Whitney Biennial 2004
11 March - 30 May 2004
Whitney Museum of American Art, 945 Madison Avenue at 75th Street, New York, NY - 10021
Art desecrated! Museum in ruins! Culture fatally hit! What may sound like a report from wartime Baghdad was just the reaction of a couple of excitable souls to the 2002 Whitney Biennial, a show that was, if anything, mild mannered to a fault. But the Biennial is almost always as much about its critics as about its artists, and the 2004 version, which opens on Thursday, will probably be no different.
Some Biennials simply recap the commercial activity of the preceding two years. Others look ahead; the 2002 edition, for example, anticipated the current interest in youth culture, collectivism, sound art and craft-intensive, Pop-ish work. This year's show will probably do both. Although much of the work comes straight out of recent gallery exhibitions, a substantial chunk is brand new and being shown for the first time. A few pieces have even been commissioned for the occasion.
Faced with the exhausting pluralism of current art, this year's curators—Chrissie Iles, Shamim Momin and Debra Singer, all from the Whitney—set themselves a few broad goals. One was to focus on certain in-the-air trends, like the interest among young artists in 1960's culture, in death-metal Gothic sensibility and in painting and drawing. Another was to give a sense of generational flow, demonstrating how influences have passed down from senior figures like David Hockney, Mel Bochner, Yayoi Kusama and Paul McCarthy to inspire colleagues in mid- and early career.
In general, the show acknowledges the New York establishment taste that the last biennial, to its cost, ignored. And with its favoring of solid objects over conceptual and digital art, it is in tune with a market-happy moment, when annual art fairs are replacing biennials as new international mega-shows, eliminating whatever illusional line existed between curating and commerce, critic and dealer. Finally, the meager inclusion this year of African-American artists mirrors an art world that has taken all too literally the call for a "post-black art"—art that moves away from the confines of identity politics`proposed by Thelma Golden, chief curator of the Studio Museum in Harlem, two years ago.
Some, including me, feel the Biennial has outlived its usefulness; American art is by now way too varied for any one-shot summation. Yet in introducing new or little-known artists to a mainstream audience, the show still has value. Some of this year's younger participants—Christian Holstad, Julie Mehretu, Assume Vivid Astro Focus, Aïda Ruilova—are already stars. So let me point out a few figures who are not, because they haven't shown much in New York yet, or are hard to categorize, or have thus far preferred to stay underground. Several of them do a kind of work unlikely to shine in a competitive extravaganza like the Whitney show. But all of them have made strong impressions in the last two years and will continue to, I expect, beyond the Biennial itself.
Aleksandra Mir, born 1967
In 1999, on the 30th anniversary of the first United States moon landing, Aleksandra Mir enlisted friends, strangers and bulldozers to create a full-scale moonscape of craters and mountains on a Dutch beach. The process, which Ms. Mir filmed, was a cross between an Earth Art marathon and an all-day picnic. At sunset she planted a flag on the highest peak, claiming this brave new moon for, well, everyone. A still from the film, First Woman on the Moon, is above. Her subsequent conceptual projects have been far more modest—a bit too modest in some cases. But "everyone" remains her subject and her audience. In photo pieces she mixes portraits of people famous and unknown, as if they were all at the same party. She writes books about people she's only read about or met casually and sees romance in their lives. She's some kind of social poet. What she'll do at the Whitney, I don't know, but it might have something to do with small plastic No Smoking signs. If you're not looking, you'll probably miss it