PRINT April 1981

The Whitney’s Latest Sampler

AMERICAN ART’S EQUIVALENT OF a trade fair, the Whitney Biennial this year is more like candy’s Whitman’s Sampler, with something for everyone, than the result of a compromise or battle among the curators who make the selections—John Hanhardt, Barbara Haskell, Richard Marshall and Patterson Sims. This year, film, video, installation, painting, sculpture and photography in their various forms are all amply represented; what’s narrow-minded about it, though, is that virtually every work on view (except for the film and installation choices) could have been seen sometime during the last two years in prestigious big-city galleries. The Whitney Biennial is representative less of American art than of international gallery art, less nationalistic in its breadth than metrocentric in its depth: 69 of the 115 artists represented live and work in New York City. (To its credit, though, this year’s show is more energetic than the last two have been, and includes relatively unknown work as well as more familiar significant work.)

So—in the spirit of the Biennial, here’s a capsule accounting of this year’s exhibition:

Worst Idea: Putting Museum Imprimatur on Anti-Museum Sculpture:

Believe it or not, the Biennial offers a slide show of situational outdoor works by Siah Armajani, Alice Aycock, Christo, Richard Fleischner, Nancy Holt, Mary Miss, Owen Morrel, Dennis Oppenheim and Richard Serra. This type of site-sculpture primer is an act of perversity; the Whitney presents subtle, situational pieces totally divorced from the contexts in which they exist and, like it or not, this is work that asserts that context is everything. Plans, elevations, supplementary photographs and models would have been more elucidating.

Best Idea, Worst Execution:
Including Willem de Kooning’s large-scale reworkings of his ’50s paintings is conceptually a terrific idea; I could almost hear the curatorial brain-gears in motion: “If we show de Kooning next to Katherine Porter and Julian Schnabel, we’ll be able to illustrate the Expressionist continuum. . . .” Likewise, “If we show Rosenquist next to Neil Jenney and other New Imagists, we’ll be able to illustrate the corollary, Realist tradition in modern American art.” Regrettably, the de Koonings are overscale and not the strongest examples of his work, and the Rosenquists look hazy—smog-ridden variants of his consummate billboard style.

Best Floor: The Funhouse on Number Two:
Moving pictures—film and video—are on this floor, as well as installations requiring the viewer to move through them. Any visitor to the Whitney could profitably spend a few hours here for any number of days, and be treated to a whole new cycle of events each time. (It would take the whole Biennial to see all the movies; I’ve only seen a third.) Yvonne Rainer’s Journeys From Berlin/1971, a film exploring the connections between political terrorism and personal terror, is part of a series that includes Bette Gordon’s Empty Suitcases; James Benning’s compendium of his own work, Grand Opera; Kenneth Anger’s meditation on Aleister Crowley, Lucifer Rising; and Robert Frank’s diaristic Life Dances On. Over in video are two views of last year’s Winter Olympics, Kit Fitzgerald and John Sanborn’s Olympic Fragments and Nam June Paik’s Lake Placid, as well as Peter D’Agostino’s representational Quarks and Barbara Buckner’s abstract and allusive Hearts, among others.

Installations in the funhouse: Buky Schwartz’s elegant In Real Time, created, for the Biennial, uses four monitors to capture the Biennial pilgrim’s progress through a painted-yellow Constructivist space in which an upended mirror reflects and distorts the pedestrian’s journey. In Michael Brewster’s Echocentric, an anechoic chamber painted pale grey, the unremitting screech from a sound-generating box interferes with the peaceful, serene room that’s the closest thing the Biennial has to a Zen space. The filmstrips in Paul Sharits’ epochal Episodic Generation, a four-projector panorama, are projected latitudinally rather than longitudinally, creating an exhilarating’ roller-coaster acrophobia. Vito Acconci’s Sliding Doorway, a pair of bicycles which, if pedaled, would reveal a scenic landscape to its pedal pusher, wasn’t working and consequently sat riderless, more conceptual installation than illusionistic tour. This mechanical midway was punctuated by the fragmented narratives of Alexis Smith and Vernon Fisher, which provided recreational reading between interactive events. Although reasons for the high estimation of his work are elusive, Fisher, like Smith, capitalizes on an allusive text/image coupling that makes narratives accessible to non-readers.

