This Year’s Whitney Biennial: It’s Good

03/05/2010 4:00 AM |

Everyone likes their homework done for them. In theory, this is the appeal of the Whitney Biennial: curators travel the country to seek out the best art produced in America and all we have to do is decide if we like the results. The problem with this, from a curatorial standpoint though, is that this isn’t much of a selection criterion for a show. Even if curators Francesco Bonami and Gary Carrion-Murayari manage to secure the strongest work, it’s impossible to predict how it will function aesthetically once together, what themes will run throughout the show, and whether that will translate into a larger cohesiveness audiences can consume. In short, the outcome of any biennial is two parts skill, and one-part luck.

This year, the stars finally aligned for The Whitney: this biennial is good. Spread over just three floors of the museum—the number of artists this year was reduced from 81 in 2008 to 55—the exhibition succeeds at least in part because it doesn’t place impossible demands upon its viewers. Art made in America may be the theme of every biennial, but this one’s organized well enough to make that clearly visible. Italian-born Francesco Bonami’s unique vision of American identity probably didn’t hurt—I can’t count the number of times I heard him describe the country in press previews.

It doesn’t hurt that there’s enough space to view the work. Artwork often receives rooms as opposed to walls, so audiences aren’t left trying to piece together meaning with only a few works to guide them. R. H. Quaytman‘s series of Hopper-referenced paintings paired with op art, provide one small example of this, each sharing their space only with the Whitney window a few depict. A flipped outline of that form in Distracting Distance, Chapter 16 (Model) makes clear that not only is the audience looking through the museum’s lens, but so is its subject.

Undoubtedly the most obvious indication that curators were thinking about the viewing experience comes in the form of film and video, most of which can be seen in a single visit as only a few installations exceed the 15-minute mark. Those that do—Sharon Hayes‘ deft meditation on politics, speech, and the paradox of sentimentality, and Kerry Tribe’s moving double projection about a patient who retains only 20 seconds of memory after an epilepsy operation in the 50s—are among the stronger works in the show.

The fourth floor hosts the majority of the more compelling work in the show, a wise decision given this is presumably where most audiences will start. Tauba Auerbach’s giant paintings of crumpled fabric reduce to tiny op-art dots on closer inspection, brilliantly playing off Sarah Crowner’s beaming black-and-white ziggy-zaggy canvases. Lesley Vance’s gorgeous abstract paintings demonstrate remarkable improvement over her earlier still lives and landscapes, and Aki Sasamoto’s humorous performance, in which she twirls an array of hanging bottles and discusses the best place to find donuts, is bizarre in a good way. Nina Berman’s touching photographs of Ty, a disfigured soldier returned from the Iraq War, are exhibited on the second floor, but deserve just as much attention. In 2007, they received a front-page article in the New York Times when they were first displayed at Jen Bekman Gallery and are even more effective in their smaller, more intimate size at the Whitney.
Bruce High Quality Foundation‘s We Like America and America Likes Us, an extended narrative and film projected against the windshield of an old ambulance marks the most somber note in the show though. A reference to Joseph Beuys first trip to America, in which he used the same model vehicle to travel from the airport to Rene Block Gallery, a female voice speaks from within the car: “We leave America like a grandparents house,” she says. “We say she made us what we are today, mostly to justify our lack of involvement.” Images from Ghostbusters, a movie in which the same car was used, the Beuys performance, and random stock footage follow as the voice over continues. It may be a sentimental opinion, but like Sharon Hayes, Bruce High Quality Foundation share the deep belief that art can change people, and lament our general lack of engagement in the subject.

Unlike the melange of memories projected on the classic car, not all of the work in the exhibition has equal merit or value. But for once, I’m fine with that. America isn’t known for offering up high quality work at every occasion. It’s only promise is that it will give us enough.