Whitney Biennial 2004
11 March - 30 May 2004
Whitney Museum of American Art, 945 Madison Avenue at 75th Street, New York, NY - 10021
"What would Sun Ra do?" Not the easiest question to answer under
any circumstances, but a cinch compared to the challenges faced by
Chrissie Iles, Shamin M Momin and Debra Singer, the three curators
of the first post-September 11 Whitney Biennial (2002's having been
assemble before that date). Los Angeles based David Muller is the
artist who asks us to put ourselves in the visionary composer's
shoes, on a hand-painted bumper sticker that crops up in his
sprawling, idiosyncratic history of pop Tentatively Titled:
'Greatest Hits from the Late 90s to the Present, 2003-4'. Given the
long history and burdensome remit of the Biennial, Iles, Momin and
Singer must have anticipated that their action would have its
detractors. The fact that their own mix of 'greatest hits' from the
past two years is such easy listening testifies to both a
collective talent for giving people what they want, and a
predictable reluctance to take a chance on less widely fêted
Biennial curators, under pressure from all sides, have traditionally lacked confidence in the validity of their own aesthetic sensibilities as an organizing principle. Yet while it is unlikely that any exhibition put together by committee and featuring more than 100 artists could ever be a thing of unalloyed beauty, the design of 2004's exhibition at least conveys respect for individual entries that was frequently missing in 2000 and 2002. Works are grouped into overlapping thematic clusters, but these are generally large and loose enough to allow for juxtapositions that don't just look good on paper. Coming a decade after 1993's infamous PC Biennial but smack in the middle of, as Robert Kennedy would characterize them, 'interesting times', this year's survey is mercifully short on hectoring, long on both historical reflection and attempts to escape it all.
Alongside a forgivable focus on youth and youth culture (Goths everywhere!), there are a number of respectable, if not always successful attempts to reinsert established names into the debate. Hung next to paintings by an obscure ex-pat called David Hockney, for example, are portraits by Elizabeth Peyton (a selection that left New Yorker critic Peter Schjeldahl feeling good about the world and Art Forum's Jack Bankowsky seething). In this case however, our appreciation of the elder artist (or lack thereof) remains fundamentally unaffected by the encounter. More interesting inclusions are new works by Mel Bochner (cheerily nihilistic text paintings from 2003 titled 'Indifference', 'Meaningless', 'Mistake', 'Nothing' and 'Stupid') and Richard Prince (distressed, painterly reworkings of his late 80s 'Hood Paintings'). Both series encourage us to rethink oeuvres we thought we knew inside out, and make some of the younger artists (the ubiquitous one-person collective assume vivid astro focus; the inexcusable Julie Atlas Muz) look well nigh hysterical in their efforts to impress.
A similar confidence, born of long experience and irrepressible drive, is apparent in luminous films by Stan Brakhage and Jack Goldstein, both of whom died last year. Goldstein's 'Under Water Sea Fantasy', 1983/2003, was the artist's last work in 16mm, but harks back to his first experiments with the medium in the mid 70s. Dream-like found footage of divers drifting through deep blue is intercut with volcanic eruptions and a lunar eclipse. As the endnote to a practice concerned with the representation of apocalyptic spectacle, it is an oddly melancholic and entirely captivation six-and-a-half minutes. At the opposite end of the scale, Brakhage's final film turns away from the wonders of the outer world to focus on the ailing human body. 'Chinese Series', 2003, consists of a few precious moments of black film leader inscribed with spare notation scratched out by the artist, from his bed, with his fingernails. Juxtaposed with joyous hand-painted films such as Persian Series 13-18, 2001, it is a moving final flicker of strength.
Something of the spirit of avant-garde pioneers like Brakhage lives on in the work of the Biennial's best living film and videomakers. Julie Murray's 'Untitled (light)', 2002, documents John Bennet and Gustavo Bonevardi's 'Tribute in Light', the twin beams that for a month in 2002, and again on September 11, 2003, illuminated the void left by the destruction of the World Trade Center. A direct but still delicate work in itself, Untitled (light) also makes a neat pairing with Anthony McCall's installation 'Doubling Back', 2003, in which sheets of light carve up the space of the gallery, looking solid enough to touch. In her lush 'Jarmanesque 89 Seconds at Alcazar', 2003, Eve Sussman stages a small drama around Vélaquez's 'Las Meninas', imagining the web of activity that might have immediately preceeded the instant depicted in the painting. It might sound like Crimewatch for art historians, but Sussman's refusal to lean entirely on the money shot in which all theelements come together productively complicates the pleasure of recognition.
Attempts to excavate more recent remains are well intentioned but less successful. The material richness of Dario Robleto's backward glances at the moral panics and socio-historical tipping points of his parents' generation has the unfortunate effect of making apparent faith in some of their less developed value sets seem, by comparison, all the more naïve. Sam Durant's drawings of civil rights protesters from the 60s go to far in the opposite direction, until their subjects look cold and dead, distant embers of the originals' righteous fire. His lightbox 'Legality is not Morality,' 2003, derived from a marcher's placard, aims at the recontextualisation of a specifically targeted sentiment but comes off as either an endorsement of the obvious or a cynical, sarcastic stab. In both cases, he tackles too much with very little.
When it comes to intentional understatement however, Maurizio Cattelan wins hands down. There are precious few jokers in this Biennial's pack-only Aleksandra Mir and Olav Westphalen have anything like the same chutzpah—but Cattelan's decision to bury his fiberglass sculpture Kitakyushi 2000-New York 2004, 2004 under the museum floorboards marks him out as a serious wit. Stylishly subversive and unquestionably 'out there'; perhaps Mr. Ra might try something like this?
Michael Wilson is a New York-based critic and curator.