In 1932 New York Times art critic Edward Alden Jewell greeted with enthusiasm the Whitney Museum’s plan to mount a biennial exhibition of American painting; a show of sculpture, drawings, watercolors and prints would then run in the alternate years. "In the course of a typical New York season the galleries and museums place on view quantities of American art and one is always enabled to study the work of individual artists in considerable detail," he conceded. "But the value of comprehensive group displays hardly needs emphasizing. By such means scattered threads are woven into a single strand and a broad survey of the field becomes possible." Back then the exhibitions were not curated in the current sense of the word. Once invited, each artist was free to choose what work to present. The Whitney’s founding director, Juliana Force, put it clearly: "We send out our invitations and each artist may wear what he pleases to our party."
These days the quantity of art on view in New York is so great that only professional obligation or genuine obsession–or, more likely, both at once–could compel anyone to delve "in considerable detail" into more than a small swatch of the proffered efforts. What’s more, the art world is so internationalized that there are significant American artists who, for one reason or another, are exhibited more often abroad than at home. An overview is therefore even more necessary now than it was in the days of Force and Jewell, but it’s all the harder to come by. Every friend I met in the days after my visit to this year’s Biennial, which was curated by Francesco Bonami and Gary Carrion-Murayari and will run through May 30, had more or less the same question: what does it say about the situation of art today?
Good question–and just the one Bonami and Carrion-Murayari raise by titling the exhibition not thematically but simply with the year "2010." Yet there is more than one way to look at a question like that. One might assume it means, What’s in? What’s out? What’s hot? What’s not? That’s to have an eye trained on fashions in art–and don’t turn up your nose at it, if only because the reactionary’s favorite pose is to pretend that everything new or unfamiliar in art is passing fashion or an old idea recycled. In the art of our time we seek a reflection of the time, and it’s always passing. Baudelaire admonished that beauty contains a transient element as well as an eternal one. He imagined, for instance, a sequence of historical fashion plates, "from the origins of France to the present day," with the clothes of each era juxtaposed with "the philosophic thought which that age was mainly preoccupied with or worried by, a thought which the illustration inevitably reflects." This curious notion of a seductive image accompanied by a deep and possibly anxious thought is more tellingly allied to art than costume.
We expect that thought to be anxious even more than we expect it to be deep–anxiety is always in fashion–or rather, we can’t help thinking that a thought that’s not anxious isn’t deep. That’s why it’s so dismaying to read, on the first page of the curators’ introduction to the Biennial’s catalog, that "with the election of Barack Obama, the clouds broke and the rain of renewal poured over the entire country." Hokey metaphors aside–and hokey metaphors abound in this text–one fears that the curators are about to tell us not only that the forty-fourth president has been sent by Providence to save the nation but that his secondary mission is to rain renewingly on art until it has become washed-out and boring. Luckily, all is not well. Bonami and Carrion-Murayari are pleased to announce in their catalog that "the image of the body that 2010 presents is one that is shaped by physical, spiritual, or social violence. The individuals depicted…bear the scars of war, discrimination, and hatred."