Most Influential Artists:
Pfaff has probably spawned more emulators than any other artist included in the Biennial. Basically the concern of Pfaff and likeminded artists (and this includes Jonathan Borofsky) is to make walk-in paintings, dispersals that come out of a sensibility that motivated the likes of Kurt Schwitters (in his Merzbau) and Allan Kaprow (in early Happenings). Where Pfaff is concerned, this is combination sculpture and painting where she draws with 3-D materials, extending the dispersal principle of her earlier, more minimal, work across rangier spaces.

Lynda Benglis, also exploring the domain between wall and virtual space in her gold-leafed gesso reliefs, is an exponent of the Glitz School (gilded maximalism) as well as the implicit-narrative school: her configurations are comparative studies of morphologies—how a flounce resembles a bird on the wing, how a wing resembles a fan. Benglis has been a huge influence on artists.

Stop! Stop! You’re Both Right! Award:
Joel Shapiro’s role in contemporary art is predictably cautious, and he produces a minimalist variant of Pfaff/Borofsky maximalism. Mr. Minimalist’s concession is to go figurative, kind of, offering simple bronze stick figures doing arabesques.

Best New Departure By A Well-Known:
Wayne Thiebaud’s aerial views of Bay Area freeways are pictorial Diebenkorns; Thiebaud is master of the conundrum that all art is formalist and that all art has content.

Most Promising Not Well-Known:
This year’s winner is Russ Warren, whose impastoed, cartoony allegories of Death and Existentialism—Quixote-like stick figures that seem to be teetering on the edge of the abyss—make his work look like the dark side of Louisa Chase.

Material Pleasures:
Robert Kushner, Kim MacConnel and Judith Shea each demonstrate the versatility of cloths other than canvas. Kushner is the collagist, juxtaposing tulles, brocades and polyesters, and letting the fabric textures describe the contours of his identical twins in Same Outfit. The applied designs of Kim MacConnel—onto lengths of cotton—is about another kind of collage, the motifs symbolic of different kinds of cultural embellishment. MacConnel’s Greek features a Roman orator and a baby stroller, with bands of decorative scrollwork separating the two. Shea sees cloth more as a sculptural material than as a painting surface, and her Inaugural Ball, a red-organdy evening gown (Shea should get the precognition award for making this well before Mrs. Reagan and her scarlet dress had made the style columns), has the seeming seamlessness and grace of a Möbius strip, the twists in the fabric apparently creating an extra surface. (The seam is hidden on a crease, producing the effect of the dress having been woven as a sculpture.)

Starting Today, Painting Is Dead Award:
The Whitney includes photography in the Biennial for the first time! The curators selected a preponderance of painterly photography, like Duane Michals’ oil-and-ink-on-photo portraits and Sandy Skoglund’s existential Cibachromes of extraordinary critters invading the lives of ordinary couples; in both cases, it’s work that deals more with painting than photography issues—color contrasts and brushwork are more noticeable than framing and grain. Like the curators, I felt more comfy with Michals and Skoglund’s work because it comes out of an easel tradition, but the Biennial also featured some examples of more “photographer-ly” work. Particularly noteworthy in this latter division are William Wegman’s large-format color Polaroids of Man Ray, the most celebrated canine since Snoopy, decked in one picture in a headdress of tassels and plumes that would turn Hedda Hopper green with envy and shown, in another image, in profile with a female model, contrasting the Weimaraner profile with the aquiline one. Also in this category: Robert Mapplethorpe’s silver prints of muscle-bulging male models (himself included) posed against minimalist backdrops, and Richard Misrach’s Type C prints, surrealistic tourist snapshots of Grecian ruins freshly illuminated by some dawn of civilization.

