PRINT September 1995


Peter Plagens

Everybody I’ve ever talked to about the prizes they hand out at the Venice Biennale agrees on one thing: they ought to quit handing them out. Career awards for artists—$30,000 one-year Guggenheim fellowships, $350,000 five-year MacArthur “genius” grants, or those billion-yen pseudo-Nobels that some Japanese company has concocted to make the already rich and famous richer and more famous—retain some spurious dignity, mostly because they lump artists together with scientists and make rooftop performance pieces seem (momentarily) as socially meritorious as a vaccine for the common cold. But prizes at an art exhibition are inherently tacky, at least to Americans; they always smack of the blue ribbon the principal tacked onto the lower-right corner of your crayon drawing—irrelevant praise from a dubious source. Prizes turn the Venice Biennale into the espresso version of the Dutchess County Fair.

But award them Venice does, apparently believing that gold statuettes—oops, Golden Lions—lend the conglomeration of exhibitions at the Biennale the kind of panache associated with the Cannes Film Festival and its eagerly anticipated Palmes d’or. (Hell, even I want to know what’s going to be headlining at the Angelika Film Center next month.) We Americans probably shouldn’t sneer too visibly. It was, after all, Robert Rauschenberg’s 1964 Leone d’oro for his infamous Bed, 1955, that put him, Leo Castelli, Pop art, New York, and contemporary American art over the top with a Continental audience that still thought Pierre Soulages the equal of Franz Kline.

The one constant among the prizes—at least in recent years—is that they’re always quirky enough to make you think the internationally composed jury has some agenda other than simply honoring what it honestly sees as the best in each category. In 1993, for example, the big yellow pussycat for sculpture went to Robert Wilson for an installation that was actually more pertinent to his better-known profession in the theater. Richard Hamilton, the British Pop artist, and Antoni Tàpies, the Spanish abstractionist, shared the painting prize in a kind of Solomon’s-baby decision in reverse. Anyone who smelled “let’s send a message” in the sculpture award and “let’s make a deal” in painting should have trusted his nose.

This year the painting prize went to R. B. Kitaj, honors in sculpture to Gary Hill, and the nod for best pavilion to Egypt. What was once the “Aperto” prize and is now the Premio Duemilia (a bucks award—about 15,000 of ’em) went to Kathy Prendergast, and the purchase prize (in which the work goes to the Biennale archives in exchange for about $20,000) to Ignacio Iturria. There were also four honorable mentions, their only real function, as we all know, being to embarrass recipients obviously considered not radical enough to be ostracized but really not good enough to win money or a statuette. So we kindly won’t mention them. And truth be told, the selections of Prendergast, an Irish artist (for her delicate map drawings in pencil of the world’s capital cities), and Ms. Iturria from Uruguay (for her wistful paintings of little people in compartments—a bit like those Barney’s ads, only not so self-satisfied) are actually reasonable, if not inspired. It’s the Lions ’n’ Pavilions that give one pause.

First, let’s backtrack to the jurors: Tomás Llorens from Spain, Carlo Arturo Quintavalle from host Italy, Wenzel Jacob from Germany, Shuji Takashina of Japan, and, according to one of the catalogue’s opening pages, Robert Hughes of the United States and Australia. Aha! Another thing we all know is what a bully Hughes is. Why, he probably fumed and blustered until the other jurors, who come from countries not quite as big as all outdoors (like the U.S. and Australia are), caved into handing the dauber’s prize to that ol’ School of London favorite Kitaj, and the sculpture award to a video artist who’s an American. Didn’t Hughes write practically the only favorable (if qualified) review of Kitaj’s pretentious, prolix retrospective? And doesn’t Hughes, like all conservative critics who nevertheless want to remain somewhere to the left of Hilton Kramer, need to come out once in a while in favor of a post-Modernist artist, preferably one working in a “new” medium like video installation? And Egypt . . . well, Egypt’s non-Western, relatively new on the art-fair scene, and represented by three under-40 artists—more evidence of a juror’s open-mindedness.

Except that Hughes wasn’t a juror. The way he tells it, “I’d love to give you the inside track on the prizes, but I wasn’t on the jury. I think somebody thought it would be a good idea to have me on it. As the opening of the Biennale approached, I began to get this flurry of faxes asking when I was coming to judge the stuff. I said it was certainly too late to book a hotel room. The Biennale people said, ‘That’s all right, we’ll arrange it.’ I said they didn’t understand that if I judged the exhibition, I couldn’t review it—conflict of interest. That’s a concept the Italians don’t understand. And that’s also just the kind of thing the Machiavellian rumor mill would spin out. Some people in the art world would love to catch me in that kind of a conflict. But I haven’t even been to Venice [for the Biennale] yet, and I can prove I wasn’t there by all the ticket stubs I don’t have.”

