In Focus:
The 1997 Whitney Biennial

by Dominique Nahas

The Biennial is the American art world's most meretricious event. It has the combined tawdriness/bawdiness of a home grown artworld Cannes Film Festival /medicine show. A marketing event spangled with show-biz glitz and fed with lots of hype --- many of whose artist participants are well versed in the use of the grammar of scandal and affect as the subject of their art --- the Biennial is regularly picked clean and evaluated for signs of life by the culture industry. And the post-mortems are kept in enormously thick and heavy binders in the public-relations office of the Whitney for, what else? , the art historical record. In spite of the obvious self serving function of this show to validate Parkett magazine's editorial choices and to substantiate the Whitney's past / future curatorial practices and collecting tendencies this Biennial exhibition has its intricacies and difficulties and joys. If you know how and where to look, it has some powerful , moving moments, many of these laced with gracious and affecting humor. Step right up and welcome inside the tent, folks. We will show you marvels and mysteries never before seen by (wo)man . Please leave your identity complexes with our assistants before you step inside ..."

There are high points and low points in the Biennial --- the American artworld ceremony that includes its time-honored practices of disclaimers on the part of the museum in its catalogs ("... the most salient constants of the Biennial are the plaintive wails that greet it " (1987) , " ...the Biennial does not pretend to survey the totality of American art of this moment"1997) , etc, etc, as well as the ritualistic ho-hum/hipper-than-thou musings of the press. Let's go through some of these just for old times sake: in 1946 Clement Greenberg remarked on "the evenness with which the Whitney [Annual] shows have been bad..." in The Nation ; "the nation's unofficial Salon " (San Francisco Examiner, 1991) , "...since 1932.. the oddest of art world rites" (New York Magazine, 1975) , "...the art world's weather vane..." (Christian Science Monitor ,1993 ); "... a big barometer..." (New Art Examiner) ; "the equivalent of the debutante's ball" (Newsweek 1993) ; ..."an unendurable bore" Hilton Kramer, (NYTimes 1977 ) ; "the worst in living memory" ; Robert Hughes (TIME , 1985) ; and finally : " the Biennial ] an impersonal survey, dutiful and official "( NYTimes , 1997) .

The 1997 Biennial, as usual, is a multi-leveled event , functioning as a universal hinge calculated to infiltrate, influence , and appeal to a broad definition of the social body ( the attempted definition of which is one of the main topics of the show --- as the Charles Long/Stereo Lab installation with Bubble Gum Station, 1995 and the Jason Rhoades' accumulation makes clear ) in order to appeal ( in descending order) to tourists, to kids and to art professionals. This exhibition at the Whitney isn't just your ordinary show of presenting just ordinary new -virgins -on- the -block - artworks (as Paul McCarthy's hilariously naughty Untitled, 1997 installation in the Lobby Gallery makes clear ). There are old timers and veterans from previous shows at the Biennial (Lari Pittman, Ed Ruscha, Sue Williams, Bruce Nauman, Dan Graham) among others) as well as unknowns (Cecilia Vicuna, Annette Lawrence, Aaron Rose , among others ). The curators and the museum should also be credited for expanding the definition of allowable artists allowing for the first time any artist who lives and works in the United States not only artists with a US citizenship. This is very good news.

On the whole this Phillips-Neri tag-team Biennial looks better than the "metaphor" Biennial curated by Klaus Kertess two years ago. It is edgier, and more thoughtful than the 1995 show and installed in a more cogent way than the 1993 "issues of identity" show (without evoking the illusory coherence that this cyclical event always implicitly promises). Each work of each artist is given plenty of room to show off without impinging on the space of its neighbors and this gives the exhibition a smart even stately feel. In this regard Douglas Blau's Sacred Allegory, 1996 a assemblage at the introductory wall on the third floor with its metahistory of lent the right elegiac note to the show as well as a touch of longed- for class. Along with this elegance is a determination by the curators to make this exhibition user-friendly as witnessed by the witty sound broadcast installation by Martin Kersels (Whitney Lobby Composition, 1997)the Paul D. Miller soundtrack in the passenger elevator( Zona Rosa, 1996) , and Dan Graham's viewing stations in the Lower Gallery with seat cushions (New Space Showing Videos, 1995).

The best artworks in the Biennial are just that, the best, because they're poetically contradictory , multilayered , elliptical. Beggaring description, let alone categorization., they elude classification since they include overlapping formal concerns and sensibilities and deal with several overriding issues and entertwining themes. But here are a few permeable themes paired with artists who share these motifs that I was able to identify at random (keep in mind this is hardly a complete list of artists or categories, of course) : the body (Bourgeois,Long, Rhoades ) sexuality (Bourgeois, Lawrence, McCarthy, Williams ), conventions of beauty (Conner, Long, Philips, Rose ) , dislocation /displacement (Ashkin, Bourgeois,Burden, diCorcia,Gitlin, Martorell, Orozco, Seator) , the contingency of memory (Blau , Bourgeois, Burden, Kabakov, Leonard, Lawrence ,Oursler) , the (de)construction of self-identity (Bourgeois, Ewald ,Hammons, Lawrence,Leonard, Marshall, Philips, Ritchie, Schimert, Sikander,Talukdar,Thater, Vicuna, Walker), errant science/technology and media /information pollution (Schabel, Shambroom, Pittman, Ritchie, Rhoades. ). The depiction of systematic crisis ( of signs, of society, of the self ),the definition of (post)modernity itself , is sensed in the strongest of these efforts.