Inclusions That, In the Final Analysis, Justify the Biennial:
Work by Scott Burton, Neil Jenney, Edward Kienholz and Robert Moskowitz was exciting to see simply because it really was new work—not a 1980 gallery-art reprise. (Despite the varying dates of their works, all but Kienholz’s have never before been exhibited.)

Burton’s incandescent onyx table looks ripe for use by Alexander Haig or David Rockefeller, its power-elite profile emitting these visual messages: solid as a rock, bright as an idea, simple in a complex way. Burton’s Table is also ripe for contemplation by the art audience who wonders, is this minimalist sculpture, light sculpture, utilitarian art—or what? The same goes for Burton’s granite Two Chairs, Rocks-of-Gibraltar-with-seats. What’s terrific about this work is the way it raises issues of kitsch, formalism, utility and humor, all embodied in morphologically serious sculpture that is Noguchi seen through another context.

Neil Jenney’s Meltdown Morning and Window #6 represent a radical change for the artist who, as far as I know, has never exhibited any painting of his executed after 1970. These paintings, elegantly-framed in thick wooden trapezoids that mat off the images, are close-ups of tree branches seen against the sky, and are painted with almost academic meticulousness. This is unexpected, particularly in view of Jenney’s rep as the most successful finger painter in American art. The realistic precision of the landscape close-ups is offset and undermined by the dramatic black frames with the typically-prominent titles Jenney uses to caption the images. This work is a pendulum-swing from his well-known “new imagism.” This is proficient stuff, well-painted in a traditional sense. But I don’t think Jenney gives a damn about critics who decry his earlier work as apocalyptic finger painting; rather, I see these consummately-painted images as close-ups of the older Jenney landscapes, revealing the proficiency behind what had seemed to many as pure artistic abandon.

Edward Kienholz’s Sollie 17, a mixed-media environment of the exterior and interior of a flophouse room, is a grim tableau of a defeated and solitary old man who passes his time in a 10- by 10-foot cell that’s as sleazy and unkempt as the urban squalor his womb-with-a-view looks out upon. Kienholz fills the tableau with corroding, unwashed dishes, dog-eared paperback books cadged from garbage piles, exposed light bulbs, water dripping incessantly from a tap, and other objects that give the installation its grungy verisimilitude. This unnerving scenario is populated by Sollie, cast in rhoplex and wearing ill-fitting briefs, whose face (one suspects Kienholz is being journalistic here) is a life-sized photograph connected to the sculptural body at the neck, framed in a picture frame the way the snapshot of your grandpa is. Sollie is shown in three poses: masturbating on the bed while reading Robert Wilder’s A Handful of Men (pun probably intended); slumped, unhappily, at bed’s edge; and staring absently out the window. Kienholz’s clues tell us a few things about Sollie: a Teamster button suggests that he was a union member, his choice of reading matter suggests a love for macho potboilers, the girlie pics on the wall suggest a taste for nekkid pulchritude.

Kienholz isn’t being sentimental; he’s muckraking, explicitly pointing out that even the abundance of Sollie’s interior decorations can’t fill up his barren life. This is a hugely important piece for the Biennial—apart from Duane Hanson’s Cleaning Woman, it’s the only piece to blatantly address social issues.

Robert Moskowitz’s Big Picture, three canvases butted together to form a panorama, has a punning title and a poetic subject matter. On the left side of the piece two painted rays, like searchlights, illuminate a pasty dark void of an 8- by 16-foot canvas. The effect is quiet, despairing—as if Moskowitz were a Diogenes setting out to look for the honest painting.

Of course, it’s not just the art that makes a Biennial interesting; it’s also the chance it offers to question the way it all was done—who got how much space on which floor, who was in that should have been out, who was out that should have been in, and so on. So moving right along, here are a few supporting-curators and technical achievement awards.