Hughes doesn’t have to prove that unicorns don’t exist: the Biennale press office confirms that his name slipped onto the roster only because his demurral came after the catalogue-to-press deadline had passed. What Crocodile-Dundee-meets-Guido-Sarducci misunderstanding led to the mistake, we’ll probably never know. And without Hughes as head conspirator (nice thought, though, wasn’t it?), hidden agendas seem to vanish. I tried to get the other panelists on the phone after I got home from Venice, but they were by then far-flung and/or impossible to reach. So all I can provide by way of explanation are the jury’s gaseous official statements concerning their “unanimous” decisions. (Why do I envision a table laden with empty bottles and overflowing ashtrays, from whose periphery a hoarse, tired voice utters the equivalent of, “Oh all right, let’s make it unanimous "?)

Re Kitaj: “For his coherent research, which rediscovers in the ‘Modern’ the roots of European painting and brings a new opening to the collective imagination.” I’m glad the research is coherent, because the pictures aren’t. And I think the jury means Kitaj rediscovered the roots of the Modern in European painting, not the reverse. Anyway, Kitaj had only a few pictures in the “Identity and Alrerity” show, whereas another School of London favorite, Leon Kossoff, had an entire buildingful as the occupant of the British pavilion. So why not Kossoff as the prizewinner? One reason, in my guess: even without Hughes on the jury, there’s a considerable, albeit vague, sentiment out there to be extra nice to Kitaj after the drubbing he took for the retrospective, especially in the British press, and sometimes on apparently extraesthetic criteria.

Re Hill: “For his successful proposal of a radical and refined personal research, with expressive methods which are attentive to new technologies.” Gee, you could have said the same of Bill Viola, this year’s inhabitant of the American pavilion. But you also heard it said a lot around the Giardini that Hill’s one untitled piece—projections on two opposing walls, with a metal floor maze in the middle—was better than Viola’s five put together. Some of that opinion has to do with the stupefying amount of press Viola has gotten over the last few years (I’ve written a share), and with (I think) a backlash against MacArthur winners. Viola seems to feel that backlash: in all his bios in my Biennale folder, the only one that mentions his MacArthur is one from his English dealer, Anthony d’Offay, and I think I slipped it in there accidentally. Awarding the sculpture Golden Lion to the other American video artist may have been pointed. Or maybe not.

Re Egypt: “Because the Pavilion proposes a successful integration, within a complex architectural itinerary the original idea by three young artists who connect the tradition of Western modern art with ancient models of Egyptian culture.” Rauschenberg—or assemblage in general—looms larger in this work than the pyramids. Like I said, non-Western, new on the scene, and with young artists. A feel-good award.

Peter Plagens is an abstract painter and the art critic for Newsweek magazine.

At the beginning of a press conference at the Museum of Modern Art back in April, Jean Clair (né Gerard Regnier), the director of Paris’ Musée Picasso and the Venice Biennale’s first non-Italian director in its 100-year history, was absent—ill in his hotel room, or so the audience was told. In his place, a silver-haired Fiat bigwig stepped to the podium and started to read Clair’s remarks. Then, suddenly, M. Clair showed up, looking a little like Napoleon after a bad week at the Russian front, and commenced to speak for himself. His only salient points, emerging from about ten minutes of that high-minded quasi- or pseudo-poetic smoke that European intellectuals like to blow in public, were: a) the celebration of the Biennale’s centennial displays only “respect for the decimal system” (gee, he should’ve informed the Biennale’s logo designer, who made 1895–95 the emblem’s theme), and b) rival art-fest Documenta was thunk up solely to reassure us that Nazism was a mere parenthesis in German history (which is probably why the Italians never got a chance to join the Axis). Afterward, a rogue publicist told me that M. Clair hadn’t been sick at all, but had had some sort of snit and had stormed out of the sculpture garden just before he was scheduled to speak. This, I thought, is going to be one weird Biennale. And it is.

