New York

“Biennial”

Whitney Museum of American Art

We may not have exactly the same old Whitney Biennial to kick around anymore, but unfortunately we still have most of the same old complaints. As always there is too much work to be digested, even though the 1973 total of 222 artists has been reduced to a mere 147 this time. The amount is nonetheless difficult to see or respond to, much less remember. It took me four visits and two dismembered catalogues spread out page by page on my floor to begin to make any sense of it. Large numbers are a typical Biennial defense, one which diffuses any impact which a show of this nature might have, and which further entrenches the Whitney’s anonymity on all levels—curatorial, institutional and esthetic. What makes this particular 147 so new, so different and even more anonymous and bland is that the Whitney decided to choose only those artists “who have not become known through one-person shows in New York City or participation in previous Whitney Museum Biennials or Annuals.” Nonetheless, the presence of many known artists from New York and elsewhere is felt even in absentia. What we have here is anonymity at its best: mostly new names doing familiar work, a rehash of the recent past, but not exactly the wave of the future. The show does not indicate many “new aspects, direction and talents” (unless hipness and slickness are directions), as much as it simply indicates that news travels fast. Some of the fastest traveling news turns out to be Brice Marden, Alan Shields, Robert Ryman and Sol LeWitt, but these are only a few names which the work in this exhibition brings to mind. Things are moving so fast that even the idea of regional art fades away. The one piece which “screamed” (to borrow John Russell’s term) made in San Francisco or Texas was actually made in New York City by an artist educated at Yale. Meanwhile, from San Francisco we get at least four versions of the basic one- and two-colored painting. In fact, from all corners of the nation comes work which proves that New York art, whatever that is, can be made anywhere. And as it turns out, not only does most of it look familiar, most of it looks alike.

For the most part the experiences you get from a show like this are general ones. The whole world seems to be working its way back to or out from painting. Paintings are made from almost every conceivable material or technique: can-vas, wood, cardboard, paper, fabric, copper, cast roplex or latex. Materials are sewn, torn, glued, folded and pleated. New materials and new approaches to painting seemed basic to the majority of the work, both interesting and not. There is little figurative work and even less photo-Realism. And for the record, as a friend of mine observed, there is no kinetic art. Abstraction dominates, again in the best and worst work. There were too many examples of a particularly specious version of “allover” painting which results from the incessant repetition of a few tight details (often small images). This invariably looks like a bad idea trying to find safety in numbers. Of the 16 videotapes, I saw two-thirds and was interested by two (Terry Fox’s and the collaborative effort of Billy Adler and John Margolies). There was a dearth of sculpture, maybe 22 pieces, a lot of it hopeless.

Education may also be a new direction; 80 of the exhibitors have advanced degrees in art. Maybe the Whitney should choose the 1977 batch by graduate schools. And the inverse also seems possible: inclusion in a Biennial runs the risk of becoming a graduate school entrance requirement. I say this because most of the artists in this exhibition are very young, an obvious reason for the homogeneity of the work. Of the 147, 62 are 30 or under and an additional 52 are between 31 and 35, which takes care of 113. It may be unfair to object to the work or its intentions; most of it is unformed. The most I can say about many of the younger artists is that I would like to see what some of them are doing in five or ten years, after they have worked through to their own ideas.

There are a few exceptions to the general familiarity. Among them are the paintings of Ron Gorchov and Marilyn Lenkowsky of New York and Mary Warner of San Francisco. Alexis Smith and Connie Zehr, both from Los Angeles, have received deserved attention from other critics, although I tended to find both excessively sweet. Smith’s rendition of Puccini’s Madame Butterfly is light and ironic, but with an unexpected wallop at the end, a fusion of language, image and implied sound which is fairly moving. Zehr’s rectangle of red sand with rows of shells establishes its own aura, like an immense landscape on a small scale or from a distance. Other artists who seem to be making an interesting start included painters Judy Rifka and Judy Pfaff, and sculptors Carol Eckman, Rudy Serra, and Charles Simonds. David Reed and Alan Uglow both exhibited paintings which seemed better than any I’d seen previously in group shows, a qualification which unfortunately I can’t make about out-of-town artists. And Dennis Ashbaugh and Karel Rafoss were exceptional for a combination of skill, scale and gall. Ashbaugh makes gargantuan shaped canvases with six-inch deep stretchers derived from Malevich via Stella, while Rafoss achieves peculiar and complicated transitions of light and space, something like an abstract sci-fi Rosenquist. The youthfulness of the show tended to make me more curious about some of the older artists included, about their past work and development; this was particularly true of Charles Garabedian of Los Angeles who painted crude figures (a shoot-out) on a rectangle of resin. But by and large, the exhibition doesn’t give you many pasts to wonder about and not enough futures. Because, except for the youngest and the best, you get the feeling that most of it will never go anywhere.

Let’s face it, things are moving very fast right now, probably too fast. The Whitney, is, as usual, just behind everyone else; they scour the city and country for undiscovered artists only to find that there are hardly any left. It turns out that it is not all that hard to show in New York right now, if you really want to. Take a look at SoHo. Most artists who haven’t shown are either just about to or very young. And so the Whitney, a little slow, merely contributes to the process of acceleration because it puts itself in a position where it shows a lot of people before they are really ready for it, in larger quantity than can really be seen. This is a show without much history, with little sense of what it means to mature and develop as an artist. The Biennial is just one more thing to shorten everyone’s attention span in a nation ready to jump into yet another war in Southeast Asia, in an art world which is depressed because we’re halfway into the ’70s and there are no new movements and because it’s too much trouble to think about individual careers. The Biennial is another way to avoid such thinking.

Roberta Smith