Call this the OK Biennial. The 2004 Whitney Biennial never goes off-the-tracks bad but it rarely goes off-the-charts good, either. There's a lot of worthy work on hand, some surprises and a few high moments. Artists I'm only mildly interested in impress. But overall it's tame. There's not a lot of heat here, and little that's juicy or transcendental.
Sometimes you feel the curators are just covering their bases, pulling cool artists from the right cliques. Politics are internal, not external. Still, at a time when biennials, triennials and Documentas are as overblown, irritating and automatic as Academy Award ceremonies, when it's not clear who or what these carnivalesque cattle calls are for, Chrissie Iles, Shamim M. Momin and Debra Singer -- the three Whitney curators appointed by former director Maxwell Anderson -- should be cheered for giving us a biennial that has the virtue of being a fairly accurate, occasionally sparkling snapshot of what now looks like in American art.
"OK" isn't damning with faint praise: "OK" may be as good as one of these probably obsolete, regularly wretched beasts can be today. Maurizio Cattelan's alleged burial of his biennial piece somewhere on the museum's second floor is an apt metaphor for how artists are ill served by these circuses. "OK" means this is the best biennial since the 1997 edition. This exhibition captures art and the museum at a beguiling moment: Leaving postmodernist and postminimalist strategies behind and breathing fresh air. So this is also a Course Correction or Thank God Biennial, a show that says the last two biennials were flukes.
This biennial is the most art-center-centric one in decades: A whopping 80 of its 108 participants live in New York or Los Angeles. Twenty-one artists are over 50; 64 are under 40, and 15 of those are in their 20s. So you're seeing the tip of a new generation, which is exciting. Sadly, this show is short on artists of color. As for mediums, Iles observes, "We have something like 20 painters, 23 sculptors, and 15 film and video installations." Video and sculpture are strongest, and very painterly. Photography is almost absent, and painting is weak, although Laura Owens's buoyant imaginary tree and Elizabeth Peyton's stunning self-portrait are the two best works in the exhibition. Amy Sillman, James Siena, Mel Bochner, Fred Tomaselli and Lecia Dole-Recio also look good. Cameron Martin and Tam Van Tran are passable but not biennial material and David Hockney looks lame, my soft spot for him notwithstanding.
Two things constrain this show. The first is that too many artists are present without affecting the exhibition much (e.g., Andrea Bowers, Laylah Ali, Robert Mangold, Sam Durant, Robyn O'Neil, Cory Arcangel/BEIGE, Terence Koh, Taylor Davis, Hockney and, I'm afraid, Cattelan, and Paul McCarthy's towering inflatable on the roof). The other is the team's weakness for artists who are only moderately talented but immensely, if inexplicably, popular in curatorial circles (e.g., Craigie Horsfield, Sharon Lockhart, Mary Kelly, Lee Mingwei, Liz Craft, Katie Grinnan and Dario Robleto -- none of whom, it must be said, bomb here). In their savvy catalogue introduction, the curators assert that "a significant sea change in contemporary art is under way." That change is evident here. It's just difficult to see because of these mid-range artists.
It's impossible to sum up 108 artists, but Raymond Pettibon, in his vivacious installation, includes a phrase that rings true: "The Piecemeal Kingdom." Much of the art on hand is ephemeral and looks as if it were made of parts or built step-by-step. Standouts in this piecemeal kingdom are David Altmejd, Eric Wesley, Mark Handforth, possibly Christian Holstad and Matthew Ronay, and certainly Julianne Swartz, whose stairwell installation fills the air with the sounds of Somewhere Over the Rainbow. In addition to a sprinkling of sculpture influenced, however indirectly, by Jessica Stockholder or Rachel Harrison, there's a lot of what I call "little art": drawings or collages or sculptural arrangements done with lots of wee bits, things, marks or parts. Interestingly, what this work is trying to supplant may demand just this kind of littleness. Call it termite tactics.
After Owens and Peyton, the most ravishing works in this show are Yayoi Kusama's walk-in room of colored lights and Slater Bradley's video love song to the cosmos. I also really liked Dave Muller's wall, Erick Swenson's elegant deer, Harrell Fletcher's James Joyce video, Andrea Zittel's kooky study center, Emily Jacir's Palestinian project, Ada Ruilova's bombarding video snippets, the extraordinary music of Antony and the Johnsons, Eve Sussman's video Velzquez, Deborah Stratman's film in the Simparch installation, Marina Abramovic's poignant video, Jim Hodges, Spencer Finch, Yutaka Sone, Catherine Sullivan and the best yet Central Park sculpture installations.
The art world is dying to like the 2004 Whitney Biennial. The opening was a lovefest. Previews in magazines and newspapers essentially implored, "Can't we all just get along and love the biennial?" Nearly all trotted out the clich "the show everyone loves to hate." Disliking exhibitions is seen by some to be disloyal or obstructionist. This is traceable to the fact that in America today criticism and even civil disagreement are implicitly discouraged; people love to hate or even demonize those whose views differ from their own. But, criticizing flawed exhibitions isn't hating them. It's a way of treating them with respect. Mostly, the good wishes for this show stem from the fact that everyone wants the Whitney to be great again. This OK Biennial is an excellent step.
Five Points by Jerry Saltz
Making a wish list: nagging qualms about the biennial
Aside from my biennial wish that the biennial be an annual and have a 50-50 male/female ratio, I have five other list-queenly qualms about this exhibition.
1. This biennial might have twinkled more had the curators switched a few of the big names for slightly less predictable big names: Mary Heilmann instead of Robert Mangold, Jim Nutt rather than David Hockney, William Eggleston instead of Jack Pierson, Lee Bontecou rather than Alex Hay, and R. Crumb and Cady Noland instead of Paul McCarthy and Richard Prince.
2. Nix all those middle-range artists (Craigie Horsfield et al.) for weirder, more visionary ones like Verne Dawson, Ricci Albenda, Dana Schutz, Trisha Donnelly, Anna Gaskell, Lisa Ruyter, Robert Melee, Benjamin Butler, Jonathan Horowitz, Guy Richards Smit, Steve DiBenedetto, Jon Kessler and Paul Chan, or (even though I'm not a fan of all of them) Pierre Huyghe, Takashi Murakami, William Kentridge, Rudolf Stingel, Urs Fisher, Jim Lambie, Vanessa Beecroft, Douglas Gordon, Ugo Rondinoni and Francis Als -- all of whom live part-time in the United States.
3. Why no artists from San Francisco when the place is hopping? Tokyo, Helsinki, and Bisbee, Arizona, fared better.
4. The catalogue is spiffy and has good texts by the curators, Robert Smithson, Anas Nin, Tim Griffin and the inimitable Wayne Koestenbaum (Fag Limbo). But the "boxed set" with bumper stickers, postcards and "artist projects" is something you'll look at exactly once.
5. Even though he's erratic, shouldn't Jeff Koons be allowed back into one of these shows? It's been since the 1980s. Surely by now he can be forgiven for whatever he did.
JERRY SALTZ is art critic for the Village Voice, where this review first appeared. He can be contacted at email@example.com.