PRINT Summer 1987


A Roman correspondent observes a New York institution.

IF A COMPARISON OF TWO artworks in the 1985 and the 1987 biennials of the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, can evoke the difference in mood between the two shows, the best examples for the purpose are Kenny Scharfs vividly colored invasion of the bathrooms and telephone booths in the earlier exhibition and lzhar Patkin’s doleful room in the current one. Patkin’s allegory is painted on sheets of rubber hung like curtains to cover the four walls of a room; it has a sense of didactic heaviness, notwithstanding the rippling movement suggested by its drapes and folds. Where the earlier show had an atmosphere of disco-tech late-night free association (of colors, objects, media, sounds) that one could associate with the East Village scene of that time, this year’s exhibition has a distinct air of “seriousness.” In fact this year’s exhibition should be taken more seriously, because as a whole it is much stronger. Still, I’m sorry to see that the season of son et lumière is over.

Curators Richard Armstrong, Richard Marshall, and Lisa Phillips seem to have focused their attention on painting,1 and what emerges from their choices is the desire to hold at bay neo-Expressionism. While a critical argument can easily connect the work of certain artists in the biennial, for example George Condo, with the “neo” strategy first identified, in the early ’80s, with some of the young German painters, the selection and installation of the show generally tries to reaffirm the importance of postwar American art to art’s present interests. In these biennials the choice of established artists from the ’50s, ’60s, or ’70s is usually an indication of a thesis on the younger artists represented in it; in 1985, for example, with the juxtaposition of Jasper Johns and David Salle, the curators seemed to be proposing a certain track. This year work by Richard Artschwager, Neil Jenney, Joseph Kosuth, Sol LeWitt, Nauman, Nam June Paik, Edward Ruscha, Robert Ryman, and Richard Tuttle sets up a multilayered context for younger artists represented by Peter Halley, Jeff Koons, Annette Lemieux, Philip Taaffe, and others, artists whose work shares no formal conventions but is related by its concern, in one way or another, and whether critically or unconsciously, with American formalism. Some of these artists call up such currently topical terms as “neo-geo” and “simulationist,” while others—Robert Greene, for example—seem more “arcadian.” And others again more overtly confront the social and political dimension of contemporary image culture—Barbara Kruger and Nancy Dwyer, for example.

In its approach to installation the biennial is workmanlike. Conceptual, abstract, op, and representational works are mixed together, a fine approach that would be even better if one sensed in it some inspired idea of breaking up preconceptions. The first and second rooms on the fourth floor do appear to have an underlying design—in fact, two themes emerge: technology and nature, and both with an effect of distance. (This effect occurs often in the exhibition; we are in the realm of what has come to be called the “hyper-real.” Koons’ Rabbit, 1986, is the cue.) In the first room technology is defunctionalized, devitalized. R. M. Fischer’s works impress through their monumental sculptural presence; they evoke the utopia of the machine, and illustrate its futility, recalling not so much the sophisticated technology of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) as the rudimentary mechanics of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927). Halley’s circuit-based abstract paintings also seem to allude to mechanical or electronic systems, but where Fischer’s work verges on the ornamental, what comes through here is reductively geometric. Both abstract art and the cells and conduits of technology are simulated in paint and frozen. A similar attitude is seen in a later room in Dwyer’s transposition of a graphic videolike sign into painting, rendering it decontextualized, mediated, and caught. But it is Paik whose work best describes, if ironically, a nostalgic look at the technological imagination. His Family of Robot: Grandmother and . . . Grandfather, both 1986, anthropoid constructions of antique television cabinets fitted with modern color TVs playing Paik videotapes, propose a humanization of machines; they induce a nostalgia for radio days more than an attraction for the technology that has gone into the making of the tapes, and they tempt a reading in terms of a rethinking of a lost modernity.

