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The Whitney Biennial strikes again.

May 7, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 32 • By JAMES GARDNER
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Paradox is supposed to be interesting and subversion is supposed to be fun. But this year’s supposedly subversive Whitney Biennial, though paradox incarnate, is the sort of thing that gives soul-annihilating ennui a bad name. And its tedium is a direct consequence of the paradox at its very heart: These days, everyone wants to be a visual artist and no one wants to create visual art.

Photo of Performance artist Dawn Kasper

Performance artist Dawn Kasper among her possessions.

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Rising to accommodate this perverse ambition, the Whitney, located on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, has given over much of its space not only to video and performance art, such as they are, but also to performing arts like dance, film, and live music, not to mention literature, philosophy, and much besides. The crucial thing to remember is that, in the process, the Whitney is not claiming to go beyond fine art but, rather, to gather all of these other activities into that charmed circle formerly occupied by painting and sculpture alone, and thus to claim them as visual art. Through an error of thought and a corruption of language, dance and belles-lettres are henceforth to be viewed as visual art no less than painting or sculpture are (or would be) if artists still made them. And if we relied only on the evidence of the latest Biennial, they emphatically do not. 

The latest is, if nothing else, a monument to the fact that ART—that abstracted syllable, voided of any intrinsic meaning—occupies today a cultural prestige different from, and greater than, anything that music, literature, or philosophy could ever provide.

And yet, despite the Whitney’s striving to provide, as in years past, a compte rendu of contemporary visual culture in America, never has it felt quite as irrelevant as it does in this latest offering. And that assessment has nothing to do with the fact that one of the curators is—yet again—Elisabeth Sussman, who has no more taste this time around than in previous Biennials. Nor does it have to do with the fact that, largely in consequence of her participation, few works, if any, provide that aesthetic satisfaction that, for most of human history, was the highest aim of visual art.

Why, then, does it seem so irrelevant? First, most of the fourth floor, the Whitney’s main gallery space, has been surrendered to dance, which drastically diminishes the number of art works on view. As a result, the whole show seems spotty, patchy, and tired, a burden as much for the curators and participating artists as for the public in general and the critics who are tasked, yet again, with seeking anything worthy of comment.

Then there is the fact that two competing exhibitions have emerged in New York, the New Museum’s Triennial on the Bowery and something calling itself the Brucennial on Bleecker Street, an anarchic hodgepodge of 400 works from an operation called the Bruce High Quality Foundation. As the names make clear, both exhibitions are part knockoffs of the Whitney Biennial and part parody, and if their offerings are only rarely better than those of the Whitney, surely they are no worse. Of the three, the Whitney is by far the most conceptual and anti-object while the Brucennial—its walls stacked, salon-style, with paintings and photographs—is the most pro-object and thus the most traditional, with the New Museum falling somewhere in between.

Taken together, these three shows comprise about a thousand works, and precious few can be viewed with any real satisfaction. I found something to enjoy in the small, colorful oils on canvas by Leonard Peltier, even though he works in an idiom rather derivative of sixties mod and even though his inclusion in the present Whitney show seems somewhat arbitrary. Similarly, the contorted polychrome sculptures that Vincent Fecteau has fashioned from cement and clay resin look back to the mod vocabulary of the sixties and have the decency to behave like conventional sculptures. 

If only they were better.

Though the works on view at the New Museum offered little of aesthetic interest, at the Brucennial I found Eliot Greenwald’s The Big One (a collection of disembodied heads hovering against what looks like a wooden ground) to be a handsome and ambitious work, as was Aliza Stone Howard’s Anna and Kate, a winsome depiction of two young women sitting on a futon. John Mendelsohn’s Turbulence 5, a study in crimson and yellow that has clearly profited from the example of Gerhard Richter, is a first-rate abstraction, as are his four other works in the series.

Quite aside from the general paltriness of their goals and attainments, the problem with the works in all three of these exhibitions, either individually or together, is that they account for only a tiny fragment of the art being made in America today. Overwhelmingly, these works are populist in their vocabulary and ostensibly more interested in ideas (such as the artists take them to be) than in forms. 

And yet, there is far more good art being created in the United States, and around the world, than one would ever imagine from the Whitney Biennial, the sundry international art fairs, or the galleries of Chelsea. In November, an extraordinary museum, Crystal Bridges, opened in Bentonville, Arkansas. It was founded by Alice Walton, an heir to the Walmart fortune, and funded mainly by the Walton Family Foundation. It is an encyclopedic museum of American art, and its collection of contemporary art, though extensive, is only a subchapter of the story it tells. 

Now, it is one thing to have money and another to have taste, and Ms. Walton clearly has an abundance of both. But what is most interesting about her collection is that—even where it overlaps with what is on view in the Chelsea galleries—it has been chosen more for its visual power than for the stated meaning of the individual works. Here you will find abstractions and landscapes, sculptures and installations, by realists and conceptualists, by artists who are the toast of the art world and artists whose names you may never have heard. 

What is so important about Crystal Bridges, however, is that it offers a vastly different assessment of contemporary American art that runs parallel to the mainstream, that locus of money and power represented by the Biennial. It proves that, although there is still fine and important art being created in America, you are unlikely to find it at the Whitney Museum of American Art.

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