Cleaning Up America's Act

John Haber
in New York City

The 2000 Whitney Biennial

For two years, artists look forward to an argument over the Whitney Biennial. In these days of virtual reality, why even wait for the art? Just start arguing. In fact, with at least half the world's markets waking before New York, why not get it over and done?

Sure enough, the 2000 Biennial delivers. Weeks before its opening, the controversy had reached its peak. Hans Haacke's contribution, Sanitation, calls Rudy Giuliani a Nazi. And the mayor has done his best to prove the fatuous claim true. Shirin Nashat's Rapture (D'Amelio Terras Gallery, 1999)

Wildly enough, Giuliani got the tempest in a waste basket all wrong. Art should challenge memories of the Holocaust. Besides, like the rest of this frustrating Biennial, Haacke fits the mild-mannered chaos of American art now. I can hear the global markets now, digesting it all happily. They already have for "Sensation," Giuliani's last target, the Brooklyn Museum's lively show this past fall.

With the Biennial now opened and all the controversy fallen flat, Haacke's ominous title sounds eerily appropriate. From "Sensation" to Sanitation—changing just a few letters has left by far the cleanest group show in town. If another large survey this spring, at P.S. 1 out in Queens, reflects New York's careerism and chutzpah, this one packs charm. Lower your expectations and go.

From sensation to sanitation

Giuliani went duly through the motions, with his usual threats about arts funding that, thankfully, he barely controls. And why not? Haacke was going through the motions, too, as if he could turn back the years to Whitney's angry, politicized 1993 Biennial.

Haacke quotes Giuliani's condemnations of art, alongside Jesse Helms and the rest of the usual suspects. Hitler had tried reviving the gothic lettering style properly known as fraktur, set here against a black wall. Just in case I missed the point, the sound of jackboots emanates from waste bins.

Ever since Hal Foster and other top art critics seized on him, I have found Haacke wildly overrated. His humorless text would work better as street fliers. Barbara Kruger parodies and yet delivers on the visual language of advertising and politics. Haacke merely recreates it with pomp and circumstance. Just try to take his installation more seriously for a moment, and it blows up in his face. Look again at those waste bins, and pretend they mean something.

Does Giuliani intend to trash art, just as he sweeps New York streets of vendors and local color? Or does Haacke mean that Giuliani's tactics emerge from trash? Has Giuliani consigned art, then, to a world already his own? Does Haacke revel in trash, or resent it? Oh, just forget it. Believe me, self-reflective irony has no place in this work.

The real irony comes from Giuliani's words themselves. Each in his own way, he and the artist recycle a script written for "Sensation." The text sounded old then, too. The mayor and the museum could have been conspiring for a shared interest—to bring art's buzz back to New York.

What a promise: something as pertinent, political, and downright nasty as the exchanges over "Sensation." Too late. Way too late. This art world is having too much fun to argue. And there lies the Whitney Biennial's real message for the year 2000.

Window dressing

Clean? Sure, the Whitney has some dirt, especially when it comes to hot artists. Lisa Yuskavage applies her painterly touch to women pulling up their underwear. They appear to have stumbled on their private parts for the first time. (What were those men gaping at?) I find it easy to laugh at her paintings—and yet hard to turn away from them.

Another critical fave hangs nearby. John Currin lends to German Renaissance nudes the vacuity of fashion magazines. I wish I could feel their strangeness as much as their blandness.

An artist less well known, Ghada Amer, likewise hints at dirt. With colored thread alone, she constructs formless abstract drawings against painted panels. Take the Whitney's word for it: the threads, closely examined, show victimized women. I must be way too virtuous to make them out, but her more explicit sex scenes may strengthen or weaken other of her exhibitions, and only a longer look will tell. Many a younger artist would love to be caught in her spider's web.

I better stay virtuous. In this show, cleanliness is next to artfulness. Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle wants so much to clean up Modernism's act that he turns the gesture into a video loop. He endlessly washes windows on a Mies der Rohe family house. He makes me want to call the traces of dirt in other artists window dressing. Next time I want him suspended from the Seagram building.

Charm lies everywhere. Michael Jao intends to meditate on the physicality of the world and the strangeness of representation. Instead, he manages to convert the human anatomy into a comfort zone. One medical model becomes a Buddha, another a puppy dog. The original's mix of rawness and plastic fakery supplied far more anxiety. Had I seen this work twenty-five years ago, I might yet have followed my grandmother's advice and become a doctor.

How gentle, even organic the dreaded destruction of Modernism has become. Yukinori Yanagi recreates those days out of colored sand. Jasper Johns in his Three Flags and an Andy Warhol grid of dollar bills become living ant colonies. In the course of the Biennial, they slowly decompose in unpredictable channels. In the age of the Internet, the Biennial once again returns art to good-natured disorder.

The real Internet art

I could simply mock the whole show, for dumbing art down. Or I could write it off to art today. Perhaps I seem already to have done both. A sprawl of talent and creativity, no doubt art lacks a dominating voice or much of anything to protest. Even the old trick of appropriation, so important to the 1993 Biennial or its milder conceptual cousin of 1997, has become instead a way to assert personal differences, as for the Britpack today. The methodology of protest serves now as an arena of recreation.

