On Tuesday afternoon tumbleweeds drifted through the Artforum office as my colleagues and I—along with several hundred other members of the press—journeyed uptown for a sneak peek at this year’s Whitney Biennial. All the usual suspects (and, oddly, a scattering of collectors) were on hand, scribbling notes, snapping photos, and corralling curators Chrissie Iles and Philippe Vergne for impromptu Q & A sessions. “What are the most important works?” one earnest reporter demanded of Iles. Before the golden answer was forthcoming, I encountered museum director Adam Weinberg, who cheerily volunteered that he didn’t recognize the names of thirty of the artists in the show, “proof that the curators are out there doing their job.” With my own job calling, I completed a quick circuit and headed back downtown.
Wary of suffering a frigid recapitulation of 2004’s blocks-long opening-night line, my date and I were happy to breeze through the museum’s front door when we returned five hours later. The crowd inside was ample but by no means overwhelming, and somehow unconsciously mimicked the exhibition’s layout, ranging from genteel and hushed on the impeccably installed fourth floor to cheerfully garrulous on the second. Artists from Ryan McGinley to Terence Koh to Kembra Pfahler to Jeff Koons to Joan Jonas were on hand, as were innumerable dealers, a fistful of curators, a few students, and David Byrne. Team Gallery’s Jose Freire was out with new best friend Mary Boone, and informed me that he was hightailing it out of Chelsea as soon as his lease was up: “It’s been ten years, and that’s enough. I’m going to SohoGrand Street.” Austin-based Biennial artist and cult singer-songwriter Daniel Johnston received numerous well-wishers, many of them fellow exhibitors. 1993 Biennial curator Elisabeth Sussman, after hearing me out on my theory comparing the exhibition’s layout to Dante’s Inferno, allowed that her iteration of the exhibition was arranged similarly, and that perhaps this was a Whitney tradition.
As time wore on, gravityor the need for a glass of wineexerted its pressure, and everyone made their way to the lower level, where a DJ was spinning. Free to wander the galleries in relative peace, I scribbled a few observations. Film, video, and sculpture trump painting and drawing. The much-hyped emphasis on collective practice is nearly impossible to discern in the galleries. Sound bleeding seems like a problem, especially around the Jim O’Rourke video installation and on the second floor generally. A few initial favorites: Liz Larner’s red, white, and blue haystack of what look like bicycle handlebars; Pierre Huyghe’s film and Paul Chan’s video; Anne Collier’s smart photographs; Urs Fischer’s candle-bearing branches; Yuri Masnyj, Chris Williams, and the upside-down plywood board spray painted with the words “Holy Shit!” and stuck incongruously in the stairwell, which was made bywho else?Dan Colen.
Back downstairs, an unofficial poll revealed that most visitors considered this Biennial less populist than 2004’s, an observation reiterated by Michael Kimmelman in this morning’s New York Times. Pocketing my notebook for the evening, I grabbed a glass of wine for my date, only to have it immediately knocked out of my hand, dousing me and whoever was behind my right shoulder in Chardonnay. I spun around to face none other than Iles herself. The horror! Colen, LA gallerist Javier Peres, and others nearby doubled over with laughter. I was mortified, but thankfully the wine was white, Iles’s dress black, and she took it in stride. “Now it’s a party!” she offered gamely. I ventured some awkward chatIles remained mum on personal show favoritesthen, still red-faced, made for the drawbridge.