PRINT Summer 1985

Almost Home

IN DONADIO, A 1984 painting by Ed Paschke included in the 1985 Whitney Biennial, there is a hard-to-read scripted phrase painted primarily in yellow on acid yellow, with little flecks of the spectrum catching letters on the curve. Like a fly in ointment it sat there buzzing until extricated. “I told him to wear bright colors” is what’s written—this, a classic reproach to television amateurs (game show contestants, talk show guests) who fail to come across over the air. In this all-American, media-crazed Easter Parade, almost everyone wore bright colors, and even the pissy and jaundiced appeared sunny or yoke-y. The occasional ominous thought, such as Bruce Nauman’s neon White Anger/Red Danger/Yellow Peril/Black Death, 1985, or creepy feeling—TODT’s installation chamber—instead twinkled, or seemed sugar coated with the ice-cream colors of some of the more Disney-laboratory architectural styles of the late ’70s. Political attitudes were outfitted as if for period dramas, with Clifford Odets presiding in spirit over Group Material’s contact-papered Americana room, and Stan Lee holding the pugilist’s towels in David Wojnarowicz’s corner. Cartoon figures were in abundant attendance, and even when momentarily absent a storyboard pace prevailed. The work ethic, somebody’s workaday world, met you at every turn, whether you ran into a naturalist or a structuralist, a fungus or a salvo, or any of the many busy vacationers, weekenders, daytrippers, nightclubbers, space-travelers, and playroom-tinkerers miscellaneously occupied about the premises. The public was primed for this jack-in-the-box tempo before entering the building. From the sidewalk outside we could see the evolutionary iconography of Ned Smyth’s twenty-foot mosaic columns work its way up from the lower level toward the second floor, while the loopy music of Liz Phillips passive-aggressive, wind-generated sound piece worked the street.

At times one got the impression that the entire exhibition had been mobilized. The curators responsible for the paintings, sculptures, photographs, and installations on view kept a tidy army. Their catalogue may not include essays, but this was the most speed-readable Biennial since 1977, the year the current “format” and “objectives” were “adopted”—to display “multiple examples of work made during the previous two years by artists chosen collectively by the curators as the most representative of the best American art,” therewith “to make qualitative judgments at a moment of multiple critical standards, and to assemble as cohesive an overview of current art activity as possible.” To these beleaguered ends, and no doubt mindful of recent complacency in the profession, the Whitney curators made a palpable effort to feature emerging art, to mix mediums, and to stress the dynamic affect of art. This Biennial, one sensed was meant to be “green”—fresh and eventful,not a conclusion or a grand summary but an edgy, upbeat starting point for critical and curatorial engagement with the present. But unfortunately, in the curators zeal for relevance and circuits of currency—the electric circuit, the East Village circuit, the biomorphic circuit, the whatever-generation Pop circuit, etc.—the possibilities for unprogrammed intelligence on the part of the object or the viewer were short-circuited.

The curators largely forsook the more shaded and suggestive access routes to art—the literary, the poetic,the mystical, the erotic were avoided or camouflaged—and set about putting together pseudoscientific yet matter-of-fact classifications tied together according to various connect-the-dots principles. One might wish, for instance, that someone had had the bright idea of not putting Jenny Holzer together with Barbara Kruger in a “media room.” Where the problems of this system must have become most apparent, as in the case of a height analogy between the work of Bryan Hunt and James Surls, a small distance was created and Surls work, grouped with David Sallds, Kim MacConnel’s, and Jasper Johns’ (and still visible with the Hunts), looked like an uninvited golem at a deeply secular gathering.

This exhibition was both laboratory and ark, in which almost all specimens came—as has been usual in recent Biennials—in twos. On this occasion the pairs of works by individual artists were often extremely similar in composition, color, subject, and scale. This “twosies” method of twin-entry sets had a number of effects. First of all, it gave the exhibition as a whole an oddly minimal ambience, though Minimalism itself was barely present. The art population seemed thinned out, as though fewer artists were included than were actually there (about 50, not counting video, film, and installations), and the optical vistas tended to be streamlined—practically generic. Secondly, the pattern of serial permutations augmented the staccato, storyboard rhythm mentioned earlier, the most special-effect of which was that art that does not contain cartoon or media imagery ended up looking like art that does.

The caesuras in this Biennial were its four installations, each explicitly or implicitly collaborative, by Group Material, TODT (a four-artist team), Kenny Scharf, and Bill Viola. These environments formed an irregular fringe along the peripheries of the exhibition. They were small Luna Parks where the art moved, talked, and—in the case of TODT—smelled, too. The best of these was Viola’s Theater of Memory, 1985, which provided a metaphoric, lyric element that was rare in this museum-theater of reference. Images hiccuped and belched static on a large video screen as the branches of an uprooted tree twinkled and tinkled in the dark. Its theme of melancholy, of unavailable content, is acute and it was thus doubly unfortunate, if understandable, that this piece seemed to suffer nervous breakdowns and was sometimes on the fritz.

