Wednesday, March 19, 2008

"The Embrace of Locality"...Whitney Biennial 2008

Were the Whitney Biennial an entry on the police blotter of art history, of the Who, What, When, Why, “Just the Facts, Ma’am” variety, then this short text concerns its Where. Unlike other New York museums, which have recently, for better or worse, completed dramatic new building projects (MoMA’s Tanaguchi temple and the New Museum’s grey ghost on the Bowery) or made major efforts in franchising their brand overseas (look no further than the Mc Guggenheims) the Whitney has generally been stymied in its expansion plans.

Despite a long history of attempts, including the Michael Graves postmodernist fiasco of 1985 and a Rem Koolhaas proposed tower that was scrapped in 2003, the museum has thus far been denied its grand gesture, and has only been able to complete useful but minimal initiatives, such as the incorporation of two adjacent brownstones for offices and other administrative functions. This stalemate might change with the construction of a Renzo Piano designed downtown branch abutting the High Line, where the Dia Foundation once planned to re-settle. But for the moment, the Whitney remains five floors of an inverted Marcel Breuer ziggurat on Madison Avenue and 74th Street, nestled into a 100 x 125 foot lot, surrounded by the decorous residential buildings and commercial glitz of the Upper East Side.

After many years attending shows, and not just Biennials, in this same landmark building, a sense of familiarity and trust develops. The museum’s physical plant has an obvious but reassuring constancy: the flagstone floors, the honeycombed ceilings. One remembers previous layouts and alternate selections of art, different walls for different sprawls, other work placed near the trapezoidal windows, other uses of the sunken courtyard, other displays in the glass case near the (woefully inadequate) second floor screening room. The Whitney’s “failure” to expand has, perhaps counter-intuitively, had a positive influence, engendering good will that might have been lessened or lost had the museum embarked on the same hubristic will to super size that enticed its sister institutions.

We enjoy the Whitney for its scrappy, resourceful independence, for managing to do a lot with a little. There is not just a legacy of excellent, well curated shows, which seem to place art first rather than running after blockbuster content (with the occasional lapse, like last summer’s psychedelic extravaganza) but also a modesty of scale and intention, as embodied in the clever, contained modernism of its 1966 Breuer building.

But if the Whitney does not chase after blockbusters, perhaps that’s because it doesn’t really need to. It has its own built-in blockbuster every two years, the Biennial, which in its self-appointed mission to select the best and brightest in American art is destined (some would say condemned) to be a periodic weathervane for controversy. How this plays out in general admissions over the course of the show is up for debate, but a Biennial media preview attracts about ten times the usual press. Writers from Fanciful Felines, to cite a fictitious magazine, come out of the woodwork, claiming they write about cats … and art. The entire press corps needs to view “the show that everyone loves to hate,” proving Schadenfreude is still a strong draw among the chattering classes.

Who can blame the museum for wanting to stretch out a bit at this time, at this moment of maximum visibility? Previous editions of the Biennial have incorporated outdoor sculpture in Central Park, projects at the zoo, pairings with the Public Art Fund. But this year, in a move that has been fully oversold in the media, almost as much as the exhibition’s clubby, “Facebook” aesthetic, the Whitney has expanded the Biennial’s first twenty days into a series of temporary installations, performances and parties at the Seventh Regiment Armory, the moldering Victorian pile seven blocks south of the museum. The same Armory that is host to various art fairs throughout the year and the occasional invitation-only, motorcycle-fueled performance piece replete with macho territoriality and carbon monoxide.

Occupying a full square block, with a central Drill Hall five stories high and an enclosed area better measured in acres than square feet, the Armory dwarfs the museum proper. It would seem to answer every artist’s secret wet dream: space, space, glorious space, in a city where real estate options for studios range from the challenging to the impossible.

The Armory is built on a baronial scale, with charming anachronisms of nineteenth century architecture and ornamentation: dark wood paneling and wainscoting, elaborate arched transoms and doorways, chandeliers, wide halls, double staircases, glass enclosed cabinets full of silver cups and urns, long unused wooden lockers, military flags, bunting and portraiture, all the pomp and panoply of a forgotten era.

It is also falling apart. Its patched ceilings and walls, ancient electrical wiring and other building systems need replacement, and are slated for massive renovation, so that the Armory can become a more useful and attractive space for a full calendar of art projects. Once that occurs, one wonders what will happen to its current roster of temporary residents who occupy the women’s shelter housed on its third and fifth floors.

