John Haber
in New York City

The 2002 Whitney Biennial

You call this the state of the art world? At last, the Whitney Biennial may have it right.

Sure, the Whitney serves as a museum of American art, on prime New York real estate to boot. And, sure enough, for decades New York galleries took it for granted: we are world—or at least the art world. The museum then gets "us" right or not, and months-long debate starts in. At most the tone of the arguments changes, back and forth between puzzlement and anger. Roxy Paine's Bluff (Whitney Museum of American Art, 2002)

This time, however, the Whitney means it. Lawrence Rinder, the director and himself based in Oakland not long ago, has set his sights well beyond Manhattan. Only one problem: art comes off as upbeat and anonymous as mass marketing. It leaves the perfect, dispiriting biennial for an age of globalization.

But wait a minute. How does one even decide the state of things? And will it be the same in a Biennial ten years later? Well, it depends on what you mean.

The state of the state

For ages, everyone knew: it means the very best out there. One might not recognize every artist, but one understood the world in which they moved. They came screened by a select group of galleries, in effect, the best of the best. By reading the wall labels for sources, one could learn where to go downtown, and silly me took comfort when I knew the names.

Or "the state of things" might mean what ideas dominate art. This came naturally in the early 1990s. Cities were recovering from AIDS and from President Reagan. Feminists played powerfully at posing for the male eye, in order to produce their own vision. The Whitney itself had created plenty of arguments with the "Black Male," well before Thelma Golden went off to enliven Harlem's Studio Museum. In a Biennial to match the times, I now took comfort when I knew the vocabulary.

Then again, it could mean the cutting edge, what is happening in art now. That meaning felt right barely a few years ago and again in 2000. Booming markets always demand the latest, just as surely as with dot.coms—and overrate what they find. This time I took no comfort at all, but I had the pleasure of surprise. Besides, I got a free road map to the chaos known as Chelsea.

This ambiguity in the state of things sounds natural. Look at your options for browsing my ideas, at the top left right now—by artist, by idea, or chronologically. Yet a Biennial's changing meanings tell a story. From the in crowd, to their debate, to gambles on the future, the story lacks a happy ending. Rather, it describes a gradual breakdown in art-world consensus. First came the heated divisions, then unpredictable directions.

Conversely, all three versions agree on plenty. For starters, they attest to the Whitney's influence. It does more than pick the artists. It also helps to set an agenda for art—including the Biennial's own drive toward the blockbuster. Moreover, all three versions are itching for an argument—over what gets in and what gets left out. Forget criticism of Modernism as capitalism's most faceless institution. They attest to the chance for art worlds, in the plural.

The 2002 Biennial takes the state of things to mean something else again, something right for an age of computer databases. It means literally everything. For the first time at the Biennial, new media emerge from the second-floor alcove. Moreover, forget Chelsea. This time curators have traveled America to make their own choices. The director alone, he confides, visited forty-three towns.

The end of debate

It sounds creative, open-minded, even noble, and it is. Think of it, however, as the latest chapter in my story. On the one hand, it completes the collapse of consensus. New York galleries have overlooked distant artists by definition, and that spells either ignorance or something worse. If art's largest audiences have lost their veto power, perhaps they no longer know how to vote.

Conversely, this year stands for a big change, the end of debate. I can hardly complain that someone from a town I have never visited gets left out. I can hardly criticize the Whitney's vision if it no longer pretends to set the agenda. But what does that leave? Can art survive as one big happy family?

The alleged theme of the show's three floors hardly tells. In being, tribes, and spaces, I hear souped-up terminology for my generic Web navigator, "People, Places, and Things." And indeed, the Modern opted for that very title not long before. Once again, inclusiveness can easily produce no more than a baggy monster. Tellingly, one might never guess the Biennial themes by the groupings of art themselves.

A New York crowd sounds complacent, but without debate, complacency sneaks back in after all. Consider how one scours the country. Not every state or even city has a thriving gallery scene. Mostly, the curators had to visit art schools. That risks warmed-over ideas from students too eager to please. I have no clue why the handful of big names, such as Vija Celmins and Kiki Smith, made it in.

This Biennial tackles America and multiculturalism, but only to make everyone look the same. It fixates on youth culture, with comic books and high-tech toys. Its catalog entries sound like puff pieces. It drips good cheer.

Does this sound familiar? It adds up to an advertiser's dream, the ideal market segments and strategies in a global economy. Instead of art worlds in the plural, one faces one big, efficient art market. The Whitney enters the age of globalization, Third World assembly lines, and a suburban Third World.

Happy holidays

I have put off the works as long as possible. Not that I would rather stand above art, but I hate to write off artists. I prefer criticism that helps people see more and enjoy more. Besides, I am hardly blaming the Whitney for a phenomenal effort, not when the perplexity of art today lies all around. But here goes. Let me take the marketing formula, term by term.

The Whitney scours the country, but not just for America. Artists represent a broad mix of ethnicity and nations—in their background and in their subject matter. Mostly, however, they argue that people are basically the same, all singing the same Pepsi ad. We are the world.

Chan Chao visits Burmese rebels, while Julie Moos poses high-school enemies together. One expects tension. Will the rebels show the pain of living at risk under violence, or will they turn into their most brutal oppressor? Will schoolmates reflect the discomfort of their hatred or of learning to outgrow it? Nope, both artists settle for the flaccid look of a family album.