Scharf’s night-for-day Day-Glo transformation of the second-floor pay phone and bathroom area very generously served up a slice of ’80s urban life. TODT’s biology-class bummer was as goofy as Scharf’s dinosaur disco but with its heavier claims didn’t mean to be. TODT’s rather cynical attempt at Orwellian meaning included impressive “postmodern” display cases and entablatures, pig fetuses in formaldehyde sacks, fake charts, and unsavory “experiments.” “High-tech Paul Thek” is one way of describing this installation, but it could virtually have been mistaken for a well-funded Moral Majority pro-life booth at a science fair. The word inexhaustible was misspelled in relief lettering, an ordinarily trifling error that here confirmed one’s suspicions that while TODT has considerable schematic and parodistic intelligence for mortuary architectural genres involving Freudian fetishes and future-shock, they lack the discipline for the kind of details and increments of nuance without which large visions crumble into cliché.

Group Material’s Americana, off the lobby, was a kind of officially approved salon des refusés. It welcomed several different art worlds by bringing in the world, which is what Group Material has become dependably good at. As we have come to expect of them this installation was a well-orchestrated amalgam of conviction and sentimentality, eclecticism and literalness, art and time-capsule bric-a-brac. For all its inner-city parts the installation was countrified. Americana seems to have identified itself with the 1930s, and Mom-and-Pop-shop esthetics. There was a washer-and-dryer set, detergent boxes, packaged foodstuffs (for example, two “Almost Home” brand cookies), Norman Rockwell saucers, anonymous framed art, the now-obligatory Andy Warhol/LeRoy Neiman dual reference, and vernacular music to accompany America’s dirty laundry. Of note: Christy Rupp’s graceful aluminum wheat bouquets in tribute to farmers (she has been making these since long before Hollywood’s most recent excursions to the heartlands); a naive rendering of the “first black embalmer of Frogmoor, S.C” by Sam Doyle, 1982; Lee Quinones Vietnam tondo, titled Goodbye America, 1983; a sharp-focused painting by Lady Pink, of teenaged girls hanging out in a graffitied washroom, some looking like Georg Grosz caricatures; a fairly small, very lovely illumination in gold of Kafka’s Amerika, Chapter X (“The Nature Theatre of Oklahoma”), executed in remarkable stylistic harmony by Tim Rollins (GM’s leader) with five credited teenage helpers and “50 kids from the South Bronx.” It’s too bad that the collective energy implied by this deadpan little wall label could not have been released at large in this hotbed of decency.

While the second floor, on a fairly intimate scale, was a warren of more or less discrete and conservative thematic affinities, the heroic fourth contained the more magisterial curation. Its centerpiece was a potentially bold but ultimately thwarted proposal in which enduring art-historical rubrics—the Neoclassical (Tom Otterness), the Mannerist (Jedd Garet and Robert Kushner), Surrealism (Kenny Scharf and Garet), and the Baroque (Kushner and Scharf)—were given a contemporary cast. Academic as it may be, this approach has a certain valor, and had the curators managed to carry its impulse through, their fundamentally mid-Victorian classification mania might have been formally justified and given some flourish. But their center-court synopsis, in what was architecturally the museum’s salon d’honneur, hung on the work of four artists who evidently weren’t trusted to really hang together. The first thing you didn’t see when you walked in was When the Worlds Collide, 1984, Kenny Scharf’s epic disaster-painting. The reason you didn’t see it was that a wall, about 6 feet high, had been erected in the middle of the room in front of it. The wall supported a serial procession of Tom Otterness’ chunky plaster neo-Neoclassical, neo-Nadelman (via Botero), genital-flashing figures, but these needn’t have functioned as a room divider and are in fact otherwise illustrated in the catalogue. By putting them there the curators inhibited their play with architecture—what Otterness small figures do best—and, by blocking the frontal sightline to Scharf’s Baroque-Surreal virtuoso turn, they bolloxed what could have been the exhibition’s one coup de théâtre. As it was, the room reminded one of all the crummy one-bedroom apartments around that were once nice studios, but this was not what the curators had in mind.

Elsewhere on the fourth floor, the curators made the classic error of science: grouping by symptom. Thus, as we moved counterclockwise, Jack Goldstein was a “media” artist and not, say, a landscape artist because of an airbrush, and because of camera equipment Cindy Sherman was a “media” artist, not a portraitist. Paschke was a “media” artist, not a Pop-surrealist. Leaving the broadcast studio, we entered a strategy meeting where Sherrie Levine’s crypto-forgeries appropriated the Russian Revolution, Laurie Simmons’ parodies of postwar fashion spreads—on location for Harper’s Bazaar with dolls at night, not girls by day—put us in trench coats, and Frank Majore’s blue-lit sex locales made us think we heard the phone ringing at 3 A. M. (Butterfield-8. . . . ) Then onto a near-brush with TODT, a moment’s respite in Jon Kessler’s lounge, followed by a quick swing through the other art capitals, where Jo Anne Carson (Chicago), Robert Hudson (California), and Robert Yarber (Texas) were engaged in a rather lurid custody battle over the rotating credenza from the East Village. There were casualties from this chromatic warfare, especially the interesting flamboyant paintings by Yarber, while the vision of Rodney Alan Greenblat’s credenza all the while cheerfully munching on the spoils was an unpleasant sight.