I found the choices too important to write off, though. Academicism has its charms, too, and also a piercing undertone. The curators seem dull because they leave the Whitney caught in what it fears most. Out in Queens, P.S. 1's welcome spirit of inclusion mimics another arena of apparently open exchange and big influence—the gallery system. "Greater New York," P.S. 1's title for its show, takes on disturbing resonance. The Whitney has a more startling dilemma yet.

A record number of Biennial artists live well beyond New York, notably in Texas and California. By its very act of reaching out, the Whitney reflects America's own intense nationalism, combined with the bland taste and lack of security one expects from a mass economy. Some choices suggest a wider arena still. I mentioned the world markets already. In the number of foreign-born artists, such as Haacke, I can hear the buzz word globalization. For the first time, too, Internet art appears, yet another mark of a decentralized, global economy.

Only Richard Tuttle earned his fame before I myself got interested in art, even as older artists such as Richard Serra, with Rolled and Forged or Switch, are producing some of their most demanding art ever. Tuttle may not predate Johns, to mention a living artist relegated by ants to the sands of time. But at least he predates John. And arranged in a row, his spare works become a lovely, if unintended conceptual project.

A handful of artists duly remain from older postmodern assaults, such as Louise Lawler and, of course, Hans Haacke. Lawler again photographs museum installations, this time the wall labels around Warhol cows from "An American Century," part two. In tune with the rest of the show, she leaves Postmodernism as chipper as the milk containers that Warhol so knowingly confronted.

Overall, however, the curators have made a model attempt to find new American art. This show might well call itself "Greater America," as if building on the mass-produced aura of its own "An American Century" last year. The Biennial's accessibility deserves both more and less than sarcasm. Its efforts and their implications alike have to be taken seriously. For better or worse, an openness to American artists and the Web set the show's character. For better or worse, too, they raise cutting questions about art's directions now.

Oh, come on, stop giggling!

Accessibility stands as the Biennial's strong point, even if it has the critics and (yes) curators so embarrassed. Instead of standing single file to catch videos, I walked right away into beautifully structured enclaves. Video art—not to mention the audience—can finally breathe. But one pays a price throughout this show, that blandness. No wonder I encountered no lines, right on opening weekend.

The Whitney seems eager to help and desperate to deny the obvious. Labels explicate every artist clearly—as for Ghada's threads, all too clearly.

Linda Besemer's abstract paintings drape over poles, like expensive shower curtains for the Whitney's gift shop. Darah Friedman's video has women loudly slamming doors, as if they want out of the whole show but keep finding the bathrooms by mistake. Kurt Kauper's mediocre paintings of divas could have emerged from Currin's mass-market magazines. I turned from each with a broad smile, to read wall labels announcing ambiguity and threat. Wait! Where?

Robert Gober means those legs dangling out of sinks to be disturbing. So why must I remember to slap myself for giggling? The show's finest work takes human wastage much more seriously. In their different ways, John Coplans's large black-and-white photographs of his body up close and Sarah Sze with her piles of household items create self-portraits as objects of decay. As in "Greater New York," Shirin Neshat's video, Rapture, lyrically and threateningly evokes gender boundaries under Islam.

The overall mess hits me most when it comes to painting and the Internet art. Ever since the postmodern backlash, abstraction has to answer for blandness already—and sometimes it cannot, sometimes it can. (P.S. 1 knows that, too.) As for the Web, I cannot blame the Whitney if its browser crashed on a curator herself while I watched. I know life online. I just wish that the Internet art, once I got it running from home, did not remind me of cartoons that I liked at age nine.

I found much to enjoy—maybe too much. My day was so relaxing, I thought summer had arrived early. The show might have already departed.

Looking backward

I did get bowled over upstairs, however. The fifth floor has the most stunning display ever of the Whitney's permanent collection. From an opening wall of flashy realism, one turns left—and a Jackson Pollock hangs as if floating over the entire century. Looking backward starts to sound a fresh and bitter pun.

From that first moment, juxtapositions come off as unostentatious but revealing. Arshile Gorky's seemingly unfinished self-portrait with his mother hangs not with Abstract Expressionism. It takes on a new sadness from its odd context, alongside Walt Kuhn and other less-adventurous realists. It enters a strange world of sexual confusion and longing for a past that never was.

Not all depends on surprises. A room devoted to Edward Hopper takes my breath away. How fresh she looks, that late nude of his in profile. She stands facing the light as if waiting for inspiration that she knows she will never need. The cigarette in her hand asserts independence from the male gaze—the same gaze that the painting's subject matter and its mastery of color presume. She anticipates every postmodern assertion of gender trickery on the floors below.

One last word. Seen P.S. 1, the Whitney extravaganza, the Studio Museum in Harlem's, and even the Modern's take on past and present? Need still another wild and crazy group show? I can mention a less-convenient detour that the papers never notice. Way out in Brooklyn's Clinton Hill, outdoor sculpture has sprung up all over the Pratt campus. I shall say no more. It awaits your own discovery.

BACK to John's arts home page

This Biennial ran through June 4, 2000, at The Whitney Museum of American Art. You might wish to look ahead to the 2002 Biennial, 2004 Biennial, 2006 Biennial, 2008 Biennial, 2010 Biennial, 2012 Biennial, 2014 Biennial, and 2017 Whitney Biennial—or back to the 1993 Biennial and 1997 Biennial.


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