New York

the Whitney Biennial 1995

Whitney Museum of American Art

Long before Klaus Kertess was announced as curator of the 1995 Whitney Biennial, the handwriting was on the wall: next time around, it would be a painting show. His appointment confirmed that instead of a multiculti blitzkrieg we would be presented with a show of “sensibility.” The barrage of advance press reported on the studios Kertess visited, what he liked and what he didn’t, and announced time and again his foggy organizing principle: the central role of metaphor in art. After the opening I went out looking for fans of the 1995 Biennial. I didn’t find many. Aside from the usual gripes attendant to the event that we all love to hate, the general sense on the street was that the exhibition amounted to a predictable lull after the pre-event press storm. Kertess himself, on the other hand, has plenty of fans, and many of his admirers happily indulged his peculiar predilections and personal tastes. He is a connoisseur in the traditional sense, and for that his friends pay him respect. His affinity for certain styles and attitudes is well known, as is his unwavering loyalty to particular artists. His inclination is for the retinal rather than the conceptual; for the poetic rather than the polemic; for comfort rather than critique.

Even if something more sedate and refined than a blitzkrieg was anticipated, this didn’t preclude some serious noise and spectacle. While less boisterous than the preceding Biennial, Kertess’ exhibition isn’t exactly quiet. Its most aggressive feature: Rirkrit Tiravanija’s installation—a plywood hut equipped with electric guitars that visitors are encouraged to play—resounded with experimental noise rock during the openings. Equally confrontationally, Nari Ward’s humongous hearse covered in axle grease and nestled on a bed of discarded mufflers is parked right in front of the elevators, announcing a fairly raucous pageant that careens from Nancy Rubins’ preposterous ceiling cloud of roped-together mattresses stuffed with cakes, to the psychedelic lunacy of Peter Saul and Alan Turner, to Nicole Eisenman’s wall installation, which bumps and grinds into gear with a mind-boggling array of drawings and doodads and stuff. In close proximity are Catherine Opie’s large chromogenic prints of tattooed and bedecked gender freaks; Nan Goldin’s Cibachrome grid Tokyo Love, 1994–95, glowing with the lurid details of post-Modern teen sex; and Greer Lankton’s sculptures of hideously glamorous figures—one entitled More morphine he mumbled (Jealous, sad, she shot herself up first), and another, Oh, Hi Hon (God what a mess), both 1995.

For all its upbeat exuberance and whacked-out visual pyrotechnics, Kertess’ Biennial can easily be characterized as banal. What much of the art lacks in substance, however, is more than made up for by Kerress’ curatorial moxie. There would be nothing especially remarkable about the inclusion of work by Helen Marden, Jane Freilicher, Catherine Murphy, Andrew Lord, Milton Resnick, Frank Moore, Joe Zucker, and countless other artists whose presence disappoints rather than excites, save the curator’s lack of discrimination, but their contribution to the easy-viewing environment Kertess orchestrates is notable. Decorative, elegant, edifying, humorous, or cute, such art makes for mindless pleasure and lite fun. To paraphrase Robert Smithson lamenting the condition of art in the late ’60s, it’s like going from one happy lie to the next with a cheerful view of everything. It’s from this perspective that Kertess’ “vision thing” comes into focus. Banishing the hypercritical and overtly analytical, rounding off the sharp edges of institutional critique and moralizing narrative, Kertess makes what is particular to individual works of art secondary to the sweeping curatorial statement, pressing friend and foe alike into the service of a canned sense of well-being.

No matter what you think about much of the work, the curatorial unity Kertess offers (however inadvertently) is premised on art that above all looks good. This isn’t to say that brains and beauty or brawn never come in the same package, but rather to observe that this Biennial reinstates the old “form versus content” dichotomy. Given Kertess’ framework, there isn’t one piece in the Biennial that angrily strives to make a marginalized voice heard, that confronts, implicates, defeats, or condemns. There’s nothing that vows to reform one or another patronizing, offending, or exclusionary institution or social group. In the face of the plethora of factors feeding off fin-de-siècle paranoia and malaise that are currently ricocheting in and out of the art world, the 1995 Biennial muffles any rumbles of anxiety or dissent and trumpets the virtue of entertainment. It cajoles with whimsy, it amuses with cliché, it offers the perfect environment for carefree engagement. No burden of self-consciousness or sympathy is required; no onus to delve beneath the surface of things, or to dredge up subtext, or to slop about in the murky waters of theory. Kertess creates a carnivalesque theme park that affords visitors friendly encounters at every turn.