In the second room on the fourth floor Robert Lobe represents large details of nature. His exaggeratedly realistic aluminum casts of rocks and tree trunks express the urgency of ecological preservation, even while they show a melancholy awareness of nature as lost. Where Jenney’s work conceptualizes a sense of our distance from nature, Lobe’s theatrical but passionate naturalism is emotional and extreme. The theme of nature returns in many works: it is expressed in painting both vernacularly accented (David Bates) and reflecting cultural change (Ruscha and Ross Bleckner); it can be ingenuously elegiac (Greene) or metaphysically restless (Robert Helm); it can project grotesque visions (Jim Lutes).

An interest in narrative is also subtly transmitted in the photographic works, which interweave two poles, the figural and the sociopolitical. The first is clearly an issue in the works of Bruce Weber and of the Starn Twins, two strong installations which emphasize their own methods of presentation. Images by Kruger, Clegg & Guttmann, and Tina Barney belong to the second group. The collision of words and images in Kruger’s work is always razor-sharp and politically acute, but the gigantic scale of these pieces does not make them stronger. By and large, an outsider perspective is underrepresented in this biennial; the contemporaneous show downtown at the Clocktower, “Guerilla Girls Review the Whitney,” serves as a voice of reminder here, I hope with therapeutic effect.

To return to the criteria of selection for the exhibition, it’s interesting to note, in the introduction to the catalogue (but committee texts, without individuality, are always so sad), that “the strength of an artist’s recent production is evaluated both in relation to that artist’s entire body of work and in relation to the work of contemporaries. In addition, an artist’s achievement is measured in the context of its current influence.” This may explain the sense one tends to feel in these biennials of fashionably circling around “what’s happening” rather than hitting it raw-nerve style. It may, for example, be why Willem de Kooning was included in the show. His presence—like that of Louise Bourgeois, toward whom my personal aversion remains unchanged—is a sign of the identity problem that the philosophy of the biennial invites. Shouldn’t this really be an occasion to exhibit less familiar work? Some of the art here was unknown to me, but much of it has been exhibited, written about, and sold within the past two years. It is strange that the Whitney’s curators have denied themselves the pleasure of new discovery. Perhaps they hope to reassure the public with the prolonged glow of recent glories, the smell of success. In this biennial, de Kooning cuts the same sort of figure that Bette Davis did at the Oscar ceremony this spring. And the show is fundamentally the same too—nostalgic, and relatively scandalless. Those excluded don’t need to worry: if the critics and the market decree them commercially viable, they’ll be in next time around.

Ida Panicelli is a critic who lives in Rome. She contributes regularly to Artforum.

Translated from the Italian by Meg Shore.



1. It’s true that the show in fact includes about the same number of painters as it did last time. There’s not much less photography or media-based work than there was in 1985; the video and film section curated by John G. Hanhardt is also as substantial as it was then, and there’s probably even a little more video outside the screening room in the walk-through exhibition space. But it seems fair to say that the emotional heart of this exhibition is in painting. The video installations by Judith Barry, Grahame Weinbren, and Roberta Friedman, and Bruce Nauman seem tucked away in their unobtrusive locations. and are themselves less formally irruptive than, say, Dara Birnbaum’s installation in 1985. The 1987 biennial has fewer artists than the 1985, with more works from each, and most of the shaving has been done in the area of sculpture. The result is almost as if there are two exhibitions in the museum—one, with nods to sculpture and photography, basically dealing with American painting today (and here it must be said that in general the curators have made strong and intelligent cases for the artists they have chosen), and another in Hanhardt’s film and video screenings. The former occurs in a space that one can walk around in, spending as long or as little as one likes before a work, returning to rooms or passing quickly through them to get a sense of their sequence. The mechanics of a film and video exhibition such as the Whitney’s, admirable though it may be, are more problematic, and do not erode the residual reluctance of critics and public to develop an impassioned interest in these media. In the film and video screening room one must either watch only whatever happens to be running when one sees the show or pay repeated return visits to the museum over the weeks of the exhibition—which proved impossible for me, on a short stay in New York Accordingly, I have not written about the film and video program here, in favor of a critic able to see the whole series and give it the attention it deserves. [The film and video section will be reviewed in terms either of selected individual works or of an overview in September 1987––ED.]