Places, everybody. It's time again for the Whitney Biennial, that giant souk of contemporary culture-product trucked out every two years by the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City very often to be denounced immediately by the critics as yet another fiesta of the trivial, meretricious, illegible and dull.
In fact, it's rarely that bad. But because we still presume artists to be uniquely in touch with the spirit of their time, expectations around the Biennial become hopelessly inflated, notwithstanding that we know how rarely the show hits the mark. One of the earliest works by Bruce Nauman (who is not in this year's Biennial) was a wall piece that spelled out in neon light an earnest maxim, "The true artist helps the world by revealing mystic truths." It was simultaneously a put-on, a proclamation of faith and a wistful statement of a hope we have a hard time letting go of. When that's where the bar is set, what mere Biennial can possibly clear it?
The dauntless pair who put together this year's Biennial the independent curator Francesco Bonami and Gary Carrion-Murayari of the Whitney have had some fun with the show's perennial whipping-boy status by folding into the catalog several decades' worth of reviews, most of them bad, from the New York Times. They have also gone out of their way to lower expectations for this Biennial, which runs through May 30. Not only have they trimmed it down to a manageable 55 participants, but they also declined to impose a theme. They simply call their show "2010," as in "Here are some things that are happening now."
For the curators to refuse to offer a thread linking, say, Charles Ray's madly articulated ink drawings of flowers to Marianne Vitale's video of herself barking orders at us and to Suzan Frecon's monumental variations on color-field abstraction may seem like a dereliction of duty. Actually, it's a good idea. It's been decades since there's been a prevailing style or practice in art any more than there is in ice hockey. Like hockey, contemporary art doesn't advance; it just keeps going. But unlike hockey, it sometimes really does help the world by revealing mystic truths.
So how is this year's Biennial? Not bad. Sure enough, there are stretches that are trivial, meretricious, illegible and dull. But there are also things not to be missed. These would be three of them.
Next Nina Berman