Sheldan C. Cllins/Whitney Museum
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.