Sanford Biggers and Jennifer Kackin project their home movies side by side. Black and white, they reprise the same cute vocabulary of happy birthdays and music lessons. Louis Gispert paints Chinese and Hispanic girls as cheerleaders, and sure enough, they cheer for us. Instead of "celebrations of cultural heterogeneity," as the Whitney puts it, these works attest to a stultifying cultural homogeneity governing family, schooling, and friends.

As with the birthday parties and cheerleading, the Whitney loves kid stuff. The Biennial appeals to youth in theme quite as much as in the scarcity of name artists. Christian Marclay, who has made plenty of noise in his time (not to mention the wonders of Marclay's The Clock), displays distended musical instruments—turning tools for artistic expression into big toys for big kids. Erwin Redl with his Matrix of tree-ornament lights, like a blue-collar garage at Christmas, will have anyone dying to unwrap the presents.

All the software and what the museum calls "sounds," also on two CDs slipped into the catalog, fit right in. Art becomes a video game for busy executives. James Buckhouse lets one download Tap, his adjustable dancer, into one's very own personal digital assistant. I almost wish that I could afford one.

Comics and Madlibs

Younger kids can make do with comic books. Gerry Snyder tells the story of Lot as sci-fi cartoon in happy colors. The Destroy All Monsters Collective defuses the awkwardness and commercial failure of outsider art by presenting comic strips. Chris Ware gets wall space for more alternative comics.

Ware's title, Smartest Kid on the Block, could apply to most of the Biennial artists. With his soft polyurethane people, Tim Hawkinson "combines an almost childlike naiveté with a very accomplished sense of craft and technical prowess." Playfulness outgrows purpose, and technical skill takes on its own momentum. Say hi to the artist as teenage geek.

Naiveté comes with uniformity and blandness. Benjamin Fry's software "can be used for visualizing anything." Forcefield, another hip collective, opens "the door to our collective pop unconscious." Its tie-dyed totems make clicking sounds in the dark. (Bring your own dope.) John Zuerier's near-monochrome abstractions do the opposite of paintings by Robert Ryman, James Nares in his monochrome illusions, or other recent abstraction: they blend into the walls, as if all to eager to conform.

For those ready to play some more, the Biennial spills for the first time into Central Park. Keith Edmeir erects statues to his ancestors in uniform. Instead of bringing official sculpture to earth, he fits right into post-9/11 chauvinism and its boasts of ordinary heroes. Roxy Paine lends the show perhaps its one note of beauty. Bluff, a tree made of steel, shines in the distance like a point of light among nature's own. Up close, however, it resembles Jack Haley in The Wizard of Oz.

If I only had a brain. The Whitney's very language, as one can no doubt see by now, has the vacuous air of art as advertising. Instead of "artspeak," it offers what I call martspeak. Wall labels brim with words like rich and complex, words that substitute praise for actual description and for understanding.

In the spirit of the occasion, I found myself taking them as MadLibs. Try it for yourself. "Anne Wilson's        is loaded with a wide assortment of meanings, ranging from sex to death." Abandoned SUV? Bag of Styrofoam peanuts? (She works in black lace.)

Coming soon . . . ?

Enough. Nothing really stands out, but one can always have fun.

Ironically, the few established artists come off best. With her video wall of humming lips, Lorna Simpson makes one smile, hum along, and wonder about images of blackness. Peter Sarkisian's orgy on a box looks merely tacky, but it reminds me of more challenging and erotic video figures in his gallery and other computer installations that beg for the label of new media. The video room, with Ken Jacobs, Peter Campus, and others, squeezes in too many artists for one to see them all, but settle for serendipity.

More valuable still, the Biennial gets one thinking about the pressures on art and artists now. Art institutions search high and low for a continuity of purpose as they go global. Irony gives way to a kind of postmodern sincerity. Another spring show, at the Jewish Museum, asks how artists can help trivializing the Holocaust. Just imagine what happens when they begin with the theme of American art instead.

For years, the art world was no more than an abstraction. It came in handy for the latest style or the latest gossip. For critics, it meant modern art itself as a powerful, suspect institution. All along, artists occupied many worlds, generally in collision. No wonder a Biennial meant a combat zone.

More recently, however, the New York art world has sounded more like a contradiction in terms. At least those wild and crazy German artists back in the 1980s came to Soho to become stars. Stars of the London scene like Damien Hirst hardly bothered with us, except, perhaps, for the sensation. And now dealers—or critics who can manage it—barely keep up with all the outsized global art fairs, New York Armory Shows, biennials, and Biennales.

For 2002, the Whitney offers a primer on the global art economy. It makes sense, but what comes next, as for the 2004 Biennial, 2006 Biennial, or 2008 Biennial, much less the art world? Rinder actually has me excited, because he makes me ask. The Biennial has me hoping for the productive power of a crisis.

BACK to John's arts home page

This Biennial ran through May 26, 2000, at The Whitney Museum of American Art. You might wish to look ahead to the 2004 Biennial, 2006 Biennial, 2008 Biennial, 2010 Biennial, 2012 Biennial, 2014 Biennial, and 2017 Whitney Biennial—or back to the 1993 Biennial, 1997 Biennial, and 2000 Biennial.


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