitz's faux-modernist furniture sculpture,
Matthew Brannon's wraparound graphics display, and Amanda Ross-Ho's
fiercely busy domestic ensembles all mine this critical vein.
But William Cordova's "House That Frank Lloyd Wright Built 4 Fred
Hampton and Mark Clark" makes a specific historical reference. An
openwork maze of wood risers, it may look unfinished, but it's as
complete as it needs to be: its basic outline replicates the footprint
of the Chicago apartment where two Black Panthers were ambushed and
killed in a predawn police raid in 1969. Here the scene of a stealth
attack is open for the world to see.
The passing of baldly political art from market fashion has been much
noted during the past decade. But the 2008 Biennial is a political show,
at least if you define politics, as Ms. Huldisch and Ms. Momin do, in
terms of indirection, ambiguity; questions asked, not answered; truth
that is and is not true.
An assemblage by Adler Guerrier impressionistically documents an
explosion of racial violence that scarred Miami Beach, near his home, in
1968. While Mr. Guerrier attributes the piece to a fictional collective
of African-American artists active around Miami at the time, the
collective, like the piece itself, is entirely his invention.
Omer Fast weaves together sex, lies, and a civilian shooting in Iraq in a
film-within-a-film based on actor-improvised memories. William E. Jones
takes a very personal tack on the subject of civilian surveillance by
recycling an old police video of illicit homosexual activity shot in an
Ohio men's room. The video dates from 1962, the year the artist, who is
gay, was born, and the police sting triggered a wave of antigay
sentiment in the town where he grew up.
There's more: videos by Natalia Almada and Robert Fenz dramatize, in
utterly different ways, the border politics of Mexican-United States
immigration. One of the show's largest pieces, "Divine Violence," by
Daniel Joseph Martinez, fills a substantial room with hundreds of gilded
plaques carrying the names of what Mr. Martinez labels terrorist
organizations, from Al Qaeda to tiny nationalist and religious groups.
Mr. Martinez, an extremely interesting artist, is making a return
biennial appearance. He contributed metal museum-admission tags reading
"I Can't Imagine Ever Wanting to Be White" to the famously political
biennial in 1993. (One of that show's curators, Thelma Golden, now
director of the Studio Museum in Harlem, is an adviser to the current
exhibition, along with Bill Horrigan of the Wexner Center for the Arts
at Ohio State University and Linda Norden, an independent curator.)
For a total immersion in the political and the personal, there's nothing
quite like Mr. Lee's television film "When the Levees Broke," which is
on continuous view in the show, though for me Coco Fusco's hourlong
video "Operation Atropos" is almost as powerful. For this exercise in
creative nonfiction, Ms. Fusco and six other women submitted to a
"prisoner-of-war interrogation-resistance program" conducted by former
United States military personnel. Technically, the whole program is a
species of docudrama performance, a highly specialized endurance
challenge. Even knowing that, the sight of men making women gradually
break down under pressure is hair-raising, as is a follow-up scene of
the women being briefed on how they can do the same to others.
The growing presence of women as military interrogators will be the
subject of a live performance by Ms. Fusco at the armory, the ideal
setting for it. And under the auspices of the nonprofit Art Production
Fund, several other biennial artists have made site-specific works in
the building's outsize, baronial, wood-paneled halls.
In one Olaf Breuning has mustered a cute army of teapots with lava-lamp
heads. Mario Ybarra Jr.'s "Scarface Museum," composed entirely of
memorabilia related to Brian De Palma's 1983 remake of that 1932
gangster film, is in another. In a third M K Guth, an artist from
Portland, Ore., invites visitors to participate in therapeutic
hair-braiding sessions, the hair being fake, the psychological benefits
Ms. Guth's project has a sweet, New Agey expansiveness that is atypical
for this year's hermetic, uningratiating show. Ms. Pfahler and the
Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black, with their teased wigs, low-budget
props and friends-of-friends underground roots are firmly in the 2008
picture. Ms. Pfahler's Biennial stint will include a seminar on an art
movement she recently founded. Based on the idea of the attraction of
abjection, it is called "Beautalism," and a fair amount of what is in
the Whitney show qualifies for inclusion.
"Whitney Biennial 2008" runs through June 1 at the Whitney Museum of
American Art, 945 Madison Avenue, at 75th Street, and through March 23
at the Park Avenue Armory at 67th Street.
By Holland Cotter
For The New York Times