The contemporary art world, reflected in the 2008 Whitney Biennial, is themeless and heading in no identifiable direction.


Sheldan C. Cllins/Whitney MuseumAn installation view of Ruben Ochoa’s ‘Ideal Disjuncture’ (2008), left

There has been oddly little excitement, let alone controversy, surrounding the Whitney Biennial this year. No one told me that it must be seen, no one said how awful it was. People wondered if the show had become obsolete, especially in late March, when Europeans thronged to New York City to see the Armory show and its galaxy of satellite art fairs–Pulse, Red Dot, Bridge, Scope New York and the rest. Why would anyone leave the glitter of these seductive displays to visit what was generally understood to be a drab exhibition that billed itself as a survey of where American art stands today? In any case, there would be plenty of American artists at the fairs who had already made the cut at one commercial gallery or another. I knew but a small handful of the eighty-one artists listed in the Whitney’s press release, and few of those I did know were near the top of my list of favorites. (Some of them were near the top of my list of artists to be avoided when possible.) I could tell that this was mainly to be a show of “emerging artists”–the kind sought by enterprising collectors, funding agencies, younger curators and galleries out to make a name for themselves. Since the fairs were full of emerged, emerging and about to emerge artists, many just hatched from their MFA shows, it was hard to figure out what could be special or different about Biennial 2008.

Part of my indifference may have stemmed from the fact that the curators, Henriette Huldisch and Shamim Momin, had broken with tradition by not designing their Biennial as an exposition à thèse. In an interview in March, they emphasized that they had set out with no particular ax to grind, resolving just to “start with the art” and see how things fell out. In this they differed from the curators of Biennial 2006, who from the beginning were determined “to make a bold curatorial statement about the current zeitgeist.”

The current show certainly did not evoke in me the kind of negativity that the Whitney, not that many Biennials ago, decided was part of the territory, advertising that particular edition with the slogan “Love It, Hate It, Don’t Miss It”–based, I suppose, on the famously confrontational 1993 Biennial, which featured flat metal entry badges by Daniel Joseph Martinez that read, in whole or in part, “I can’t imagine ever wanting to be white.” Martinez is among the established artists Whitney curators like to add each year to the mix of mostly younger and lesser-known artists on view. This year they’ve included one of his installations, Divine Violence. It consists of 125 painted memorial tablets, each with the name of an organization–like Al Qaeda, or somewhat more explosively, the CIA–dedicated to violence as a means to specific political goals. The panels, executed in gold-flake automobile paint, compose a kind of columbarium–a memorial to certain terrorist organizations, not all of which are, as we say, “history.” Does the format imply that they are destined to be history? The piece is ambiguous, but Martinez–whom I consider a friend–is a restlessly provocative activist artist who has stayed the course that nearly all of the Biennial-93-ards were on.

Thinking back on the Biennials I have seen since 1985, I cannot say that I have ever loved any of them. I cannot blame the artists, who make what they make. I expect that means the target of my loathing has really been the curators and their windy art-world prose. I don’t know the 2008 curators, but the show’s themelessness strikes me as successfully representative of the reality they were required to deal with. The art world is themeless today. It is heading in no direction to speak of. My guess is that Martinez embodies a direction many young curators–and some not so young–feel it should point to. But that is due to the chamber radicalism that continues to define art professionals as a class, dealing as it does with elitist matters.

I would not go so far as to say I liked the show, but I did like what I think of as the show’s mood. It reminded me of my first visit to Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where a gallery scene emerged in the 1990s concurrently with the gentrification of SoHo and the upscale art world’s colonization of Chelsea. Two German artists, Kirsten Roolfs and Wolfgang Petrick, had settled into Williamsburg and offered themselves as guides to the most interesting spaces. The art was not much, but compared with the messy art that I had encountered in the East Village in the mid ’80s, in the midst of the Neo-Expressionist bubble that everyone hoped (if they did not actually believe) was the miraculous return of Abstract Expressionism, it was thoughtful, even philosophical. What mainly impressed me, however, was the appearance, among the artists as well as the gallery personnel, of a new artistic culture: everyone wanted to be helpful; no one was in your face. I remember one gallery filled with colorful toy telephones, collected on the artist’s travels, presented as a single work. There was a spirit of play and innocence in every show I saw. Everyone was eager to please. Even the receptionists could not have been more receptive. I mentioned my observation to one of the gallery directors, who was not long out of college. “I guess,” he said, “that we all want to remain children down here.”

That remark captures the mood of the 2008 Biennial. I have to qualify this judgment, though, because on the fourth floor, just to the right of the elevator bank, I had a somewhat magical experience that may have colored the entirety of my visit. (In a way, it is unfair to include it in what means to be a review, since the likelihood of any of my readers having the same experience is almost nil.) There were four or five largish sculptures, the most interesting of which was an assemblage of urban fragments, mainly slabs of reinforced concrete and rebar, and a ragged piece of chain-link fencing. It was by Ruben Ochoa, born in 1974, who lives in Los Angeles. Reinforced concrete chunks make for a somewhat unusual medium, and it reminded me of the singular inappropriateness to today’s visual art of Clement Greenberg’s celebrated theory of medium specificity: each art must strive to determine and make work out of the essential qualities specific to its medium. How could an artist like Ochoa yield to such an injunction? Why should he?

