Arts The Big Show
In tomorrow’s Stranger, I write about the big, fat Whitney Biennial 2006 at the Whitney Museum of American Art in NY, one of those shows that far-flung critics are supposed to flock to, because if you don’t, you’re the girl who missed the biggest slumber party of freshman year and will misunderstand references to it forevermore. The biennial, as Calvin Tomkins says, is “the closest thing to a national salon.” Journalistically speaking, it is the type of story that far-flung critics flock to and then pronounce irrelevant, and following this logic, the learning curve should curb the flocking, but actually, this ritual exercise is a passive aggression that only an arts journalist outside of New York can love. The flurry of stories that come out after the show are as much a performance as the exhibition itself.
Snubs are always the most fun, and these come this time from Peter Schjeldahl of the New Yorker, who hasn’t even reviewed the thing in full; Christopher Knight, the salty, crusading Getty reformer at the LAT; and Modern Art Notes blogger Tyler Green. On the other side of the aisle are the incomparable, salty-with-a-soul Jerry Saltz for the Voice, and NYT’s loosey-goosey Michael Kimmelman.
The complaints go like this: The art is ugly. The show is sprawling. It’s also too small, because a single show is incapable of providing a panoramic view of American artmaking over the last two years. And hey! Those curators are European-born.
Complaining makes for good reading, but—my apologies—I did not complain much in The Stranger simply because I was not so moved. I did not find the art abusively ugly. The installation was, but it’s less important. And who cares about a panorama? Considering the state of the world, I’d like a manifesto, an organizing principle, or at the very least, a mood capable of being argumentative, thank you very much. If I have to drop the “best-of” concept in order to get it, so much the better, considering the arbitrariness and provinciality of the “American” (read: NY/LA) art world. This was the first themed biennial, and the theme wasn’t a constricting presence but a rich and lovely metaphor—Day For Night, describing the filmic technique of shooting nighttime scenes during the day with filters—that eloquently supported a core of works grappling with the dark forests of contemporary American business, popular culture, and foreign policy.
I disagreed with most of Knight’s close readings and I found his call for the dismantling of the biennial predictable and overstated, but I love how far he is reaching on behalf of art when he writes, “Had the museum organized—separate from the regularly scheduled biennial machine—a sharp, cogent theme show dissecting imperial U.S. ambitions and taking on an activist role, the exceptional effort might have galvanized attention.” It sounds like he and I want the same show, and I don’t care whether it comes in the form of a biennial or not. I simply had the feeling that this biennial was a halfhearted protest show. In the end, I couldn’t tell whether many of the artists were drifting toward apathy or activism.
My favorite review is Saltz’s. He writes in terms both aesthetic and political, and as always, in plain English:
“Day for Night” is the liveliest, brainiest, most self-conscious Whitney Biennial I have ever seen. In some ways it isn’t a biennial at all. Curators Chrissie Iles and Philippe Vergne have rebranded the biennial, presenting a thesis, not a snapshot, a proposition about art in a time when modernism is history and postmodernist rhetoric feels played out. This show, and the art world, are trying to do what America can’t or won’t do: Use its power wisely, innovatively, and with attitude; be engaged and, above all, not define being a citizen of the world narrowly.
The award for sharpest, most cogent diss goes to Green, who damns the show on strictly aesthetic terms:
The 2006 Whitney Biennial is an awesomely bad exhibition, an all-in presentation of a narrow strain of today’s art. … The show is full of hideous things that consciously reject the viewer’s first glance and don’t deserve a second. The show is badly installed, crowded and over-stuffed with curatorial gasbagging that turns wall text into wall essays. Finally, curators Chrissie Iles and Philippe Vergne apparently felt the need to compete with the artists, to create installation art out of groupings of artists in some kind of effort to say something. (Isn’t that what artists are for?) I suppose some of this is bound to happen when curators are compelled to prove the relevance of a tired concept. The Whitney Biennial needs to be gutted, almost destroyed, to be saved.
And most surely, the award for most creative review goes to Artnet’s Ben Davis, who wrote about the anonymously authored wall texts using images of those instead of the art:
We are told of (Anne) Collier’s “determination to continually test and subvert her own artistic practice.” Sure, just like everyone. Aside from containing a split infinitive, this last phrase is notable because it represents another key feature of these commentaries—they tell you how to feel or experience the art. Amid the hubbub of competing works, there’s clearly a fear that the viewer will not be able to stand still long enough to decipher any particular work. A nearly abstract Jennie Smith pencil drawing of strange creatures “is explicit in its relation to themes of ecological awareness and social change”—though apparently not so explicit that we don’t need to be told about it.
One last thought: Green has advocated that the biennial will not get the ventilation it needs to grow and mature unless it goes on tour. If it ever came to Seattle, the Frye Art Museum should host. After all, the Frye and the Whitney were born the same accidentally anti-establishmentarian way: by the rejection of the Man. In New York, the Whitneys offered their collection to the Metropolitan, and they were turned down, so they started their own eventual powerhouse. Once upon a time, the Seattle Art Museum didn’t want anything to do with the collection of Charles and Emma Frye, and now look what has happened—the place is hopping.