New York

the “1997 Biennial Exhibition”

Whitney Museum of American Art

Several years ago, circa 1990, I attended the opening of a then-fashionable abstract painter, one of whose favored motifs was an Escherian stairway. There seemed to be a lot of repetition going on, and a lot of busy handiwork. The paintings were well received; they sold, and for considerable sums of money (this artist was still “a young artist”). My friends and I didn’t understand them, or rather, we didn’t understand the fuss over them. One of my friends pointed out an art critic known to be very well disposed to this painter’s work and offered to ask him what X’s paintings were about. When he returned, he told us the critic had said they were about infinity, eternity, and obsession. At which point my other friend paused, sipped her drink, and exclaimed, “Oh I get it: They’re about two perfumes and a car.”

The 1997 Whitney Biennial enacts its own little struggle between infinity and perfume. The show’s curators, Lisa Phillips and Louise Neri, propose their own “dialectic” of “inside/outside” in the “conversation” proffered in the catalogue in lieu of a more conventional essay that might have better served them. Although they explicitly disavow an interest in the symptomatology of art, Phillips and Neri’s text is interesting precisely as a symptom of a regression from and refusal of (written, expository, analytic) language. As we shall see, many of the artists they have chosen—and, within the context of an exhibition as prominent as this one, such choices are necessarily “representative” of what curators believe advanced art today is really about—display this same disability.

“L[ouise] N[eri]: We’ve asked ourselves many times whether there are ‘millennial tendencies’ in the work we have looked at, and paradoxically, what we’ve ended up locating are the continuities in art rather than the ruptures, the depths of artistic motivation rather than its passing symptoms, the state of poetic contradiction to which artists consign themselves—postmodern deconstruction seems very far away!” Uh-huh. It seems that Neri consigned herself to a state of poetic contradiction. No doubt many people, weary of the now rather faded intellectualism of “postmodern deconstruction” or simply tired of thinking, period, will choose to join Neri and Phillips in the vale of a poetical-schmetical Beyond. Others are right to be suspicious.

The curators penned “Inside-Out” well before the Heaven’s Gate’ people decided to leave their containers and meet the welcoming ETs lurking in the shadow of the Hale-Bopp comet, but obviously the two are tuned in to our culture’s pathetic—yet irresistibly funny—obsessions with paranormal experience, extraterrestrial life, angels, psychics, the occult. (Check out the design for the invitation to the show’s opening, which featured a figure 8, or “infinity loop,” relating to neither mathematics nor the Ice Capades. The status of this symbol remains ambiguous: in their text, Neri responds to Phillips’ assertion of the “high degree of obsessiveness in the work we’ve chosen” with a cautionary “but obsessiveness that is not closed in its own loop”; on the other hand, the loop is obviously valorized.) This symptom erupts repeatedly in the show, from Charles Long and Stereolab’s The Amorphous Body Study Center to Richard Phillips’ Alien to John Schabel’s photo of what seems to be the child from Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Sometimes this obsession is rendered conventionally, as in Vija Celmin’s vacuous painting and drawings of the night sky (and comets!). Is there any expression of sublimity more conventional, more trite, than this? Sometimes it gets a little kookier, as in wicca woman Annette Lawrence’s “blood drawings,” which bear such comically essentialist-womanist (feminist is definitely the wrong word) titles as “Moons” and “The Ancestors and the Womb.” Dates radiate outward in vaginal/lunar/Mayan-calendrical symbolic formation, sometimes accompanied by supersilly, Egyptoid hieroglyphic cartouches. Perhaps Lawrence has been influenced by the movie Stargate—you know, the one where Egyptologist James Spader journeys back in time through the eponymous gate to meet trannie Jaye Davidson as pharoah/alien. Does the name L. Ron Hubbard mean anything to you?

