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The 2004 Biennial Exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art

Paintings by Mel Bochner, installation view

Roni Horn
Doubt by Water

Biennial curators Chrissie Iles, Shamim Momin and Debra Singer (from left) with director Adam Weinberg

Assume Vivid Astro Focus
Assume Vivid Astro Focus 8

Elizabeth Peyton
Lady with Ermine, 1480-90 (after Leonardo da Vinci)
Having a Wild Whitney
by Charlie Finch

At 6:30 p.m., the art gang was mingling at the bar of the Carlyle Hotel: Anton Kern, Paul McCarthy, Tom Eccles of the Public Art Fund, Luhring and Augustine.

At 6:45 p.m., collectors Mera and Don Rubell stood at the front of the line for the Whitney Biennial, with a queue snaking around towards Park Avenue. The long line replenished itself all night long.

At 7 p.m., a gorgeous naked blonde woman in pasties walked up to the Whitney's refreshment table, instantly attracting a crowd.

At 7:30 p.m., a thin and handsome Whitney director Adam Weinberg began greeting his visitors at the entrance, staying at his post for the rest of the evening, as everyone who arrived, the invited and the un-, easily walked in.

Spying the throngs, easily a match for Shiites celebrating Ashura in Karbala, we thought of Lorca: "Although I may know the roads, I will never arrive at Cordoba."

All the roads traveled by popular artists in the last few years are well represented in this beautifully installed, esthetically competent, conservative show in which politics plays as mute as a lute in the background.

Guest critic Agnes Gund told us: "I think it is excellent, even the work I normally don't care for is interesting.

"To see a room of completely different colorful work by Mel Bochner is extraordinary.

"I love the Roni Horn signs, especially the owls -- I tried to buy one in a charity auction, but eventually I was outbid, unfortunately."

The anxiety theme trumpeted by the capable curatorial trio which harmonized this stately biennial must have been mitigated by a truckful of Wellbutrin.

Particularly elegant is the fourth floor, which takes on the air of the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg. Artist Josh Biel stared lovingly at the 14-foot-high woman in Assume Vivid Astro Focus' psychedelic shanty, and told us, "That's my girlfriend" (she modeled for the piece).

The pastoral tonic ripples through Catherine Opie's exquisite landscapes of surfers and the late Jack Goldstein's peaceful video of a deep-sea dive.

Richard Prince's gray funereal auto-hood mounds added to the stillness and Cecily Brown's self-portrait as a dissipated Camille cried out in silent pain.

Marina Abramovic's video of herself in a skeleton suit conducting a black-draped, ghostly chorus was more wistful than threatening in this environment, as was Catherine Sullivan's film of actors aping the Grand Guignol.

Echoing Ms. Gund, artists whom we normally don't care for were in top form -- Jack Pierson's hunky template of color photographs, Spencer Finch's dark take on Allan McCollum, and Fred Tomaselli's anthropomorphic hallucinations.

Much of the work, such as Katy Grannan's upstate photographs, have been seen recently in a gallery context, but, if anything, this lack of freshness confirms the triumphs of various artistic wills: artist, dealer, collector and critic. Novices will surely feel at home in this slightly esoteric, refined Chelsea Disneyland.

Lastly, a tip of the hat to the best, and smallest, piece in the show, Elizabeth Peyton's pastiche of Leonardo's Lady with Ermine.

It could fit snugly under the tightest Chanel jacket.

CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).