But in its current incarnation, still a bit dilapidated and physically distressed, the Armory feels like the anti-Whitney: dark, decaying, somber and old, decidedly not adhering to the usual exhibition model of a clean white cube. It resonates as a haunted house, a locus of the unconscious mind with creaky floors and untrammeled visions. Despite its address of Park Avenue and 67th Street, not exactly the poorest part of town, the Armory manages to recapitulate the history of artists as battering rams for real estate: moving into questionable neighborhoods and compromised buildings, into cold water tenement flats and windy industrial lofts, with leaks and holes and rotting fixtures, and making these places useful again, at first just for their creative enterprise, as reclaimed enclaves for the demimonde, but eventually “safe” for general use and for the enrichment of speculators.

The Armory, then, is not just extra space to house the Biennial. It connotes an entirely different sort of space. If the museum is the quintessential white box, where finished work winds up, where its importance and art historical value can be measured in a cool, clear, antiseptic light, then the Armory is emblematic of the studio, a place much closer to the actual moment of creation, more “honest”, more “immediate”, more revelatory of praxis. Also clubbier, more bohemian, fecund and feral: what Kurt Cobain was talking about in “Smells Like Teen Spirit”. A place where artists can engage in ephemeral acts, where they can feel unhampered, where they can fail and try again, where they can cavort and play as we, lucky mortals, watch them do so. A place to see the art before it is complete, perhaps before it has even been imagined. A funky incubator.

It hardly matters whether an installation at the Armory is any less studied or self conscious than similar work at the Whitney proper. The pose is all. The iconography of the Armory as a venue is part Masonic Temple and part outer borough rock club. Its casual, transitory aspect, its feeling of being unfinished and unpredictable, awash and unmoored in history, makes it the symbolic center of the larger exhibition, and gives visual proof to Henriette Huldisch and Shamim Momim’s “embrace of locality,” to their tireless globe hopping, their search for the hippest, most cutting edge work in this “you had to be there” Biennial. (to be continued)

Friday, March 14, 2008

On (the Lack of) Painting at the 2008 Biennial

With so little painting hung at the Whitney, it would have been a more radical gesture, and not really that much of a stretch, for the curators to have gone for broke and selected none at all. Examining what was finally chosen and how it is presented within the show might prove instructive, and not just on the changing status of painting in the 21st century, but also regarding the assertion and abdication of curatorial will.

In the current Biennial, painting seems to be handled with kid gloves, approached like a "viral" entity, quarantined from the primary form of the exhibition (installation), or else treated as installation art in its own right by being sequestered into individual, private rooms. Is this to protect other media from the "infection" of painting? or is it a belated effort to isolate and hopefully rekindle the creative spark of the medium, to counteract the "death of painting" that has been proclaimed so frequently over the last thirty years?

Note the separate rooms for Karen Kilimnik's chandelier-centered little girlie fantasia, Joe Bradley's bratty, slacker takes on Ellsworth Kelly, and the isolation of Mary Heilmann's wall of small paintings, right off the second floor elevators, but hung low and interacting with nothing else. Ditto Kembra Pfahler's ass prints housed in their own baronial hall at the Armory, two rows of derriere-pometries on easels leading to a Karen Black fright doll; and Ellen Harvey's perception device of framed paintings on the wall viewed behind their cut outs on a mirrored lightbox at the museum, and her drawing alcove at the Armory, each spatially autonomous.

Most tellingly, Lisa Sigal's discrete subdivision of collaged, distressed, painted construction materials and detritus have their own cubicle at the museum, while at the Armory her piebald swatches of paint climb up the enormous Women's Balcony facade of the Drill Hall, set apart in the great void while still in plain if distant sight.

Of those paintings allowed to circulate in general population, Robert Bechtle's pristine tableaux feel like refugees from an entirely different exhibition, a total anomaly, yet they find themselves unceremoniously and uncomfortably wedged between the constructivist hegemonies of Ry Rocklen and Phoebe Washburn. Bechtle's washed out, photo realist streetscapes have always contained an uneasy, quizzical sense of place, full of (if you will) existential dread, but this is the first time I felt this unease imposed on his canvases from without, by the sheer inappropriateness of their exhibition context. At least Gardar Eide Einarsson's nihilistic, oversized abstraction of a civil defense sign finds formal rhyme in his adjacent lightbulb-X sculpture, a bit of self referential call and response. His painting relates not just to the rest of his work, but also to the central "Home Depot" aesthetic of the Biennial.