I stopped at his piece An Ideal Disjuncture. It looks like bits of a wrecked building, picked over by the artist to make an ephemeral piece of art before it was all carted off to a landfill. As I was pondering its meaning, a troop of private school students, all girls, were led in by their teacher. They circled the piece and then, all in white blouses and black skirts, settled on the floor to discuss it. What could it be, and what was its meaning? Eavesdropping, I heard one of the girls answer that maybe it was a grasshopper. The teacher responded by repeating the word as a doubtful question: “A grasshopper?” I immediately saw what the girl meant: the chain-link fencing did look like a gauzy wing, the rebar like antennas, and another fragment took its place as the monumental insect’s thorax: a gigantic grasshopper made of urban detritus! What a lovely thought! It lifted my spirits immediately–here was art transfiguring commonplace junk into something rare and strange! And here was a young mind struggling to give form and meaning to unprepossessing matter. She somehow expressed the spirit of many of the artists in the show.

In the same gallery I saw Heather Rowe’s sculptures, which resemble sections of what one might call “housing starts”–beams supported by two-by-four studs, giving you the initial sense of a not-quite-finished partition. They mirror elements of the gallery’s architecture, but they’re not quite integrated into the rest of the space, and they’re ornamented in ways not altogether consistent with their being housing starts: Rowe has fitted the partition with odds and ends of Sheetrock, mirror fragments and scraps of shag carpet. So they occupy two worlds at once, contained and container–free-standing walls for the collector with plenty of space.

In the adjacent gallery were some attenuated sculptures by another Angelino, Charles Long, made from “scavenged river junk and silt, papier-mâché, and plaster over steel armatures,” which take their forms from blue herons’ droppings traced by the artist. They exemplify what the artist calls the “degraded sublime” and evoke Barnett Newman’s famous if mean-spirited 1952 put-down: aesthetics, in relationship to art, is, like ornithology, “for the birds.” The impulse, again, was to make art out of degraded matter, which struck me as promising to be something of a theme, given that so much of what I encountered was recycled vernacular material, made into art that sometimes bears affinities to paradigms of Modernist art–in the case of Long, according to the catalog text, “Constantin Brancusi, Isamu Noguchi, or Theodore Roszak.” Art redeems nature at its basest.

It is in this spirit that another Californian, Jedediah Caesar, accumulated detritus from daily life–plywood scraps, pieces of paper and cloth, bottles and shards of china, worn garments–which he fused together with resin and cut into blocks. They are things of beauty, natural analogues to geodes or pieces of amber in which insects or bits of vegetable matter are encased. And they are artistic analogues to the sculptures of the Neo-Objectivist Arman, who made plastic replicas of objects from the real world–gears, for example, or pairs of glasses–and encased them in plastic. They are also something like the environments Louise Nevelson created out of discarded pieces of wood–spindles, paddles, finials, baseball bats–whose final form had a beauty that far surpassed that of the component parts.

Each of these scavenged pieces has some degree of craft, but there is also ready-made art worth considering. William E. Jones projects some found surveillance film, shot in 1962, of men fellating or masturbating one another in a public men’s room. It is unedited or barely edited found footage. In this respect, it is not unlike the Rodney King video that was shown in an earlier Biennial. Still, as Marcel Duchamp wrote in mock defense of his 1917 urinal under the name “R. Mutt,” Jones has “given a new thought” to footage originally made in the spirit of entrapment. As viewers, we are to infer the thought while watching men of an earlier era engage in somber furtive sex.

Huldisch’s catalog essay–Momin’s is unreadable–borrows its title from Samuel Beckett: “Lessness.” The subtitle is hers: “An Art of Smaller, Slower, and Less.” It is not a criticism of the art she and her colleague have found, but rather a characterization:

There is a sense of weariness of grand proclamations and braggadocio–a preference for the historical footnote, perhaps, rather than the totalizing story–that is unsurprising in an environment where, as of very recently, contemporary art no longer appears to have any enemies, and the oppositional gesture itself runs the risk of amounting to little more than a self-congratulatory pat on the back.

It sounds as if the artists compose a community of Prufrocks rather than of Lord Hamlets:

If we find ourselves in a scenario marked by the experience of loss, by doubt, or by a fundamental absence of certainty or meaning, it is not pessimism, detachment, or irony that defines the moment but persistence and belief–belief in staking out small areas of meaning and agency, however futile or absurd it may seem at times, and going on, for better rather than for worse.

This is well said and wise. It is not quite true of the established artists she and her colleague have selected, however: Matt Mullican constructs whole cosmologies; the late Jason Rhoades, featured on the ground floor, sought to fill all the space he could get with less than ideal disjunctions of disparate things and substances, in praise of impossible lubricities. And perhaps the work Huldisch and Momin encountered dates the larger-than-life productions of artists whose work is the cynosure of billionaire collectors, themselves out of phase with the times. Perhaps the “smaller, slower, lesser” art the curators have assembled explains why their show is finally so likable–or so unhateable–and how it may, in the end, even point a direction for the nation in its present straitened state, with a shambled economy and exhausted armies. Where our art stands today is not a bad way to think of where America might stand tomorrow: smaller, slower, lesser, with freedom and justice for all. Hey–it’s time for a change!

Thank you for reading The Nation!

We hope you enjoyed the story you just read, just one of the many incisive, deeply reported articles we publish daily. Now more than ever, we need fearless journalism that moves the needle on important issues, uncovers malfeasance and corruption, and uplifts voices and perspectives that often go unheard in mainstream media.

Donate right now and help us hold the powerful accountable, shine a light on issues that would otherwise be swept under the rug, and build a more just and equitable future.

For nearly 160 years, The Nation has stood for truth, justice, and moral clarity. As a reader-supported publication, we are not beholden to the whims of advertisers or a corporate owner. But it does take financial resources to report on stories that may take weeks or months to investigate, thoroughly edit and fact-check articles, and get our stories to readers like you.

Donate today and stand with us for a better future. Thank you for being a supporter of independent journalism.

Thank you for your generosity.

Ad Policy