PRINT September 1995


Allan Schwartzman

More frequent than Documenta, more worldly than the Whitney Biennial, and addressing itself to a larger, more varied audience than the art fairs, the Venice Biennale remains the art world’s international schmooze center. With its 30 national pavilions and literally dozens of auxiliary shows, it is also the most vital of the international contemporary-art events. It is where you go to find out what’s happening in art. “Discovery rather than sanctification, ” writes Jean Clair, the commissioner of the 1995 Biennale, "has always tended to be . . . the main aim of the Biennale.

Well, no. Far from it. “II Percorsi del gusto” (Journeys of taste), an exhibition celebrating the Biennale’s 100th anniversary, makes abundantly clear just how off-target the event has tended to be: it is astounding how frequently the Venice Biennale has failed to identify the artists and movements at the core of Modern art. Occasional enlightenment entered after World War II, but it wasn’t until the ’60s, when Robert Rauschenberg became the youngest artist ever to win the Special Prize, that the Biennale came to be guided consistently by a knowing contemporary gaze. The deliberately unruly “Aperto” section devoted to young artists, which made tracking the new the Biennale’s most essential sport, wasn’t initiated until 1980.

Clair has chosen to bypass the expected focus on the anniversary. “The last decade has seen the collapse of all the ideologies and utopias upon which the last one hundred years have fed,” he writes in his foreword; “The young of the 90s . . . are subject to a loathsome economic system, to diseases of previously unknown virulence, to sexuality as a source of stress and to technological progress which has become well-nigh synonymous with the obliteration of humanity.” So far, so good (so to speak). But then, instead of attempting to bring some insight to the work of a new generation of artists, instead of lending vision to today’s diverse but wobbly art world, Clair has eliminated “Aperto” and sent the new to the fringes. Instead, he has placed all of his critical stock in the huge exhibition “Identity and Alterity,” an attempt to trace the history of the figure in the art of the last century. The show reinforces the lack of interest in new art; from recent decades Clair features conservative Expressionistic painting and creepy representational sculpture.

Clair writes that the idea of an avant-garde is alive and well, but the startling underlying message of the centenary celebration is that youth culture is dead. Art has glamorized youth since the early ’60s; as the romance gained momentum, and as the media’s and the market’s hunger for the new became more voracious, frantic, and frenetic, it was inevitable that the machinery would eventually blow a gasket. But one does not walk away from the Biennale with the consolation that Clair has given these mechanisms much thought. The idea that the new has strummed its last chord, that the disco is closed, is certainly worth examining. Instead, with a wave of the curatorial wand, Clair makes the new a thing of the past.

The shift throws the Biennale’s usual rich mix of visitors out of whack. Without “Aperto,” only a fraction of the young artists, critics, and curators who ordinarily give the celebration a spirit of the moment are in attendance. Instead, this Biennale is the property of the patron class—its events seem ruled by deluxe tours for museum benefactors. Youth-oriented events have been reduced to a 72-hour rave called Club Berlin, back in June; the music was turned down low so as not to disturb the neighbors.

Back on course indeed. The 1995 Venice Biennale is the most reactionary contemporary-art event in recent memory.

Still, Clair has not entirely turned his back on the “discovery” that has “always tended to be . . . the aim of the Biennale.” “Identity and Alterity” attempts to discover new ways of thinking about Modern art, and its strengths are its innovative ways of looking at history. By tracing the art of the last 100 years through representation, Clair abandons conventional art history’s fascination with the formal evolution of pictorial space as a guiding principle, and attempts instead to examine the relationship of art and artistic image-making to the larger culture and to representation in the broadest sense. In the process, he attempts to chart the changing conception of self. This ambitious approach taps into a burgeoning field of subject matter in contemporary art. It is welcome in a major international exhibition.

For Clair, 1895, the year of the first Biennale, was conveniently a pivotal moment for the Western sense of the self. It was the year when Freud set off on the path to psychoanalysis, and also when the Lumière brothers invented the cinematograph, the first motion-picture camera. Their machine is on view in “Identity and Alterity,” and it is an extraordinary object—a shotgun with a film canister in place of an ammo cartridge, which says as much about picture-making, or -taking, as any painting, photograph, or film. By displaying paintings, photographs, mug shots from criminal and medical archives, and objects used to record and measure, Clair charts the relationship between science and art, sending the mind in dozens of thrilling directions. The new may be dead, but long live the old’s interpreter.

Clair’s show explores how classification—the favorite methodology of science and anthropology—can degenerate into fascism. One might expect this horrific reality to be the climax of his show’s Act I, spelled out and inescapably reiterated in a grand curatorial crescendo. Yet it is essentially reduced to one poignant but singly ineffective juxtaposition in the section entitled “Totalitarian Arts and Degenerate Art”: a painting by the German artist Adolf Wissel, and bought by Hitler himself, of a rather dour model-Aryan family hangs beside a self-portrait by the German-Jewish artist Felix Nussbaum, who wears his yellow Star of David and holds an identity card stamped “JUIF-JOOD.” The portrait was painted just a year before the artist was killed in Auschwitz.

