Saturday, April 08, 2006

The 2006 Whitney Biennial: Day for Night

I'm not a right wing yahoo, a conservative ideologue, elitist, or a rabid traditionalist, but I was genuinely baffled by what passed for art at this, the first Whitney Biennial I’ve seen.

I spent about fifty minutes there, wandering with my date through crowded halls with screeching video installations in curtained alcoves, piles of bent aluminum tubing clad in neckties, and what looked like an endless stream of pieces borne out of a naïve interpretation of graffiti and collage art.

Sure, there were a few pieces that seemed to deserve their place in a museum. A photography series and a super realist painting of a high-heeled foot come to mind. A giant watercolor in gray tones, too. And there were others. But most of this art made me think about the following:

  1. Do these artists get paid for this garbage? Because if they do, then I’m going to start making art. I know that I can do better, and I know a couple kindergartners that could dazzle New York audiences with their finger painting. You think I’m joking but I’m not.

  2. I was chewing gum while I strolled the galleries, and I noticed a set of sculptures that looked like boulders with graffiti and dried gum all over them. Would anyone notice if I deposited my gum on one of the rocks? Would the artist approve? Wouldn’t the installation be better if there was a sign directing visitors to put their gum on the rocks?

  3. Just because you have a half-baked idea doesn’t mean you should do it. Most of this art looked like it was made by people who either had a good idea one night when they were drunk, and then made the piece the next day through a hangover even though they couldn’t remember why it seemed so good last night, or they had an idea and then realized that though they had neither the artistic skill, nor the aesthetic talent to make it right, they were going to do it anyway.

  4. I found a quote attributed to the curmudgeonly conservative critic Hilton Kramer: “The more minimal the art, the more maximum the explanation.” (Kramer has been famously and predictably bashing the Whitney Biennial for my entire lifetime.) Many of the wall cards “explaining” the art at the Biennial could be referring to almost anything for how much they relate to the art they correspond to.

  5. Most of this stuff is annoyingly self-indulgent. It is as if the artists are not only audacious enough to think we would like a view into their psyches, but also that they have the talent to represent their own psyches artistically. If the latter is true, then it is their minds that are second rate.

  6. There is a surfeit of Outsider art imitation. Bad drawings by people who ought to know better. Stacks of flotsam. Prepubescent paper-and-paste projects.

  7. When we look at some of the more famous and celebrated abstract artists from the last hundred and ten years or so, we understand that they were trained, or practiced in technique. What often makes abstract art powerful is the evidence that the artist has a classical background, a training that enables them to reach this point. The current generation of Whitney Biennialists shows only cursory nods to art history, and worse, they’ve skipped the crucial training that the last century’s best artists used as a step in their development to get to the abstract.

Finally, my date and I went to the fifth floor, which is the antidote to the previous four. Seeing all the Edward Hoppers from the permanent collection is a stunning revelation. His art looks dangerously representative and fresh. His scenes seem infused with a meaning they never had before because I’ve just seen so much art devoid of any meaning. His gloomy offices and cafes, once clichés, are haunting once again.

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