Several of the recent Whitney Biennials have aspired to something more than a display of "the latest in American Art," to cite the phrase used to advertise the current show. They have advanced various theses on the state of American art, and of the American soul, so to speak, so far as that can be inferred from changes in artistic practice during the previous two-year period. This can really be the only justification these days for restricting a show to American artists. For there is otherwise not a lot today to distinguish between the art made by Americans and the art made by anyone anywhere else. The art world has been globalized like the rest of life, and the kinds of things one sees at the great international exhibitions seldom divide along national lines. This year, the opening of the Whitney Biennial co-incided with the so-called Armory Show, installed on two long West Side piers–a kind of mall where upscale galleries from various countries displayed the artists they represent. The artists came from Germany, Scandinavia, China, South Africa, Latin America and elsewhere, as well as from the United States, but their work was on view primarily for purposes of acquisition. The Biennial seeks, by contrast, to spotlight talent, especially the sort of talent that has yet to achieve recognition, and so only a few of the artists in Biennial 2004 were in the Armory Show (which closed on March 16). The Biennial artists of today are the Armory Show artists of tomorrow. The current Biennial, however, sees itself as "reflecting what may be seen as a reinvigoration of contemporary American art at a moment of profound change in our cultural landscape," according to the museum’s press release–and for that one must confine oneself to American artists, who in every other respect are part of the global scene, and whose work fits seamlessly into art fairs like the Armory Show, as well as into biennials in Venice and Istanbul, Johannesburg and Havana, São Paulo, Sydney, Shanghai and beyond.
Let me briefly review some recent Whitney Biennials. The 1993 Biennial is the paradigmatic case of a show that engaged the moral consciousness of its visitors by emphasizing art that challenged it. The show offered a scathing depiction of American society, singling out for attack the injustices of class, race and gender. The most memorable display was the already famous tape of Rodney King being beaten by members of the LAPD, and the spirit of the show was embodied in the controversial admission tags designed by Daniel Martinez, which bore all or part of the message, "I can’t imagine ever wanting to be white."
Since the brave though flawed 1993 show, the Whitney has advanced its arguments less stridently. The 1995 Biennial was noted for a heavy representation of works exploring sexuality and the body, implying, again, that these reflected preoccupations in American society as a whole. The 1997 Biennial was far less monolithic and far more cosmopolitan than its two predecessors, and conveyed no message about America that I recall. The defining work of the 2000 Biennial was a somewhat heavy-handed installation by Hans Haacke that assailed Rudolph Giuliani for attacking the Brooklyn Museum, and compared him to Hitler. But the revelatory piece in the show was by Thornton Dial, a widely respected African-American "outsider artist" from Alabama, who was represented by part of a large multimedia work called The Death of Princess Di. What was interesting was less the fact that an outsider artist was included in the show than that no one would have known that The Death of Princess Di was by an outsider artist. It was perfectly imaginable that the same work could have been executed by an MFA candidate from Yale or RISD–not because it was so polished but because a lot of contemporary art had the raw, obsessive quality of outsider art. Since art schools no longer teach skills and MFA candidates have the option of making art any way they choose, the boundary between the self-taught and the highly taught artist has all but evaporated. And so there was little reason for the show’s curators to call attention to the fact that Dial was an outsider. The 2002 Biennial, for its part, was largely composed of little-known artists, selected because they were engaged in one or another quest for spiritual meaning, which reflected the mood of the nation after 9/11. Taken together, Whitney Biennials have not merely shown the latest in American art but provided a register of changes in American attitudes over the past decade, as seen through our art.