In deference to the fact that human beings have ten fingers each, the Biennale’s bumptious “Aperto” section for emerging artists (i.e., next year’s submerging artists—did TODT change its name to NICHT?) has been put on hold, ostensibly to be retooled into a more polite format. Instead there are a couple of historical shows: “Identity and Alterity” (sic), at the Fiat-financed Palazzo Grassi, is something about the subtextual history of the body and the face in Modern art. And “II Percorsi del Gusto” (The journeys of taste, but I like the sound of the Italian), at the Palazzo Ducale, is a stroll through highlights of previous Biennali. The best thing in “I & A” is a cabinet of photographs of arrestees at a Paris police station, made by Alphonse Bertillon in 1890, which proves conclusively that nonart made at the behest of bad science (in this case, the visual study of “criminal types”) is much more powerful as ironic post-Modern art than . . . ironic post-Modern art. “II Percorsi” is awful, especially the postwar Italian art. If Robert Motherwell was an inferior Jackson Pollock, and Antoni Tàpies is an inferior Motherwell, then Alberto Burri is an inferior Tàpies, and Afro is an inferior Burri. If the show is a percorso to anything, it’s the disgraceful contemporary painting in the Italian pavilion. I thought I’d walked into a branch of the Martin Lawrence Gallery with the floor salesmen gone on a coffee break. Don’t believe me? Check out the guy named Lorenzo Bonechi.

Of course, what should I have expected in a place—a mere 300 kilometers from Bosnia—here the real concern about the body is how to dress it up in Armani and glide it around to the bevy of toute-something-or-other parties that are, if not the lifeblood, at least the lymph nodes of any Biennale? It must be invigorating exercise. How else could so many stubbled, potbellied men in their 50s, cloaked in black suits on hot days, trailing ponytails and puffing cigs, get in shape to hoof the five miles a day, over stone streets, required of any serious tour of the exhibitions?

Whatever fatigue these roués fail to feel, however, has leached into the Biennale itself. Modernism is over with; that’s a given. Post-Modernism (in the sense of a liberated-from-the-idea-of-progress reinvigoration of art) is over with too; that concession is approaching consensus. Even all those “strategies” attempting to give bloc voice to the long-excluded Other seem to be waning, merely from having been around for about ten years. (That’s how fierce and continuous the pressure on artists is to come up with something new.) As a result, big international art expos like the Biennale no longer have any internal compass. They don’t drive toward a particular esthetic, and the realization is settling in on their curators that art doesn’t do much about the world’s persistent social problems except present itself as not unconcerned.

The Biennale’s particular albatross is the national pavilions, which drove Achille Bonito Oliva, in 1993, to mount a gloriously incoherent Biennale, foursquare against national boundaries and fervently in favor of trans-everything-else. These architecturally punk, silly little buildings (the U.S. one looks like an Iowa bank, Australia’s like a Sacramento houseboat, and Germany’s like Hitler built it, which he did) are crudely elitist and sadly inflexible. (One pavilion still says “Yugoslavia” over the door.) Their inherent nationalism—or something in the Venetian water supply—drives most of them to put on bad shows. France’s raises the crucial question, Who’s the most laughably bad big-time international artist? (Up to now, the consensus has been Botero. But after seeing this lame, pretentious presentation, I’d vote for the car-crusher over the baby-inflator.) Japan’s seems concocted mostly to relieve that nation’s surplus of video monitors. Britain’s shows how you can take a good painter (Leon Kossoff) and make him look mediocre by including nothing but plum-and-pus color schemes, and by hanging so many pictures that his thick expressionism comes off as formulaically decorative texturizing. Painters never fare well in Biennali and Documenti anyway. They’re like stiff stage actors trying to work alongside comic video babies and cure installation puppies—it’s always no contest. They should simply refuse to show.

A few pavilions do manage some substance. Roman Opalka’s never-say-die counting paintings in the Polish pavilion nobly attempt the impossible: a challengingly boring exhibition. Katharina Fritsch’s room-filling architectural model of a mysterious rower adds to Germany’s reputation (viz. Hans Haacke in ’93) of manifesting pizzazz without entirely sacrificing a sense of serious art. But my favorite, hands clown, is the Russian pavilion—if something that makes you weep can be called a favorite. It’s a melancholic three-room installation about the failure of communism, the onset of porno-disco mercantilism, and a sarcastic plea for monetary donations to alleviate the crisis. At its entrance, a video monitor runs a ’30s film of a then-famous whistler (fingers-in-mouth variety) performing Tchaikovsky’s “Chanson neapolitaine” to a dutiful piano accompaniment. Comrade Whistler’s amazing, if ludicrous, concert sums up the fragility of all, and the misguidedness futility of most, human hopes for betterment. You can hear it throughout the Giardini and, in your head, back in your hotel room every night. It’s the most moving thing in the entire Biennale. My suggestion for ’97: bring back Bertillon’s cabinet and the whistler. Leave everything else at home.