It’s hardly a leap to reference Kertess’ visionary conceit to the synthetic ’70s. Remember bubblegum music and happy faces? They signaled no more Vietnam. No more cop riots. No more SDS-ers brandishing manifestoes and occupying college presidents’ offices on the way to overthrowing the establishment. Sixties militancy became roadkill under the mainstream machine that slapped business suits on subversives, while failed utopian ideologies were appropriated in the form of designer clothes and Muzak. The left turned into a fashion statement. Everybody hoped everybody else would “Have a Nice Day.” The generation gap was eliminated. We were all kids at heart. Closure was that easy.

Kertess’ 1995 Biennial does more than borrow style and charisma from the ’70s; it foregrounds the similarities between the cultural disposition of that decade and our own, and raises the question of whether goofy euphoria and ready-made denial is about to be locked into place as a coordinate for the mid ’90s. If we, too, are poised to go down in history as another “in-between” decade, how fitting that both visually and ideologically—and, yes, metaphorically—the 1995 Biennial recognizes style over content, appearance over substance, and effectively collapses previously recognized categorical distinctions in art. That’s why Carroll Dunham, Terry Winters, Saul, Turner, and Sue Williams—to single out one set of odd bedfellows among many-make visual sense and hang so well together. That’s also why Cindy Sherman’s closeup photograph of a smashed-to-pieces dummy face, Rubins’ faceted mattress-and-cake fabrication, and Bessie Harvey’s sculptural assemblage of folksy fragments, all look as though they’d come from the same formal school of fractured fairy tales—when in fact their works have nothing to do with one another. With “metaphor,” Kertess not only gives us a cloudy organizing principle but achieves the very elimination of content—or at least of contents that in too many instances most would consider self-evidently central. (One has to give him credit for the audacity with which he exercises curatorial license!) Form alone carries the weight of meaning, and suffices for narrative adhesive. The forced affinities that animate this exhibition stand at a preventive distance from polemics and proselytizing. In this context, does Williams’ painting have anything to do with violence against women? Or Moore’s with environmentalism? Or Opie’s photographs with empowering marginalized Others? Interestingly enough, those discursive structures are suddenly negligible to nonexistent. Work previously championed for its embrace of social causes is, under Kertess’ control, rehabilitated solely for its retinal value. In this framework, identity politics surface as a freak show, and what might have resonated with theoretical import is recycled and marketed as frothy mainstream amusement.

Perhaps it’s timely to suspend overfamiliar and ineffectual “contents.” Let’s assume that we’ve all already been converted to the cause, and that it’s more important at the moment to break down customary classificatory structures and discursive boundaries. It’s blasphemous but not uninteresting, in one instance, to hang a Winters painting with Dunham and Saul and Turner, and thus to frame its painterly wiggly lines as cartoonesque, and in another instance to situate Winters in the colorful stream of lyrical abstraction that undulates throughout the exhibition via very pretty gestural paintings by Cy Twombly, Helen Marden, Brice Marden, Harriet Korman, and Stephen Mueller. In the former context, Winters seems to stand in a parody relationship to the sort of esthetic refinement he upholds in the latter.

The leveling effects of the 1995 Biennial’s synthetic momentum and categorical mobility are especially destructive to the sacred ground of identity politics. Whether in the installation of works by Goldin, Eisenman, Opie, Lankton, David Armstrong, or Ellen Gallagher, Kertess channels multiculturalism into fashion or farce or fetish or pure fiction. Whatever your taste, the body signifies an occasion for spectator sport and an opportunity to flex the options on gender, sexual orientation, personality, stories, and styles we imagine ourselves to possess as we enter into a touristic fantasy of Otherness and of unproblematically malleable identity. Happy face and all, it’s formalism to the rescue! Pleasurable sensual stimuli underwrite superficial subjective engagement and are valued over critical analysis. Abjection is out; visual titillation and the immediacy of experience are all the way in. Laugh it up, or bliss out, or ogle to your heart’s delight. The euthanasia of the ’80s and early ’90s has begun, as protracted political debate, tautological investigation, institutional critique, and all the other tyrannicalisms of the “New York Mafia” receive painless, merciful deaths.

What does it mean to resurrect the spirit of the ’70s in all its freewheeling, feel-good breeziness and brevity? Maybe, as Robert Smithson once said, the future is always going backwards, but his prescription that “an art against itself is a good possibility, an art that always returns to essential contradiction” falls on deaf ears today. If Kertess’ curatorial vision is retrograde, it is not without utility, for the 1995 Biennial deftly corresponds to the very real possibility that culturally we are well on the way to telling ourselves a couple of big happy lies while cheerfully preparing for an urgent escape into unearned complacency. Yet to meet the inevitable head-on is to force the issue. In this respect, and whether he intends it or not, Kertess’ “vision” may prove to be far more subversive than it at first appears.

Jan Avgikos is a contributing editor of Artforum.