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The curators of the 2004 Biennial do have a thesis about at least the younger generation of American artists–namely, that they are in some respect interested in artists of earlier generations. This could imply a general thesis about American culture today, though the curators make no effort to draw this out. But it did lead them to design a show that they regard as intergenerational. "What conversation did you have about your conception of the Biennial before you began traveling around the country to visit artists’ studios?" Tim Griffin, editor in chief of Artforum, asked the show’s three curators–Shamim Momin, Chrissie Iles and Debora Singer–in a recent interview. "One thing we discussed from the beginning," Momin replied, "was that we wanted an intergenerational exhibition." The press release makes this intention explicit: "The exhibition [aims] to present prominent artistic trends in new intergenerational work," it states, stressing that "the intergenerational premise of the show is evident throughout."
Is this such a revelatory or even novel premise? The Armory Show displays artists from different generations as a matter of course. After all, earlier artists like Warhol and Mapplethorpe are greatly in demand. And most past Biennials showed work by artists of different generations as well, without this having been highlighted as a theme. What makes the "intergenerational" aspects of the 2004 Biennial special?
I suppose the argument here is that there is some kind of an internal relationship between the generations shown. "We all noted that younger artists are very interested in the work of older artists from the ’60s and the ’70s. There is also renewed interest in the ’80s," says Chrissie Iles. The intergenerational character of the show could be achieved by showing, alongside the younger artists, the older artists in whom they have an interest. And indeed this Biennial includes 1960s and ’70s luminaries like David Hockney, Robert Mangold, Mel Bochner and Yayoi Kusama, along with 1980s stars such as Robert Longo, Jack Goldstein, Richard Prince and Mary Kelly. But the work of these veteran artists is not represented, as it would have been in past Biennials, to show what they have recently been up to, but rather to illustrate the ostensible interests of the younger generation, the real subject of the show.
The approach might truly be intergenerational if these interests were somehow manifest in their work. I can see how there is what curators like to call an "affinity" between Hockney as a portraitist and Elizabeth Peyton, whose work so far consists exclusively of portraits of pretty boys and girls. The drawings by Sam Durant (born 1960) of Black Panther demonstrations and protests at Columbia in 1968 can be explained through nostalgia for 1960s radicalism–but that is not the kind of intergenerationalism at issue. I’m not suggesting there is no evidence in the work of such artists of what their elders have done, but it does not exactly hit you in the eye. The work shows all kinds of interest on their part, save for the kind of interest the concept of intergenerationality would lead one to expect.
Griffin asks some hard questions in his Artforum interview. "Is it somewhat unique that a younger generation interested in art, culture, and politics would turn to previous decades instead of dealing directly with the here and now?" And: "Given this kind of looking back, what would you say this show is articulating about today?" The curators answered: "It’s specific threads coming together as a response to a moment in contemporary society marked by turbulent international politics and an economic downturn. But one critical aspect of that pervasive intensity, even anxiety, felt in the work is that there is a sense of the necessity of renewal and purpose in the work right now." Hence–I guess–looking back.
This is the kind of talk by art experts that makes ordinary people feel as if they know nothing about art. And there is scant evidence that this is what the art is about. Debora Singer concedes that "there isn’t so much work within the exhibition with direct political commentary, but, especially among younger artists, you see different rhetorical strategies–more masked and coded. Things are not so issue-based on the surface." Momin states that "the engagement is weirdly distant and yet simultaneously more immediate." I don’t believe this for a minute, and the older artists they are said to admire don’t take up politics in their work, even in a coded fashion. This isn’t an intergenerational show at all. Still, the premise did give the curators a reason to include some wonderful work by older artists.
