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Biennial Bland

Accentuating the positive at the Whitney

May 10, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 32 • By JAMES GARDNER
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At this late date in the history of  Western civilization, bashing the Whitney Biennial is such an inveterate habit among art critics that even to acknowledge the fact, as I have just done, has become a cliché. Indeed, this reflex is so entrenched by now that, in what may be the single greatest act of institutional masochism ever recorded, the latest Biennial catalogue has reprinted all the lukewarm to lousy reviews that this show has garnered since its inception 75 years ago.

Having reviewed almost every Biennial since 1985, with as little indulgence as most other critics, I decided that this year I would emphasize the positive. Not that I would try to like the art, or claim I did when I didn’t: Rather, I would try to write only about the art that, in good conscience, I sincerely liked. And try I did.

What follows are the results of my little thought experiment. The problem, as I had anticipated, was that there were only a handful of works that I sincerely did not dislike (if I may put it that way) and that even these did not inspire any uncorsetted enthusiasm. From my fairly traditionalist perspective, some of the more satisfying works were those of Maureen Gallace. Her diminutive oil paintings on panel, like “Cape Cod, Early September,” consist of little more than images of frame houses set in pastel fields against a clear blue sky and the purity of the sea. According to the accompanying catalogue entry, these simple, honest, well-behaved paintings are “anomalous in the context of contemporary art-making.” But that is not true. There are many paintings that are being made today that are every bit as good as this, if not better: But because they do not fall within the narrow ambit of what looks like art to the curators at the Whitney or the dealers in Chelsea, such works are marginalized.

In the latest Whitney Biennial, we probably do not need an entire room devoted to the ink-on-paper images of Charles Ray, depicting parti-colored flowers that bloom across their pale surfaces like an explosion of roman candles. But as pure decoration, they are rather deftly done, and I say that in the full knowledge that their “real point” is an implicit assault on the sort of middle-class, middle-management taste that consumes such art without relishing its more troubling subtexts.

Next, I sincerely did not mind Pae White’s “Smoke Knows,” a tapestry 10 feet high and 20 feet long, that greets visitors as they exit the elevators on the third floor. Fashioned from cotton and polyester, it depicts undulatous whorls of gray smoke floating across the picture plane. There is a photorealist element to the work, but it can also be experienced as a maximalist abstract painting.

Two other artists who deserve mention are Lesley Vance and R. H. Quaytman. Both are abstract artists, one of the gestural variety, the other more hard-edged and geometric. Vance creates swirling forms of impastoed paint that splurges where it has not been scraped bare with a palette knife. At those points, it hints at perspective and confuses the eye into seeking content that never
materializes. Very different are the images of Quaytman, whose serried stripes, fashioned from minute particles of sparkling glass, call to mind the Op Art of the Sixties. What unites these two artists is the introduction of a sense of perspective into abstract art. In both cases, the pleasures are of a cool and measured sort, but they are there nonetheless.

The only works, however, that I can praise entirely without reservation are 30 sumi ink images on paper by Roland Flexner. Although these diminutive grisailles are stacked in dense rank and file across a single wall, each one manages to assert its uniqueness, to conjure up a dreamscape whose topographical dimensions are no less compelling for the essential abstractness of their biomorphic shapes. 

Aside from these few beneficiaries of my faint praise, what defines the latest exhibition, in opposition to its predecessors, is that it is singularly lacking in a defining, guiding aesthetic principle. Curated by Francesco Bonami and Gary Carrion-Murayari, it has no unifying formal theme, like the 1984 Biennial, which promulgated to the world the boisterous introduction of populist culture into the visual mainstream; or the 1993 Biennial, which did the same for political identity art; or the 1997 Biennial, which did the same for neo-geo techno-art.

What this lack of focus proves, I believe, is that Contemporary Art has grown old. That is a paradox, of course, since contemporaneity, by definition, is new. But Contemporary Art, or whatever you want to call the art that emerged after the terminal implosion of conceptualism in the late seventies, is reaching the end, if it has not already reached the end, of its life cycle. It is treading water. It doesn’t know where to go next. The same gestures, the same attitudes, are now subject to infinite iteration. 

As recently as a generation ago, when the art world was guided by an easily discernible mainstream, such repetitions were tolerable. But today, they have largely ceased to amuse, and our collective patience grows thin. That is why such pluralistic irresolution as this latest Biennial offers is ultimately unsatisfying. The crowds appear to have petered out, and there is no buzz, not even a hint of hype, to leaven the heaviness of these proceedings. But through its very inadequacies, the 2010 Biennial does us the service, unintentionally, of revealing the true state of the established art world at the present time.

James Gardner recently translated Vida’s Christiad (I Tatti Renaissance Library).


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