Ladies First

New York

Left: Whitney Biennial curators Francesco Bonami and Gary Carrion-Murayari. Right: Artist Charles Ray. (All photos: Miriam Katz)

THE SEVENTY-FIFTH EDITION of the Whitney Biennial opened on Tuesday night with the requisite crush of VIPs, wannabes, trustees, and sundry celebrities (Val Kilmer, Chloë Sevigny, and Todd Haynes among them). Depending on the color of your invitation, it was either one long wait in the rain (black), or a quick jump through the doors (yellow). I ducked under the rope near the front of the line and joined conversations about the possible highs (more women in the show than ever before—only twenty-three years after the Guerrilla Girls’s Biennial protest) and lows (fewer artists) of “2010.” The redundant name of Francesco Bonami and Gary Carrion-Murayari’s much-anticipated exhibition was taking some hits: Some skeptics wondered how it could possibly reflect anything about our recent political and economic roller-coaster ride. “2010? I’m still trying to figure out 2008!” spouted one cynic.

Once inside, I stood on a spiraling coat-check line with Jeffrey Deitch (no VIP treatment here). This was beginning to feel more like the “waiting” biennial, but it allowed more time to mull over my potential route. I could start with the second floor—“a little creepier,” according to Bonami—and then head up to the “fourth-floor spectacle” (again, Bonami). Instead, I began with floor four, where one could find Bruce High Quality Foundation’s Beuysian hearse clashing with Lorraine O’Grady’s tribute to Baudelaire and Michael Jackson. “Jackson’s the last of the modernists,” she chimed. Given the show’s overall subdued, understated feel––with a plethora of two-dimensional works, video, and film largely sequestered on the third floor, and a dearth of sculpture (surely the art handlers were happy)––on first look it added up to a very different, more modest beast than years past, leanness instead of “lessness.” No work in the elevators, bathrooms, or hidden spaces. No imaginary curators or dance parties at the Park Avenue Armory, either. (There will be a small performance series utilizing Martin Kersels’s playful mise-en-scène in the ground-floor project space.) And were there really only two references to Jackson—O’Grady’s and Daniel McDonald’s? OK, three, I suppose, if you count the brief clip of “Black or White” interspersed with other images on the BHQF Cadillac windshield.

Left: Artist Jessica Jackson Hutchins with small A projects's Laurel Gitlen. Right: Artist Aki Sasamoto and Linda Stein.

I caught up with Paul Pfeiffer, winner of the 2000 Bucksbaum Award, near the elevators on the fourth floor, in front of Piotr Uklański’s sprawling jute-hemp-macramé web (a choice spot, where Shannon Ebner’s stark text-based work was installed in 2008). I asked him what he thought of this year’s treatment of video. “Ten years ago, the videos were all on one monitor,” he replied. “Thankfully, I escaped that because my work had an armature.” Not long after, someone claimed the Uklański was supposed to be a pastiche of feminist art clichés, though there was nary a word about it on the wall text. “Oh, really? That’s a new one,” joked a friend, as we quickly moved along.

Anyway, the one-two-three punch of Babette Mangolte’s curtained-off gallery with pictures of artists like Richard Serra and Stuart Sherman, R. H. Quaytman’s hushed abstract paintings, and a fleet of Charles Ray’s sunny flower drawings—all on the fourth floor—is surely the cream of the crop. Michael Asher’s ephemeral contribution, a request for the Whitney to remain open 24/7 for one week (and the institution’s renegotiation, for budgetary reasons), was a high-water mark, too. While most of the “2010” artists I spoke with seemed thrilled with their spaces (“I can breathe!” gushed Aki Sasamoto), several wished they were with different neighbors or closer to “Charlie’s Room,” as Jessica Jackson Hutchins called it.

Left: Artists Anissa Mack, Gedi Sibony, and Dave McKenzie. Right: Steve Hubbard and artist Alex Hubbard.

I gave up on the third floor after realizing I was spending less and less time with each work, though it was heartening to see Joan Jonas sticking it out in the darkened galleries. I navigated the hordes to the wine soiree in the basement but fled the scene soon thereafter (too much bad synth pop) for what turned out to be a seriously “creepy” affair: the official afterparty thrown by the Biennial’s “fashion sponsor,” Tommy Hilfiger, at his Fifth Avenue store.

Two trussed-up dudes with umbrellas escorted us from our cab to the door, beyond which a crew of suntanned, khaki-clad staff were lined up against the registers to serve strong, syrupy drinks to the beautiful people, Rosario Dawson and artist Fred Wilson among them. Spencer Sweeney DJed, not that anyone would have known from the Lite FM music. No one, it seemed, had plans to stick around, and most conversations hovered around the cloying cookies—shortbread iced with Whitney logos—handed out by even more of the “premium lifestyle” brand’s eager caterers. (“They must be models,” someone said. “They’re too cute to be models,” came the retort, Biennial-land obviously long behind us.) I tried one of the cookies while Carrion-Murayari shared notes about the selection process (and his suit, a gift from Hilfiger) and expressed a sigh of relief to be finished. . . well, almost, with a handful of fetes––and more “openings” on Wednesday and Thursday––to go.

I exchanged post-afterparty tips with Dawson and watched a few more rounds of cookies make their way through the store. By then, the affair just seemed bizarre—the sponsorship that the museum has taken on, certainly necessary during this “recessional” Biennial, less palatable, at least in its native retail context. We split a little after midnight, our final destination a loft party in SoHo hosted by J. D. Samson that ran late into the night. There, a community of “2010”-ers, including Emily Roysdon, Jesse Aron Green, Sharon Hayes, and Erika Vogt, made for a much more affable, less saccharine affair. The evening, an object lesson in incongruity, finally panned out.

Lauren O’Neill-Butler

Left: Artist Kate Gilmore. Right: Photographer Terry Richardson.

Left: Incoming LA MoCA director Jeffrey Deitch. Right: Artist Fred Wilson.

Left: Lawen Mohtadi and artist Emily Roysdon. Right: Chloë Sevigny.

Left: Conny Purtill and dealer Andrea Rosen. Right: Whitney curator Scott Rothkopf.

Left: Artist Martin Kersels. Right: Bill Powers, critic Jerry Saltz, and designer Cynthia Rowley.

Left: Artist Ryan McNamara and Rosario Dawson. Right: Michael Stipe.

Left: Artist Andrea Merkx and Dispatch's Gabrielle Giattino. Right: Artist Amy Granat and curator Anthony Huberman.

Left: Artist John Tremblay with the Swiss Institute's Piper Marshall. Right: Publicist Michelle Finocchi with artist Hannes Bend.

Left: Artist Evan Gruzis. Right: Artist Jamie Isenstein and writer Jon Raymond.

Left: Tracey Ryan and artist Haley Mellin. Right: Klaus von Nichtssagend's Rob Hult with 179 Canal's Margaret Lee.