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Whitney Biennial 2010 and Collecting Biennials: An Optimistic Year

Suzan Frecon

The 2010 Whitney Biennial, which opened last week, was a surprisingly optimistic exhibition, partially due to the choices of the two curators, Francesco Bonami and Gary Carrion-Murayari, but also to its pairing with the concurrent exhibition Collecting Biennials on the top floor of the museum. There were surprising parallels between the contemporary attitude of 2010's fully loaded first four floors with the more cerebral weight of plum choices (mainly by male artists) from the museum holdings of works from past Biennials.

There is a theory that when the economy is down, the art world bears more evidence of the works of women artists. In 2010, over 50% of the exhibiting artists are women, some showing strong work with great maturity. Overall the show has an upbeat bent despite some tough subject matter. The political weight of past Biennials, with their blame game attitudes, is not as prevalent. What a relief! This show seems more revelatory in its political stance, by posing solutions to current issues and highlighting the progress we have seen in areas like women's rights, racial profiling, the deglorification of war and uprooting the greed of Capitalism.

The transcendentalism we associate with early forms of American 20th Century art dominate the Collecting Biennials show. Barnett Newman holds an honored position here with his painting “The Promise.” The title alone is emotionally pliant and a makes one feel a bit vulnerable. Ad Reinhardt’s “Abstract Painting Red” and Mark Rothko's “Four Darks in Red” keep poetic titles at bay, but still one cannot deny their references to transcendence.

In contrast, our 2010 Biennial purists are having none of the romance. Paintings by Suzan Frecon are reminiscent of polished buffalo dung floors highly prized in Sri Lanka. Sarah Crowner’s sewn, zigzagged, b&w canvases are saved from being forgettable by their wrinkles. Tauba Auerbach’s images play with the look of street art spray paint, the visual vocabulary creating depth. The massive, seductive tapestry of Pae White is photographically derived from crimped foil and smoke, a piece of eye candy that is monstrously heavy.

The romance of otherness has been re-labeled in the current Biennial with signs of clever process and form but without the mourning going on upstairs. These abstractionists never get as messy as de Kooning (Landscape, Abstract), Pollock (No. 17, Fireworks) or Rauschenberg (Satellite). Twombly’s “Untitled,” with its reference to language and the chalk board’s subtle grey/white imagery, gets closest to the post modernist vision of how American abstraction will evolve. Sherrie Levine’s “Untitled (Golden Knots)” is the precursor for the appropriation on which much of the post-modernist trajectory of abstraction is based. Her format was not as commercially solid as the trajectory of Peter Halley, whose work is not in the Whitney show but is exhibited concurrently at the Mary Boone Gallery in Chelsea.

The amazing Edward Hopper piece “Early Sunday Morning,” on the 5th floor, isn’t just about that gorgeous sunrise illuminating an American street. It is about quietness. You feel like you could hear a pin drop. Climbing up to a relatively empty 5th floor from the noisy opening downstairs, it struck me that quietude is an endangered species, regardless of whether you are a city or country dweller. Only the rich can isolate themselves in ivory towers with noise resistant glass or find a haven of county landscape that isn’t bombarded by low flying jets, the hum of highways, the din of construction.

Vija Celmens' cozy painting “Heater” is pleasurable isolationism. And there’s a quiet intimacy of the hand crafted into many works in this years Biennial, specifically in works by Lesley Vance, R.H. Quaytman, Scott Short, as well as Julia Fish, Maureen Gallace, and Curtis Mann - except that the hum of the machine is not far away and is the starting point for each artist's production.

Vance’s press release indicates she makes still life somewhat in the Dutch tradition, then photographs it and collages the photograph. From this she creates a high-resistance painting which is all surface because the paint can’t soak in. (Similar to Elizabeth Peyton’s technique). This way of moving paint around is sexy and intriguing, but all the pre-painting makes the efforts seem somewhat slick.

R.H. Quaytman’s paintings comprise a small room; the enclosure of her installation allows us to become immersed in the intimacy of space and process. They are clever inventions, protectively subtle and intellectually rigid at the same time.

Scott Short’s large faux-intuitive painting starts with a long devolution of Xerox images. It is slick on the surface and compositionally “right.” It has a cool, McLuhan-esque “medium is the message” quality.

Julia Fish’s interiors seem photographically derived and have the same deadpan reserve we felt upstairs in the Sylvia Plimack Mangold painting “Floor With Horizontal Mirror.” Both artists employ a minimalist strategy to ultimately hint at Modernist expression.

Maureen Gallace’s seascapes have that paint-by-number look that lends an edge. She uses carefully controlled brushwork to complete their pared down drama.

“After the Dust, Second View (Beirut)” is an intriguing, grid format work by Curtis Mann. He cues visual experience to a mnemonic process, allowing his manipulated, painted photos to read as a vibratory surface. Only on closer examination do the surfaces reveal their violent, photographic subject matter.

