The Whitney Biennial, the most important recurring art exhibition in New York City celebrating its 75th iteration this year, opened its 2010 edition on Wednesday, and though it’s no doubt better than 2008’s show, its greatest pleasures are often very subtle. Often, not always, as with early winner by some accounts, self-taught 27-year-old Aurel Schmidt, whose contribution, “The Fall” (detail pictured), is a seven-foot-tall minotaur with cotton candy fur, a cigarette butt exoskeleton, a six-pack of Bud for abs and PBR bottle caps for eyes.
One of my favorite works (“favorite” is maybe not the best word here) was an incredibly visceral, gripping and devastating series of photographs by Nina Berman of an Iraq war vet completely disfigured by a roadside bomb, back at home with his fiancee. He’s a man without a face (not to mention one of his arms), at once feature-less and unmistakable, re-inserted more or less conspicuously into the suburban American landscape.
Another devastating series of photographs, Stephanie Sinclair‘s images of Afghan women who had burnt themselves as acts of desperate rebellion against their families, stood out for its violent emotional power. Other stand-out works, though, are more memorable for their subtlety in a show that seems so predicated on the big, brash and new.
Probably my favorite piece in the whole show, which most visitors to the press preview I attended seemed to miss, was Michael Asher‘s contribution, almost impossible to spot because, in terms of its materials, it consists of two small exhibition placards on each floor, the first of which says:
Michael Asher’s proposal for the Whitney Biennial is to have the exhibition open continuously to the public twenty-four hours a day for one week (Monday, May 24 through Sunday, May 30).
Followed by a second below it:
Note: The duration of this work has been shortened from the artist’s original proposal. Due to budgetary and human resources limitations, the Museum is unable to remain open to the public twenty-four hours a day for one week. As a result, this work has been shortened from seven days to three days (Wednesday, May 26 at 12:00 am through Friday, May 28 at 11:59 pm).
Hilarious, idealistic and almost foolishly ambitious, but also self-effacing to a fault, Asher’s piece undermines the grandiosity of the Biennial all the while underlining the funding problems that, in part, led to this year’s exhibition being the smallest in the show’s history. I might not have said so two years ago, but this Biennial is definitely worth visiting more than once—the third floor gallery, full of video art, might require a day unto itself. You could even spend the night.