New York

1989 Biennial

Whitney Museum of American Art

Though I’m reluctant to join the mob of Whitney bashers, it’s been hard to remain judicious about this year’s Biennial. Like many others, I was puzzled by the organizers’ exclusion of art that resists a conventional—indeed, conservative—conception of contemporary visual culture. I was offended, for instance, that AIDS and the varied cultural responses to it were consigned to a single, metaphorical mention in the catalogue introduction: “ . . . the horrific toll of AIDS on the arts community is but a harbinger of potentially larger disasters, including the ozone deterioration that threatens the planet and its life forms.” Of what apocalypse, I wonder, would AIDS have been the harbinger to the authors of this sentence had they considered its horrific toll beyond the “arts community”? This statement, ringing in my ears along with others from that introduction, became my Acoustiguide to the Biennial. It helped me to understand how, repelled by frivolous and activist art alike, curators Richard Armstrong, Richard Marshall, and Lisa Phillips came to stage a safe salon of recent trends in American art.

While they sidetracked all but the most subtle and/or ironic signs of social disgruntlement, the curators nonetheless saw fit to frame the Biennial in ambivalent—simultaneously belligerent and apologetic—terms. The exhibition was thus described as the product of social circumstances in which “wealth [is] the only agreed upon arbiter of value,” and where the marketplace has become so independent that it threatens the museum’s capacity “to acquire, display and evaluate art.” Yet by not venturing further afield to seek out the significant new art the Biennial is supposed to exhibit, and by not daring to include activist work within this canon, the Whitney actually helped to perpetuate this state of affairs. Assessing American society as “troubled, yet resilient,” the curators declared the art world its mirror image. What I saw was, therefore, what I deserved; no better, no worse.

The curators’ jaundiced viewpoint did not prevent them from installing their show with a didacticism that bordered on a parody of art appreciation. A blonde wood box suspended on the leg of a sculpture by Joel Shapiro (Untitled, 1987) led the eye to an orange box in a painting by Andrew Spence (Bulletin Board, 1988–89); a bird’s-eye view of two periwinkle shapes in another Spence painting (Swivel Chairs, 1988) then segued to the same color in the 10,000 objects comprising Allan McCollum’s Individual Works, 1987–88. Curiously, I flashed to the opening sequence of the movie Heathers, in which a color-coordinated croquet game sends up hyper-esthetisized art direction. I wondered, Could this be the curators’ first foray into a deconstruction of traditional esthetics?

While the curators identified “fluidity and ambiguity” as dominant features of today’s art, they often imposed interpretive certainty on the work at hand. Consider the gallery that contained work by McCollum, Cindy Bernard, and Sherrie Levine: It successfully levelled them all to an engagement with the myth of artistic originality. The institutional context here revealed how this once critical, now potentially remunerative engagement has acquired a mythic cultural function all its own. Equally memorable was the wreck-room-from-Hell thematic that wed Donald Baechler’s three enormous paintings, Chris Macdonald’s giant tinker toy, and Mike Kelley’s four stubbornly distinct objects: two stuffed animal combines, one mind-expanding satanic candle sculpture, and a painting—Hierarchical Figure, 1989—that stacks lugubrious comic-strip renderings onto ludicrous ones, and tops the whole thing off with a single red ribbon.

Kelley’s unseemly art really stood out in this setting, in that it defied this Biennial’s tendency to equate esthetic quality with antiseptic perfectionism or with the presence of refined, in some cases merely arcane, artistic technique. To be sure, the development of such art is neither historically unwarranted, nor is it necessarily a bad thing. Early in this decade, a glut of neo-expressionist junk did us all the favor of proving the bankruptcy of a once-liberating tradition of technical directness that began, arguably, with Edouard Manet. Throughout this decade, many artists have cleaned up their acts. Some have learned lessons about the value of modest and unlikely material decisions from, among others, Robert Ryman. Still other artists, such as Ross Bleckner, have taught themselves what could be learned about extinct painting practices from books and from looking at older art. This has helped distance their painting from the false spontaneity and degenerate machismo that, together, usually served as alibis for slovenliness. The involvement with technique also furnished these painters with a means of recovering a wealth of imagery that—because of its decorative, premodern, or sometimes even religious character—has been “forbidden.” This technical engagement has provided them with a less alienated—precisely because indirect—method of production.

In this context, Robert Gober’s art comes to mind, because its effect is generated not by the labor he expends on making, say, a dog’s bed or a scary variation on the theme of a child’s playpen, but by the thoughts and emotions that these simple objects can embrace. Whatever goes into the works’ fabrication, while central to Gober’s process, is not really the point. But by juxtaposing his works with Joan Nelson’s distressed landscapes, where facture bears the burden of the works’ effect, the curators seemed to have arrived at precisely the opposite conclusion.

Labor intensity of the most ostentatious kind or byzantine technical wizardry now stoke an indiscriminate marketplace with a wealth of seductive, sometimes beautiful, sometimes merely fussy works of art whose surfaces are more fetishized, more lavished with special effects that anything seen since the days of Gustave Moreau. Today’s art buyers are hardly adverse to the material signifiers of virtuosity, or anyway of “hard work.” And as the curators of this Biennial cautioned, the marketplace has the power to influence artistic output. All of which makes me wonder all over again why they chose this path of least resistance.

The marketplace these curators love and hate also regularly induces artists to exhibit works that under different economic circumstances might never have left their studios. In this society, you take what you’re given. And that, I suppose, is the key to another contradiction in this year’s Biennial. As emphatic as its organizers claimed to be about searching for significant new art, this survey contained so much that was familiar and/or indifferent; even, in some cases, by artists who had done better work during the previous two years. Is it enough to say that institutions like the Whitney are now as abject in their relationships to certain contemporary dealers as your average art-buying millionaire? Somehow I don’t think so.

David Deitcher