Philip Guston should get an award for being in the most Biennials: 22 to be exact. I can’t help think he has influenced so many artists simply because he was always visible. Many painters study his surfaces from all directions, trying to figure out when and where the actual process of laying on paint began, how he finally arrived at such a mysteriously evocative image. But it's hard to unravel, which is why we keep coming back. “Cabal,” on view on the 5th floor is no exception. It renders a highly psychological experience, thorough the materiality of paint and simplified cartoon-like imagery, into an end-game question, a reflection on the body’s mortality.

In his famous film “A Life Lived,” Guston says we are all just “big dumb animals”. In 2010, Thomas Houseago’s monumental plaster sculpture “Baby” speaks directly to the idea of big and dumb. Nina Berman’s scary photographs of maimed veteran Ty close in on how big and dumb war really is. Another big and dumb piece is “Untitled (The Year We Make Contact)” by Piotr Uklanski. I enjoy its crazy, physical quality. Upstairs, David Hammons' nappy coated wire sculpture offers up lame materialistic enjoyment, but with the addition of Hammons' signature critique of racial stereotypes.

Richard Diebenkorn’s “Girl Looking at the Landscape” has a similar self-reflection but more illustrative and decorative, with a hopeful blue sky. Milton Avery’s “Sea Gazers”, also on the 5th floor, sets up a meditative philosophical aura, but his delivery, as always, is to formally delight us without any vestige of the "bad news.”

Allan McCollum’s painting installation “288 Plaster Surrogates“ is in your face obsessive, but the humor of his idea is comfort to all painting purists. For Jim Lutes, human identity is floating in swirls of liquid mark making; the buried portrait might be referencing the insanity of many artists. Roland Flexner uses a sort of marbling technique in handsome, small B&W abstractions that hint at detailed landscapes and play an associative game that continues to beguile the human eye.

Lee Bontecou and Eva Hesse’s sculptural works from the permanent collection use complicated material constructions (in Hesse's case, the poison resin fumes most likely contributed to her early death from cancer) that evoke mental obsession from the perspective of female artistic production. In Biennial 2010, Dawn Clements’ large scale drawing “Mrs. Jessica Drummond’s (My Reputation 1945)”, with its crumpled surface, exposes the psychological entrapment of women. She appropriates 1940s and -50s Hollywood images of domestic spaces that are physically and psychologically claustrophobic. Hannah Greely's gigantic sculptural installation, “La-La”, is a surreal, discordant interior fragment, ironically overshadowing the view of Clements’s drawing.

The most heart wrenching series of photographs by documentary photographer Stephanie Sinclair, entitled “Self Immolation in Afghanistan: A Cry for Help”, allows us to witness the personal despair of profoundly isolated women who mutilate themselves to avoid abusive arranged marriages. (Like some caged birds in confinement, who literally gnaw themselves to a state of suicide?) Despite their graphic nature, they offer hope by creating a dialog on the historical violence that has been tolerated against women.

Lorraine O’Grady offers a very hip installation, a tribute to Michael Jackson and 19th Century French poet Charles Baudelaire, with a somewhat documentary format of their parallel lives: the ultimate suffering of a rags-to-riches celebrity compared with the tortured existence of the wealthy aristocrat, a poet abandoned by his family. The vulnerable nature of artistic individuals and their creative genius has no limitations regarding race, gender or economic status.

Kate Gilmore’s video shows her hacking her way out of a self-imposed, self created physical prison, but her artistic story has a happy ending. Gilmore’s shoe shopping video on the Whitney web site is just about as mindless as the videos by Aki Sasamoto and Ari Marcopoulos. Sasamoto describes a donut’s fate in a pseudo-scientific spoof on the digestive system, but it is unsatisfying adolescent narcissism a la Nickelodeon. Ari Marcopoulos’s piece is worse. It shows him playing a video game with the curator, and is ultimately tedious, with an annoying soundtrack. Also ridiculous is the sound bite the Whitney uses to introduce the 2010 videos, three hard machine type bangs (from an antique cash register?) which almost seem appropriated from the familiar double bang of the "Law and Order" TV series.

Ultimately all of these Nickelodeon, YouTube inspired shorts, posing as pop culture, are disrespectful and more than a bit of a turn off. This “too cool” attitude does not belong at the Whitney Museum. My advice to the curators: “just say no” to this lingering adolescent type of advertisement. The totality of Biennial 2010 and the amazing array of works in the show deserve a more appropriate web based introduction.


Review, Whitney Biennial 2010, Collecting Birnnials, Barnett Newman, Ad Reinhardt, Mark Rothko, Suzan Frecon, Sarah Crowner, Tauba Auerbach, Pae White, Edward Hopper, Cy Twombly, Lesley Vance, R.H. Quaytman, Scott Short, Julia Fish, Maureen Gallace, Curtis Mann, Philip Guston, Thomas Houseago, Nina Berman, Piotr Uklanski, Richard Diebenkorn, David Hammons, Milton Acery, Allan McCollum, Jim Lutes, Roland Flexner, Lee Bontecou, Eva Hesse, Dawn Clements, Hannah Greely, Stephanie Sinclair, Lorraine O'Grady, Kate Gilmore, Aki Sasamoto, Ari Marcopoulos