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The Whitney Biennial 2000 opens to the art-world in-crowd tonight -- and the early returns aren't good. This year's installment of the often-controversial contemporary art extravaganza is being called airy, clean, comforting and … inconsequential. Call it "Whitney Lite." The committee of regional curators has done the show in, draining it of any point of view and dulling its traditionally urban bleeding edge. Still, the exhibition -- which opens to the public Mar. 23-June 4, 2000 -- is a must-see. Any show that quotes Patrick Buchanan calling the First Amendment "the last refuge of the modern scoundrel," as Hans Haacke's work Sanitation does, can't be all bad. Film and video works by ®Tmark, Doug Aitken, Shirin Neshat, Nic Nicosia and Paul Pfeiffer are definitely recommended. Otherwise, what's the exhibition's worldview? Art is an ant farm (Yukinori Yanagi), a giant jigsaw puzzle (Al Souza), an androgynous diva (Kurt Kauper), a pin-up (Lisa Yuskavage), a flesh-colored MG sports car (Kim Dingle), a thundershower (Leandro Erlich), a headless Buddha (Michael Joo), women slamming doors (Dara Friedman) and washing Mies van der Rohe's windows (Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle). Painting is a row of multicolored dots (Laurie Reid) or a row of multicolored stripes (Linda Besemer). Sculpture is a bronzed drape (Joseph Havel), a rickety constellation of flotsam (Sarah Sze), a wall of cut-up rubber tires (Chakaia Booker) and a pair of plaster Virgins (Petah Coyne). And institutional critique is putting plastic flies on formalist abstractions (Vernon Fisher). As for the overriding emblem of the show, it's gotta be the first work off the elevator on the second floor -- Vik Muniz's giant-photo version of the 19th-century disaster, Gericault's Raft of the Medusa, done in Bosco chocolate syrup.

The eBay auction of four tickets to the Whitney Biennial 2000's exclusive VIP party on Mar. 21 by the Biennial-featured Internet artist collective ®TMark's (pronounced "artmark") is turning out to be oddly fitting. According to an email from an ®TMark representative to Artnet News, the tickets were sold for $8,000 to someone calling himself Sintron, who owns the sex search engine as well as and Sintron claims to be tired of being known as "the Porn King," and says he is dispatching his minions to the Whitney party to take pictures and collect souvenirs. Rumors that Sintron plans to hawk portraits of his own anus at the opening remain unconfirmed at press time. Sintron did say that the $8,000 will fund ®TMark's "Baby" project, dedicated to convincing a corporation to sponsor a child's rearing and education in exchange for tattooing its logo on the infant.

In the latest exposé connected to the ongoing price-fixing investigation dogging Christie's and Sotheby's, the Wall Street Journal reports that it was Christie's former chief executive Christopher Davidge who first approached Sotheby's then-president Diana D. Brooks with the scheme. Reporters Laurie P. Cohen and Alexandra Peers cite sources who disclose that Davidge contacted Brooks in 1994 at the direction of Christie's then-chairman Sir Anthony Tennant, and that the meetings terminated in an agreement to raise seller's fees the following year. According to the Journal, Tennant vigorously denies any connection to the conspiracy.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art has taken a certain amount of heat lately from press accusations that it's hiding Nazi loot in its collection of 2,000,000-plus items. And in its restrained way, the Met is saying, "Phooey!" After the World Jewish Congress questioned the provenance of Peter Paul Rubens' Portrait of a Man (1597) in an AP report, claiming the Met painting was once owned by notorious Nazi art dealer Karl Haberstock, the museum released a statement clarifying the situation. According to the museum, the painting had resided in the collection of Henry Blank in Newark, N.J., between 1924 and 1949. It had at one time been sold by Haberstock -- but before the Nazi era.

Next, Reuters reported that David Teniers the Younger's Guardroom with the Deliverance of Saint Peter (ca. 1645-47) had been seized in Vienna by the Nazis in 1938, and that no further information had surfaced since the fact had been made public in a 1984 catalogue. Museum spokesman Harold Holzer told Artnet News by phone that the painting's provenance has been checked and found to be clear. The Met says the Teniers was returned to the Charles Neuman de Vegvar family after the war, who subsequently moved to Connecticut and donated it to the museum. The Met is currently reviewing its collection and plans to release a detailed report this spring.

As the world's leading art fair devoted to Old Masters gets under way -- TEFAF Maastricht International Fine Art and Antiques Fair, Mar. 18-Mar. 26 -- its sponsors, the European Fine Art Foundation (TEFAF), has issued a new report on the world art and antiques market. The 120-page survey says that the American art and antiques market has grown to $5.34 billion in 1998, a rapid 81 percent rise since 1994. During the same period, Europe's market rose 26 percent to $6.69 billion. The trend will continue in future years, according to TEFAF, with the U.S. market overtaking Europe's in 2001. The report blames the change on the European Union, which has imposed a new Import VAT (Value Added Tax) and the droit de suite (resale royalties). If all items priced at over 50,000 euros and liable for resale royalties are diverted to other markets, TEFAF says, the European art trade could lose as much as $345 million in sales. Approximately 198 dealers from 13 countries are on hand for the annual Old Master fair, held in the Dutch city of Maastricht near the German border.

After a 17-year silence, Austria's National Gallery has admitted that it lost a priceless collection of watercolors and drawings originally given to the gallery in 1912 by the fashion designer Paul Poiret. The gallery discovered in 1983 that it had no records on what happened to the collection of 52 works, including 14 by Egon Schiele. National Gallery director Gerbert Frodl told the London Telegraph that he thinks the works disappeared in the post-war period when many artworks were moved around the country.

The Boston Institute of Contemporary Arts has received $5 million from the Barbara Lee Family Foundation towards the construction of a new four-story, 60,000-square-foot building for visual and performing arts. Scheduled to open in four years on a waterfront parcel owned by the Pritzker family, the $50-million structure is to be quite a step up for the ICA, which till now has been operating on less than $2 million yearly.

Light and space artist James Turrell lectures on Plato's Cave and the Light Within at Cooper Union on Mar. 22 at 6:30 p.m. The presentation is part of the college's Feltman Seminar in Humanities, which studies social, esthetic and technical manifestations of light and lighting design. The lecture is being held in the Great Hall on East 7th Street at 3rd Ave. Admission is free; call (212) 353-4272 for details.

The Studio Museum in Harlem presents "the Fine Art of Collecting," a two-part lecture series on collecting African American art, on Mar. 23 and 30. The first discussion, "The Elements of Collecting," focuses on the basic aspects of collecting art, featuring panelists including art consultant Peg Alston, art appraiser Michael Chisolm, art historian Halima Taha and's African American and folk art specialist Quashelle Curtis on Mar. 23 at 7 p.m. The second part, "The Collector's Experience" features distinguished collectors of African American art sharing their experiences and knowledge; panelists include Dr. Walter O. Evans, Richard Clark, Nancy Lane and Gregory Peterson on Mar. 30 at 7 p.m. Participation is free with museum admission. Call (212) 864-4500 for more info.

In the 1980s, the Public Art Fund promoted a series of projects by artists such as Jenny Holzer, Keith Haring and David Hammons on the giant "Spectacolor" billboard overlooking Times Square. Now the fund presents Pipilotti Rist's Open My Glade videos on NBC's "Astrovision" video screen, the artist's first public project in the city. The one-minute segments, especially made for the 36-foot high screen, will be broadcast at a quarter past the hour, every hour from 9:15 a.m. through 12:15 a.m., Apr. 6-May 20.

-- compiled by Giovanni Garcia-Fenech