Best Installation Yielding Warlike Standoff:
Julian Schnabel’s macho, terrorist, broken-dish painting, What to Do With a Corner in Madrid tried to stare down Joan Snyder’s feminist, hearts-and-broken-twig painting, Untitled, and the two paintings locked into a duel for supremacy. The idea of hanging them in the same room probably occurred to a curator interested in showing that what’s new in painting is including various non-painting media (which is as old as collage), but what it ends up feeling like is a war.

Best Installation Yielding Complementary Contrast:
Ed Paschke’s unsentimental life-after-radiation paintings, Brand Ex and Violencia, bilious green, next to Louisa Chase’s sentimental allegorical landscapes, Ravine and Thicket, serene green. Who would have ever thought of putting this pair, wildly dissimilar in subject and affect, next to each other? And who would have figured the neon slickness of Paschke would be the perfect foil for the scumbled thick-painterliness of Chase, intensifying the concern each has in contrast?

If at First You Do Succeed, Try it Again, Award:
The Whitney honors the continuing excellence of: Duane Hanson’s verist situational sculpture with his Cleaning Woman called, on her nametag, Queenie; William Bailey’s Morandi-delicate still-lifes; Katherine Porter’s Cubo-expressionism; Bob Zakanitch’s floral formalism; Ken Price’s constructivist ceramics; Martin Puryear’s graceful large-scale wood “bracelets” and “lattices”; and Al Held’s acid-colored diagrams of the fourth dimension.

Haven’t We Met Before Award:
On the other hand, why include the consummate but unvaried work of masters like Richard Diebenkorn, journeymen like Bryan Hunt? Their work has such a comfy, familiar look you don’t even study the paintings or sculpture since you feel you’ve seen them before.

Boola-Boola Award:
The Whitney curators like art with an Ivy League degree. On the Biennial Dean’s List are any number of Yale grads, among ’em, William Bailey, Rackstraw Downes, Jennifer Bartlett, Jonathan Borofsky, Louisa Chase, Larry Gottheim, Judy Pfaff and Martin Puryear.

Special Award:
The Triple Crown to Vernon Fisher for his inclusion in the Guggenheim “19 Artists” Show, the Hirshhorn “New Directions” exhibition and the Whitney Biennial.

Winners of the Gallery Sweepstakes for Most Artists Represented:
Blum/Helman, with six artists in the show, beat Holly Solomon, Paula Cooper, Max Protetch, and Robert Miller, each with five apiece. Blum/Helman: Richard Diebenkorn, Bruce Robbins, Bryan Hunt, Steve Keister, Richard Serra and Ellsworth Kelly. Holly Solomon: Bob Kushner, Kim MacConnel, Judy Pfaff, Alexis Smith and William Wegman. Paula Cooper: Jennifer Bartlett, Lynda Benglis, Jonathan Borofsky, Elizabeth Murray, and Joel Shapiro. Max Protetch: Vito Acconci, Siah Armajani, Richard Fleischner, Scott Burton and Mary Miss. Robert Miller: Bob Zakanitch, Louisa Chase, Jedd Garet, Gregory Amenoff and Robert Mapplethorpe.

Even though it was more exciting than the last three biennials put together, this year’s model didn’t even represent the best of gallery art. Many of the most important artists working in America (the list is much too long to start) were passed over in favor of those in the show, and a high proportion of those don’t even enjoy gallery affiliation. The lesson to be learned from the Biennial is that it’s only an index of the hottest galleries, the hottest art schools, the hottest new styles; but everyone knows that anything that hot will inevitably cool down.

A mental patient’s assessment of Van Gogh in the movie The Cobweb is just about the perfect assessment of the Biennial: “Oh, Van Gogh . . . he wasn’t such a bad painter then; he isn’t such a good painter now. ”

Carrie Rickey a film critic for the Village Voice, frequently contributes to Artforum and other art journals.