I want to make a special note of how I enjoyed, even marveled at, Matthew Ritchie's work. He is in the leading phalanx of a new generation of artists who enfolds Blakean and archetypal impulses with information theory. His paintings and drawings depict the genesis, the expanding and the contracting of universes. They are activated by the forces and activities of seven celestial agents who have their own life stories recounted through theapplication of the artist's made-up scientificity. His confabulated universes within universes are allegories about the spawning of information and they are sensational. Ritchie's contemporary mythologies Seven Earths, 1995, The Binding Problem, 1996,The Hard Way web site , 199, Time Novel, 1997 and his 21 illuminations on mylar Autogenesis , 1996-7 quite simply epitomizes creativity. There are other very good works in the Biennial that comment on the influx of physical and mental proliferation in a media- saturated end -of -the-millennium world. Twined with the notions of the fluidity of boundaries , psychic and public, the dissolution between peripherality and centerdness , between physicality and evanescence , between staged reality and equally staged fiction, these art pieces take a great deal of time to absorb but are worth the visit and the patience. Among these highlights are Jason Rhoades' installation (Uno Momento/theater in my dick/a look to the physical/ephemeral, 1996) , the Chris Burden Pizza City , Glenn Seator's monumental Untitled, 1997, and Bruce Nauman's End of the World video installation (1996) . George Bataille's ideas of transgression, the abject, eroticism ,and taboos and Antonin Artaud 's thoughts onthe function of the theater of cruelty as curative magic seems to preside over the best works dealing with sexuality and the body. In this category I would include two major works. The first is Paul McCarrthy video installation on the ground floor Lobby Gallery. The second is the Louise Bourgeois room on the second floor which includes Torso 1996 , Arched Figure #1 1997 , and Pink Days and Blue Days, 1997 . This sequence of works is a staggeringly important milestone in contemporary art. I am quite sure it is unoriginal but accurate to claim the Bourgeois installation is easily the best work in the Biennial.

When art references the body and perme- ates it with suggestions of technological irrevocability the result is often very biting and troubling as in Tony Oursler's Mansheshe, 1997 on the second floor, the Suicide Box video by the Bureau of Inverse Technology on the floor 3 ,the video of Robert Wilson's 1995 La Mort de Moliere , Brian Crockett's Ignis Fatuus, 1997 , Paul Shambroom's photographs from his Nuclear Weapons series 1990- 5. I found some very good, thoughtfully hung pairings of artworks in this Biennial. Two particularly good confluences of space, content and style come e to mind . The first occurs on the Lobby Gallery and on the first floor simultaneously. I have rarely seen Gonzalez-Torres 's work so movingly installed in across the main window of the gallery. Seen in the evening , the reflections between the lights of Untitled (America), 1994-5 , floating between the grids a of the construction scaffolding outside create magnificent spatial plays. While very different from his neighbors on the fourth floor Ilya Kabakov's touching Treatment with Memories, 1997 seemed to fit with the Burt Barr (Slow-Mo , 1996) /William Forsythe (Solo, 1995) /David Hammons( Phat Free, 1995-7) video programs because of the very different rates of perceptual, physical and mental movement between that occurs each separate viewing experience.

One of the main puzzles about the show was the inclusion of paintings and drawings by Vija Celmins, Ed Ruscha,Richard Prince and Francesco Clemente. All of these old timers are good, even great artists I and I experience no resistance in enjoying these works. The question I have is why were these particular artists chosen over other artists of their generation (why not Alex Katz, now doing the best work of his career, or Brice Marden ,or Nancy Spero? ). I can't come up with an answer. Of the works that looked noticeably stronger outside of a gallery context I would include Kerry James Marshall and Bruce Nauman, Gabriel Orozco, Kara Walker. Of the non-video works I felt were not convincing I would cite Diana Thater's tedious overtheorized Electric Mind , 1996 as much ado about not much, Richard Phillips' paintings as tired, uninspired , re-heated post Pop imagery of the dullest kind, Jennifer Pastor's irritating The Four Seasons 1994-6, an em- barrassing display of the Jeff-Koons-gone-nature-boy school of artmaking and Cecilia Vicuna's Black Net , 1997 a tepid , well intentioned installation that seems lost on the fourth floor, and Annette Lawrence's four untransformed diagrammatic paintings on the second floor.

This year's Biennial is pretty and brainy . It's filled with many many charms and it has its wits about it too, which leads us to ponder what is in store for us the next time around in 1999. Anyone want to place any millennial bets?

Copyright ©1997 Dominique Nahas & REVIEW All Rights Reserved

Dominique Nahas is former chief curator of contemporary art at Everson Museum and former director of the Neuberger Museum. He is now an independent curator, critic and art historian.