For much of its course, Clair’s show is an exhilarating mess, combining art and artifact, paintings and archival photographs, Modern and communist, historical and contemporary, in provocative ways. Some individual rooms are extraordinary as minishows in and of themselves. There are also wonderful discoveries: self-portrait cycles by the Finnish painter Helene Schjerfbeck and by the Austrian composer Arnold Schönberg (very proto–Francesco Clemente), for example. Sometimes the ideological flow runs away from the curator; this can be excused. But when Clair reaches recent decades he commits curatorial hara-kiri, totally abandoning the inventive strategies he has spent so much time and space establishing.

In the postwar period, appropriately, figuration limps along. But in the ’60s and ’70s, just when you’re prepared for the show to get going again, Clair tries to trail it off into the esthetic sunset, with a typically sexual Georgia O’Keeffe abstraction (actually dating from 1923, but included here, presumably, for its formal resemblance to an Andrea Cascella sculpture from 1962), or, worse, into artistic conservatism, with British painters David Hackney, Leon Kossoff, Lucian Freud, and R. B. Kitaj. In this context, documents of Vito Acconci plucking his pubes hair by hair, a landmark work of “identity and alterity” now over 20 years old, would have been positively radical. Lynda Benglis too could pull her golden dildo out of its quarter-century retirement and be hailed a conquering hero.

My problem with Clair’s treatment of the post-Pop era goes way beyond my own personal taste, for it would be hard to dispute that anything has done more to change the sense of self in the last three decades than feminism and AIDS. Feminism is given a nod here; AIDS doesn’t exist. I find it incomprehensible that in 1995 we are still not beyond the prejudices that blind us not just to the achievements of contemporary women artists but to feminism and its esthetic repercussions. Autobiography, small scale, narration, the exploration of self, the very media of video and performance—all of them central to the interests of mainstream art in the last few decades—would not have been possible without feminism. And what of AIDS? Professional-class neo-Expressionist painters with wide brushes, fast hands, and bold colors can address anxieties both real and imagined almost at whim, but for artists whose lives have been touched by AIDS, giving form to their fears and rage has truly become a matter of life and death. This fact has been central to the reexamination of the relationship between self and body that has taken place in the last decade.

The 1993 Biennale sparked a sense of being on the cusp of a new world. This was clearest at the national pavilions (usually the Biennale’s focal point), especially the German Pavilion, which Hans Haacke made into an explosive image of the reunification of Germany; the Russian Pavilion, where Ilya Kabakov created an image of a world in ruins; and the Israeli Pavilion, where Avital Geta built a kibbutz-style hydroponic farm, placing a utopian system in an alien and hostile world and thereby constructing a metaphor for the state of Israel.

This year has none of the artistic achievement of Louise Bourgeois (allotted the American Pavilion in 1993), the political pathos of Kabakov, the political clarity of Geta, or the formal surprise of Haacke. A few national pavilions are noteworthy: Bill Viola presents an ambitious group of works in the American Pavilion—at the entrance, a piece about communication breakdown, with a corridor of video faces gagged and incapable of meaningful speech; at the exit, a video reenactment of Pontormo’s Annunciation that is one of the few artworks in recent memory to quote an art-historical masterpiece and breathe some contemporary life into it. In painting, the Kossoff exhibition in the British Pavilion is quite strong, especially his crowd scenes and architectural views; and the Roman Opalka show in the Polish Pavilion is, surprisingly, one of the Biennale’s few purely esthetic experiences, and a welcome refuge. But for the most part this year’s national pavilions house nothing more than shows of recent works.

There has been much speculation as to whether “Aperto” will be resurrected in future years. Early reports suggest not—word has it that the Biennale administration is thrilled with this year’s results. Meanwhile, several off-site Biennale exhibitions attempt to keep the spirit of the new alive. A photography show organized by Francesco Bonami does a decent job of beginning to examine issues of self in some recent work. “Transculture,” organized by Fumio Nanja and Dana Friis-Hansen to explore cross-cultural identity, is one of the more compelling off-site shows; it includes an installation by the Japanese artist Masao Kohmura, who uses a computer to generate meaningless languages, distorting the existential time-marking esthetic of an Opalka or an On Kawara until it has no meaning. Another show, “Artelaguna,” a display of sculpture in the lagoon, is about as pathetic as you might imagine.

The spirit of the renegade is honored as nostalgia in a show of Allen Ginsberg’s photographs, some of them now 40 years old. A little farther afield, in the realm of unsanctioned shows, is a so-called “avant-garde walk”; the term that has been the watchword of the new takes on an artifactual quality given the rest of the Biennale, about as quaint as a Ye Olde Candle Shoppe in Colonial Williamsburg. The walk, consisting of pieces scattered around the city by 20 artists such as Gotscho and Lorna Simpson, was an anticipated event, but during my visit to Venice, few seemed to have managed to visit the sites.

Finally, “General Release,” a show organized by the British Council to present the work of yet another group of young British artists, includes a video image of a pair of twiddling thumbs—a fitting image for an art scene passing time while waiting for clarity, a whole generation of artists inching forward, fearful of making a mistake. Is nobody bothered by the fact that there does not seem to be a new generation of critics to help guide the scene along and interpret it? The 1995 Venice Biennale suggests that the powers that be have little expectation that meaningful culture will continue to be produced. While we twiddle, the Biennale burns.

Allan Schwartzman writes about art for a variety of publications.