The plot concluded with a gradual fadeout, in which several of the best players, such as David Salle’s two outstanding, disgruntled catcalls and Jasper Johns’ cramped-looking twin-bachelor soliloquies, were given much too little to say. Kim MacConnel’s gone-fishin’ pieces achieve a low-key exchange (de Kooning would have been good for this group; his great recent gone-fishin’ paintings would have grounded MacConnel’s, and would have realized the Classic/Baroque dialogue attempted at center-court of this tournament). Then it was total silence. Donald Judd, Robert Mangold, and John Duff were left to malinger, as if the old contents of the refrigerator in that one-time studio: a pile of saltines, a hollowed-out cheese, and a couple of pickles.

The installation on the second floor was less troublesome but far too pat: we moved from art using narrative and montage techniques to the figure-and-its-psychology, past video, to Futurist-Cubist geometry, and finally to primitivist-Cubist biomorphism. The best “room” in the exhibition was the shrink’s office, where Eric Fischl’s two stunning exercises in contempt confronted Susan Rothenberg’s fretful evasions, Charles Garabedian’s myths, and the pseudo-Victorian fetish photographs of Joel-Peter Witkin. Loose screws clearly forge the best links.

Kinesis seemed to be the principal curatorial gambit in this Biennial, and the viewer was apt to feel conscious of every move instead of every work. We were indeed meant to react rather than to think or look very hard, and the art was often set up not so much to reveal itself, but to grab for our attention. Jenny Holzer’s souped-up, tough-minded message boards arrested us, Barbara Kruger’s lenticular screens teased us, Dara Birnbaum’s slow-motion video installation mesmerized us—all within a few square feet.

Kessler’s were the only moving objects given enough space to be seen. His elaborate, rickety mechanisms—orientalist junkyard fantasies—have a peripatetic, introspective quality that permitted us to linger at ease, even though we had probably just been processed through the TODT chamber and needed air. Kessler’s use of light and his sense of visual rhythm is quite magical. He may have been the most “painterly” artist in this Biennial, and was responsible for one of its memorable images—the shadow of a dime-store wise man hovering over a fast red digital count, imbedded in a confected rock. Like Viola’s installation, these pieces have some “nervous” difficulties, the traditional price of poetry in a bully’s world.

The overwhelming feeling by the time one left the exhibition was that temperament in art had gone the way of the peregrine falcon, replaced by images, messages, and pinwheels. This is strange in a period characterized by art of excessive temperament—expressionism, romanticism, religiosity, millennarianism, etc. It is even stranger given that much of the work that was included projects such intensely individual sensibility. The feeling of art was itself latent. Carroll Dunham, Fischl, Scharf, Kessler, Birnbaum, Viola, Salle, the blue oval by Robert Therrien, were among the many to produce more than just the suggestion, but what was missing in the Whitney’s controlled experiment was the DNA. This feeling of hollowness was no doubt exaggerated by two factors, the first-the emphasis on youth—a choice, and the second—the inclusion of only American artists—a mandate. As a result the general situation of contemporary art, recently so rich in both generational and cultural crisscrossing, came off instead like a one-sided conversation and seemed, finally, provincial.

It is a timely paradox that the most undiluted encounter with an esthetic temperament occurred in this Biennial in a classically passive, second-hand art-historical setting-a slide show in the dark. Nan Goldin’s Ballad of Sexual Dependency, 1982–85, was one of two included (the other was Perry Hoberman’s 3-D Out of the Picture, 1983–84), and is a beggar’s opera of recent times. It is a 45-minute long projection of photographs taken over 13 years, of friends, rednecks, exotic and familiar scuzz scenes, sex romantic and un-, money traps and escapes, kids, family, death and life. It is accompanied by a brilliantly edited soundtrack of some of the most wildly pungent popular music of the last decades, such as Lotte Lenya’s rendition of the title song (from Threepenny Opera), Maria Callas’ “Casta Diva,” Siouxsie and the Banshees’ “Miss the Girl,” Dionne Warwick’s “Don’t Make Me Over,” “What Makes a Man a Man”—Charles Aznavour’s drag-queen lament, James Brown’s “This Is a Man’s World,” “Bull Dyke Woman’s Blues” by Lucille Bogen, Klaus Nomi’s “You Don’t Own Me,” the Velvet Underground’s “After Hours,” Nico singing their “All Tomorrow’s Parties,” “Fais-moi Mal Johnny” by Boris Vian, and Dean Martin’s “Memories.” Goldin’s piece had the miniatured painfulness and humor of a personal scrapbook, and the macho diffidence of street photographers and other poètes engagés. Here were real thieves and unexpected heroes, and a sense that some things in life might still be worth a brawl.

Lisa Liebmann write frequently for Artforum.