Art: The Whitney Biennial: A Fiesta of Whining

Preachy and political, the Whitney Biennial celebrates sodden cant and cliche

  • Share
  • Read Later

It is an axiom that next to running the National Endowment for the Arts, curating the Whitney Biennial is the worst job in American culture. Every two years, the dread summons to represent the most vital and interesting currents in American art looms before the museum. Its curators do their stuff, and the result is nearly always the same: abuse from the art world and the fanged calumny of critics. "Every time I award a state commission," some 19th century French Minister of Culture was heard to sigh, "I create one ingrate and 20 malcontents."

During the 1980s, the Whitney was content to take dictation from dealers and collectors, so that its Biennials tended passively to reflect the fashions of the art market without showing more than an occasional glimmer of independent judgment. The 1993 version is different and scaled to a chastened art world. The sour taste of the collapsed '80s star system has galvanized the "new" Whitney, under its new director David A. Ross, into a veritable transport of social concern. This Biennial, assembled by a team of curators under the supervision of Elisabeth Sussman, is not a survey but a theme show. A saturnalia of political correctness, a long-winded immersion course in marginality -- the only cultural condition, as far as its reborn curators are concerned, that matters in the '90s. The aesthetic quality (that repressive, icky word again!) is for the most part feeble. The level of grievance and moral rhetoric, however, is stridently high.

Instead of the Artist as Star, we have the Artist as Victim, or as Victim's Representative. The key to the show, the skeptic might say, is its inclusion of the tape of the police bashing of Rodney King taken by George Holliday, a plumbing-parts salesman not known for his artistic aspirations before or since. The '93 Biennial is anxious to present all its artists as witnesses, just like Holliday. Witnesses to what? To their own feelings of exclusion and marginalization. To a world made bad for blacks, Latinos, gays, lesbians and women in general. It's one big fiesta of whining agitprop, in the midst of which a few genuine works of art and some sharp utterances (mainly in video) manage to survive.

The bulk of the show is video, photography, installations, a few sculptures and words on the wall. It contains enough useless, boring mock documentation to fill a small library. There are only eight painters out of 81 artists (Holliday brings the count to 82). But that's because it's more or less given that painting is a form of white male domination, implying "mastery." Indeed, the catalog presents quite a riff on this subject when it reflects on what might strike the unprepared visitor as the wretched pictorial ineptitude of such artists as Sue Williams, Raymond Pettibon, Mike Kelley and Karen Kilimnik. (Williams can't draw at all, although her installation The Sweet and Pungent Smell of Success includes a dandy splotch of plastic vomit.) Their work, says the catalog, "deliberately renounces success and power in favor of the degraded and dysfunctional, transforming deficiencies into something positive in true Warholian fashion." Presumably if they weren't vigilant with themselves, they might turn into teensy Titians, engorged with mastery.

  1. Previous Page
  2. 1
  3. 2
  4. 3