Olivier Mosset's two huge monochrome canvases at the museum, and his grid of nine blank replacements of military portraits at the Armory, constitute their own special case, deriving from his unique history as the M of the Paris-based BMPT group of the mid-1960s (also including Daniel Buren, Michel Parmentier and Niele Toroni) and their advancement of a mass produced, repetitive, generic abstraction. Mosset himself is a poster boy for the expanded jurisdiction of the Biennial, for that new hybrid, the international "American" artist. Transplanted first to NY and thence to the American Southwest, his conflation of hip Euro/Swiss post-minimalism with a ZZ Top renegade biker ethos is confirmed by his many collaborations with a new generation of artists.

There is, finally, Cheney Thompson, who uses painted elements in his (re)constructions and cannibalizations from previously exhibited work. Which makes ten painters at most, even when they are most generously and inclusively defined, out of a total of 81 Biennial artists. It is a pittance.

Certainly one reason there are so few artists of any stripe in the 2008 edition (a more typical Biennial roster is over 100) is the sheer plethora of installations and separate rooms, which cubbyhole the floor plan and eat up lots of square (and cubic) footage. Even galleries which remain undivided, like the large fourth floor room housing Mosset, Rodney McMillan's black-tentacled wall hanging, and the installations of Ruben Ochoa and Heather Rowe, might have formerly supported the work of seven or eight painters.

But that was in a galaxy long ago and far away, when painting was the dominant medium, when the work was hung together in large spaces precisely so that it might visually interact, when paintings needed to be viewed comparatively, facing off against each other, creating dialog and a dialectic, a conversation considered essential for the development of art.

When was the last Biennial of this type? Perhaps the one Klaus Kertess put up in 1995? The drastic reduction of painting in the current exhibition, and its sheer physical isolation, would seem to indicate not so much fear of the medium (although there might be some of that) as scorn for its commonality and accessibility. The curators are essentially saying to young artists: "You just paint??!! Get with the new breed, baby!". But whether it is fear or scorn, one thing is obvious. The curators of the 2008 Whitney Biennial, for all their other virtues, do not know how to approach the art world's oldest medium, have little feeling for it, and hardly know what to do with a painting when confronted by one in the dark alley of art history.

Monday, March 10, 2008

The Great Whitney Biennial 2008 Re-Post

In preparation for, or perhaps in lieu of my own discussion of the show everyone loves to bash, here are selections from texts posted elsewhere: by Peter Schjeldahl in The New Yorker, by Holland Cotter in The New York Times, by Alexandra Peers and Carly Berwick in New York Magazine (we still await the voice of The Saltz), by David Cohen in The New York Sun, even selections from and Artnet.

They are randomly ordered and vehemently out of context. My original idea was to attribute each snippet, but it flows better without, and you can always look up the authors online.

Here then, for better or worse: The Great Whitney Biennial 2008 Re-Post. Feel free to add new items in Comments.

mildly unhappy and restlessly alert
an unglamorous, even prosaic affair
a new, gray mood among younger artists
a fraternal, anarchic gathering
uncharismatic surfaces, complicated back stories
a decline in producer confidence
work that seems to be in a transitional, questioning mode
things half-finished or things falling apart
a boho biennial ... a neo-hippy ethos
conventionally anti-conventional, like most of the world’s biennials
art as conversation rather than as statement, testing this, trying that
willfully half-baked
self-consciously scrappy, ephemeral, loose-at-the-edges art
two decades of academic postmodernizing have trailed off into embarrassed silence
Janson’s History of Conceptual Art meets Home Depot
heedless of traditional beauty
a key stage in the “dark night of the soul,” preceding redemption
formally cohesive but ... a bit grim
the prevailing mood ... is of casual idealism
the attraction of abjection
dissipatedness and ephemerality
tentative and half-done
confused feelings are a problem only if you insist on making them one
questions asked, not answered
embraces failure ... humorously and solipsistically
truth that is and is not true
a philosophy of “lessness”
a stranger who has forgotten his name and importunes you, on the off chance that you know it
a stony refusal to believe that we ever know what we see
a burbling, flimsy abundance of collaborative and participatory activities
wryly self-aware neo-hippie outlook
unabashed about the importance of social networks
leftovers from a really good party
a far cry from the expected debauchery
a tremendous sense of displacement and loss
the embrace of locality is part of the work
the suddenly exact middle of nowhere

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Post-Krens Thread Up on Artworld Salon

A discussion thread on the resignation of Thomas Krens as director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, and its potential ramifications in the art world and for museum culture, has been posted on Artworld Salon.

Although the site is a moderated discussion board to which only pre-approved individuals may post directly, interested parties may send their responses to These will then be examined by an editorial board for possible inclusion.

Any thoughts?