Jack Goldstein’s film Under Water Sea Fantasy, which he began working on in 1983 and finished just before his suicide last year, is six and a half minutes of pure beauty. Richard Hertz recently published transcripts of Goldstein’s unhappy recollections of his life in the art world of the 1980s, along with interviews with many who knew him, in a sobering book, Jack Goldstein and the CalArts Mafia. The film is a visual poem of fire, water, sea life and light, and I sat through it three times, trying to reconcile its vision with the whining self-pity that comes through in Hertz’s text, and marveling at the disconnect between artists’ lives and their works. I have twice written about Robert Mangold’s brilliant Column Paintings, in which two or more sine curves enact a dance that integrates into their movement the edges of the sharply vertical panels in which the action takes place. Mel Bochner’s new works, which I like to refer to as "thesaurus paintings," consist in synonyms of the word that gives them their title, like Nothing, Mistake, Meaningless and others, all of which appear to belong to a philosophical, not to say metaphysical, vocabulary, whereas their vernacular synonyms can get pretty down and dirty. The words, separated by commas, are painted in neat capital letters, each in a different color, in rows across black canvas, which progressively empty the initial word of its portent while saying the same thing in more down-to-earth terms. In the painting called Nothing, the word NOTHING gives way to NEGATION, NONEXISTENCE, NOT-BEING and NONE–and the vocabulary gets slangier and more vulgar–ZIP, ZILCH, NIX, SQUAT, DIDDLYSHIT, GOOSE EGG, BUBKES–ending with PFFFT. The terminal comma hints that the list can go on. Nothing should be made into posters for your favorite existentialist’s study, and Meaningless would be just the thing for a logical positivist. Nobody–NOBODY–in any generation is in Bochner’s league when it comes to playing what logicians call use against mention in logical tableaux.
It’s not easy to generalize about the younger artists, in large part because it’s not easy to discern what they are getting at as individuals. I often accept invitations as visiting critic to one or another graduate school of art, mainly in order to find out what those about to enter the art world are thinking about. This varies from year to year, but it also varies from student to student. The students know a lot about what is going on in the art world, visiting shows, reading the art magazines, listening to talks by the artists who get invited to address them. Mainly they have their own ideas, and are finding ways to express them in visual terms. They read a lot, but often selectively–their bibliographies are defined by what they are looking for. Their knowledge tends to be extremely esoteric, making it difficult to know what thoughts are embodied in their work–much less to address their work critically–unless you spend some time with them, and learn what they are trying to do. They’re informed about the art of others, but they’re less inclined to appropriation than to allusion, as in literature, where part of understanding the text consists in understanding what the allusions mean. There is a lot of "intertextuality," as a literary critic would say, but not all of it is "dialogue" and not much of it is significantly "intergenerational." That means that viewing the work of young artists is like trying to project some hypothesis as to what it’s about: one must infer the best explanation of what one is looking at, and then do one’s best to confirm it by looking closely. No one should be required to read an exhibition catalogue, but clearly written wall texts, decoding and unmasking, are these days as indispensable as subtitles for films in languages one does not understand. And, contrary to Singer, the meaning of the work in the current Biennial is usually harder to pin down than "issues of civil activism or issues of sexuality or critiques of mainstream American cultural conservatism." To be seriously interested in such issues is inconsistent with concealing them by way of Aesopian strategies. If the work is so transgressive, it’s been masked so successfully that the Biennial has received high praise from critics who attacked previous Biennials for being mired in politics rather than aesthetics.
Although a handsome production, the Biennial catalogue is a glaring example of the inflation that has overtaken that genre of publication. It is more a souvenir of the occasion than anything of great use to the viewer, and the editors have chosen to include in it an anthology of writings by Borges, Anaïs Nin, Samuel Delany and others who may have inspired the curators but are of little use to anyone else. With the accompanying box of ephemeral works by the exhibitors, it must have been extremely costly to produce for something of so little utility. Ideally, catalogues should aspire to the utility of guidebooks–something one can carry through the show, giving visitors what they need to know, with small illustrations for identification and mnemonic purposes. At the Armory Show there is always somebody watching the shop at each of the galleries, someone who can answer questions and talk with you about the work if things aren’t too busy. The art at the Biennial is generally less familiar and often more difficult than what you would have seen on the piers. The 2004 Biennial is more opaque than its recent predecessors, and that opacity is reflected in the thought behind the catalogue. The art is pretty interesting, though usually for reasons other than those the curators would have us believe.