The more common manifestation of this trend is a mild and installation-intensive dérèglement des sens. This Biennial is very strong on son-et-lumière and distortions of ordinary perspective. Over and over, as one moves through the galleries, one must deal with subtle and not-so-subtle alterations of space, viz. installations by Glen Seator, Paul McCarthy, Chris Burden, Diana Thater, Dan Graham, Bruce Nauman, and Jason Rhoades. Here, “millennial tendencies” are expressed more often through the yearning for out-of-body experiences. Some of this work, with its exploitation of perceptual vertigo, suggests light drug use: pot, not crack. (An amusing exception: gay PTA chairman Lari Pittman, who in his disagreeably psychedelic paintings seems to be dispensing crystal methedrine.) If this art seems more sophisticated than the dumb “cosmologies” (this year’s buzzword, much as “metaphor” was for Klaus Kertess’ 1995 version) of Celmins and Lawrence, that’s because these artists’ essential working procedures derive from ’60s and ’70s experiments in real time, Process art, structuralist film, and performance/body art. Genealogically speaking, they have more smart stuff on their side, regardless of their individual strengths and weaknesses. And in keeping with curators’ anti-analytic prejudices, these artists emphasize the “experiential” rather than the proto-“deconstructive” aspects of their art-historical pedigrees.

So far, this show sounds like the New Age Biennial, whether or not Phillips and Neri intended as much. And why not? The New Age exerts a pervasive influence on contemporary culture, both fascinating and deplorable. Anyone who has ever visited the West Coast or watched Oprah knows this. I wish this Biennial had more stuff like this; it would at least have been amusing, which is short of the spiritual transformation the curators evidently had in mind but will more than do for me. Given the nature of shows like this, however, which are perforce surveys of widely heterogeneous artists, such intensity of focus is impossible to sustain. “We agreed that we didn’t want to make a sampler, and set about determining a matrix of motivations drawn from our observations of contemporary artists at work. Our collaborative structure required that we make very strong cases for each artist in terms of the overall parameters that had been established through our discussion and dialogue.” Here, the recourse to oddly institutional-sounding jargon (“matrix of motivations” and “collaborative structure” and “overall parameters”) rather than high-flown “poetic” talk begins to betray the essential falseness of the enterprise. In the prologue to their foolhardy “conversation,” Phillips and Neri sound like what they really are: curators, not high priestesses guarding the mystic flame of Art, not Psychic Friends channeling Geist.

The fact that this Biennial cannot keep up an overarching, high-concept theme is further dramatized by the curators’ resuscitation of a venerable cliche. “LN: He [Ilya Kabakov] creates a space for shared narratives that bridges the gulfs between time, culture, and language, and in doing so, affirms the humanistic importance of storytelling. LP: I haven’t heard the term humanism used in a while with regard to artistic practice!” Well, one reason you haven’t heard it is because humanism is a sop, a fable, a lie; it deceives people as to the real conditions of their lives. Worse, it’s corny. It’s old. But, here at least, it is useful: you can dump a whole lot of stuff into its catch-all basket. What the basket won’t accommodate is the pronounced neo-Pop subtheme. Richard Phillips, Richard Prince, Sue Williams, Charles Long, Raymond Pettibon, Paul McCarthy, and Jason Rhoades all belong, at least in part, to the legacy of Pop art. Edward Ruscha is a link to the original moment. And Pop is not so easy to reconcile with this show’s themes. For one thing, Pop has always maintained a link with a critical rather than poetic consciousness; it belongs very much to the realm of the demonized “postmodern deconstruction,” either as symptom or critical agent. One begins to sense a curatorial fissure here, although publicly Phillips and Neri have stressed that they made every decision together. Phillips may be more responsible for this Pop subtheme, having curated the Whitney’s Prince retrospective as well as an archetypal ’80s omnibus, “Image World.” And Bruce Conner is straight out of the last show Phillips assembled, “Beat Culture and the New America: 1950–1965.” On her side, Neri, as US editor of Parkett, has been actively involved with the work of Celmins, Louise Bourgeois, Gabriel Orozco, and Felix Gonzalez-Torres, among others.

There is something a little pathetic about the spectacle of these two obviously well-informed insiders desperately trying to paste over with themes decisions that probably had a lot more to do with what simply seemed lively and contemporary than with any “matrix of motivations.” There is also the obvious element of bad faith. Better to admit that one is doing a job, fulfilling a function, than carrying on a fanfaronade of high-mindedness that might be credible in the context of Matthew Arnold, John Ruskin, and William Morris, but which hardly seems adequate to our own noisier and debased times. But then again, acknowledging one’s functionary status wouldn’t sound very glamorous, now, would it?

David Rimanelli