Whitney Biennial Makes History:
The End of the Installation

by Robert C. Morgan

What is so new and different about this year's Whitney Biennial? The photography is generally better. The film and single-channel video works are occasionally engaging. The painting is generally non-existent. And except for the Louise Bourgeois room, the sculpture is almost missing. The conceptual work fails to understand its own process by trying to cover its arcane media non-sensibility with densely compacted and obscure rhetoric using dates or names and dates. Who cares? But the real death-knell of this year's compendium of visual culture is that never-so-clear category of hybrid artwork known as "installation art."

Whether on the wall, on the floor and wall, or on ta- ble tops, this genre -- at least in its material manifestation -- has never looked so indulgent, so bland, and so out of touch. Whether Chris Burden or Jason Rhoades, the disquieting pretension and hyperreal glut exceeds the limits of emotional attraction on almost any level, ranging from adolescent irony to anti-aesthetic excess.

Several years ago, I came to the conclusion that the quality of an installation somehow had to match the quantity of material, cost, and scale it was given. If the equivalence was not there -- in other words, if the amount of material, money, and scale given to the work was out of sync with what the work actually had to offer -- something was wrong. The work was either ill-conceived or severely overdetermined. As a reflex, one might consider straightforward video installations as some kind of solution. You could avoid the material clutter and stick to the sensation of the image in a darkened room. Yet the dematerialized counterpart to excessive materiality exists on the same structural level. The medium of video does not in itself make the reality of viewing an installation any more successful or capable of being received. Diane Thater's piece is a clear example of a work that suffers from the same confusion and technical obsession found in Burden and Rhoades.

As for so-called "painting," I honestly do not under- stand the rage over Lari Pittman's ultra- convolutionary cyber-cartoons or the cynical face-lift representations of Richard Phillips or the academicized (Pollock-inspired) doodles of the recent work by Sue Williams. All of these artists' works reveal the end of a legacy that began around 1978-79 when Artforum started devoting more attention to how the image of a painting looked in print than what the quality or significance of the actual painting might be.

In the case of Richard Prince, the faux-l'ecole de Paris abstractions with stumbling post-Freudian jokes captioned on the bottom -- presumably "to take the mind to regions more verbal" (as Duchamp once said) -- suggest a considerable conflict. Contrary to whatever the non-intention of the work might be, the real tension appears less a conflict between language and image than a longing to paint a painting that is more than a sign. This appears augmented by a gnawing unbearable pressure incited from within the marketplace to sustain some vaguely deterministic Oedipal enigma where jokes continue to persist as a most acceptable social displacement.

There are some smaller, less attention-getting works worthy of some real viewing time. One can search out these rare jewels amid the omnipresent state-of- the-art detritus with hastening glee. Examples would include the ink blot drawings and prints by Bruce Conner, the silver prints of Aaron Rose, the"desert landscape" piece by Michael Ashkin, and the incredible galactic (though small in scale) paintings and related graphite works by Vija Celmins.

The effect of Celmins' work offers an overwhelming satisfaction, a reverberation of thought and mystery elevated to the level of profound feeling, an authentic searching vision. The politics of fashion are simply out of the picture. What replaces it in Celmins' work is a sensory cognition transmitted through the imagination, a private vision that speaks beyond it, a vision where experience is not a matter of cultural categories nor even a matter of privilege. Instead Celmins reveals as intensity of meaning through the most abbreviated effects -- a light beckoning a sea of stars, a magnitude of energy expressed as matter, a sign for humanity to watch and to understand in order to go beyond the economic limitations of exploitation and the naive smartness that seems to be the origin of conflict and incessant trouble and repeated tragedies. These works are more than craft-like or technical feats. The works by Celmins are a respite from the deluge of the grotesque that occupies a good portion of this exhibition.

If this Whitney Biennial makes history, its noteworthy achievement will be the beginning of the decline of "installation art" as a viable art form. This would be a blessing -- and there is certainly plenty of evidence in this exhibition to make the case. Media and excess are two issues that have been overdone to the gills. We don't need another comment about what any intelligent person already knows: commercial television and now the com- mercial internet have become fundamental sources for escapist violence, anti-erotic sexuality, and orgasmic purchasing power. What else is new? The result is the grotesque. And there is plenty of it around. The galleries are consumed with it. If only a few of its practitioners who are so fond of the grotesque would sit down for a moment and study -- really study -- why first-rate artists like Louise Bourgeois and David Lynch make it happen in a way that is truly moving, the art world would be reju- venated. You have to know something to make something happen, and knowledge is much more than the accumulation of codes and information.

Perhaps there should be a study guide instead of a gallery guide, a manual for how to differentiate between art and the empty plethora of visual culture that exists as a mindless sequence of political solipsism. Now that the imagination has withered from the vine, we have the endless seduction, the incessant and unyielding givenness of cathode ray light and mega-RAMs surrounding the planet Of course, you will find indications of these depletions throughout the museum.

Generally-speaking, the Whitney Biennial has become a "no win" situation. This has been true for more than two decades, and I don't see it changing radically for the better. As I have said before, the Whitney Biennial is not an exhibition that is curated so much as it is organized. All the right ingredients have to be present, and these ingredients are becoming more complex year by year. To say that it is an institutionally-driven exhibition would be a seri- ous understatement.

Copyright ©1997 Robert C. Morgan & REVIEW All Rights Reserved

Robert C. Morgan is an international critic, artist, art historian, curator, and poet.
He is the author of Commentaries on the New Media Arts (Umbrella Associates, 1992), After the Deluge: Essays for Art in the Nineties (Red Bass Publications, 1993), Conceptual Art: An American Perspective (McFarland, 1994), and Art into Ideas: Essays on Conceptual Art (Cambridge University Press, 1996) and Between Modernism and Conceptual Art (McFarland, forthcoming 1997). He is a Professor of the History and Theory of Art at the Rochester Institute of Technology and a Visiting Professor at Pratt Institute and the School of Visiting Arts in New York. Dr. Morgan lectures regularly and is a frequent panelist on a variety of contemporary issues in art.