It has long been remarked that the Whitney Museum of American Art, intended to be an authority on American culture, exhibited nothing of architecture.
In 1989 the museum had a show of the visionary interior designer, Frederick Kiesler (1890-1965), who happened to have arranged the insides of museums. Then, more recently, as if rousing from slumber, the Whitney scheduled two exhibitions on architecture. One was on Marcel Breuer, the non-American who designed the museum itself, and another (forthcoming) is on Frank Lloyd Wright, who designed the Whitney's uptown rival, the Guggenheim. None of this conveyed any of the living practice of architecture. Though most of the artists exhibited at the Whitney are alive -- certainly most of the artists in the Biennial are -- the three architects presented there have long been dead. Clearly, the museum dares not make a selection of favorite architects ... or so it would seem.
This anomaly arises not from a failure of the Whitney, but from a failure of the architecture profession.
The profession has barricaded itself inside a high-walled fortress surrounded by a moat. Only those who have studied at an academy for some years and have then worked in a firm with licensed architects for still more years can be labeled "Architect," and therefore engage in the very limited discourse about "buildings" and "planning."
Anyone can become an artist, if they do it, but -- according to the architecture profession -- only those who have obediently studied the institutional form can become architects, and certainly no artist can be considered an architect. So, the Whitney Museum shows no architecture. At least, not by name.
In history, voids are filled. And in art history, as manifested in the 1997 Whitney Biennial, there is a category of art that architecture fills.
The artists doing this job include Chris Burden, Glen Seator, Jason Rhoades, Cecilia Uruma and Diana Thater. Somewhat lesser efforts come from Ilya Kabakov, Paul McCarthy and Michael Ashkin. All of these artists make environments, or models of environments, and some of them have addressed serious questions of architecture.
Burden, who studied architecture, dropped out of that profession to pursue the issue from another stance. Hence the B-Car, hence the environmental condition of getting shot, hence spending an NEA grant on a Concorde flight, hence (Speer-style) trying to get a visual, modeled handle on America's submarine force. Here at the Biennial, in a Pizza City (as opposed to a Pizza Hut?), Burden makes less of a comment on cities -- none resemble this work, as any airline passenger can see -- than on the architecture profession's image of cities as modelable.
I refer to that tradition of making wood-block models of buildings, usually in geometric arrangements. These may look esthetic from high above but give little clue of the pleasure (or lack of it) of a person walking around down there on the ground. Burden's array of models, almost entirely assembled from toys and kits available in hobby shops and museum stores, is making fun of the architecture profession. This is not his world, really. It's their world. As such, it's as corny as a Norman Rockwell painting. We can laugh, but maybe we should cry.
Seator's tilted office says that a room can become a commodity, and that all of a building can be just the plug-in installation of such commodities. The chief requirement is that they be level.
Jason Rhoades' open studio, manifested as well at David Zwirner gallery downtown, tells us that any four walls can do. It's the accumulation of things, all over, all put to use, that makes a habitat. Architecture is not something to look at; rather, it's something in which you live and work. Thus the "untutored" viewer's reaction to Rhoades' piece: "Hey, I have one of those, and one of those, and one of those...," as if the guy's showing off everything he owns to his friends.
Diana Thater makes a room you can be in, even a landscape you can be in, all through video projections. Again, the artist says that any four walls will do; with such wide-angle projection, another space, anywhere, can be transposed herein, at least enough for a viewer to "be there."
Only Cecilia Vicuna presented an architectural paradigm, something to build, again and again -- the trellis, or forest canopy, or lightweight overhead mesh, or bower. Imagine the built environment if such a design were in widespread use, if many places you went, both indoors and outdoors, had suspended canopies of netting? The Russian Constructivists entertained such fantasies, as did the late "anarchitect" Gordon Matta-Clark. Inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright, in my work I have carried this idea further, designing the netting to support oxygenating vegetation, like moss. Here is a something good that anyone can hang in their house or outdoors, not as an object of art but as a part of the environment.
Three additional artists in the Biennial also practice architecture, though their works tend only to restate what we already know. Kabakov's realistic reconstruction of a Russian rest-home habitat is, at bottom, an insult to Russian civilization. As the Biennial would have it, the legacy of Russian architectural culture includes none of the breathtaking advances of the Constructivists during the 1920s. Paul McCarthy's nasty installation, featuring video projections of a performance (having to do with Santa, elves, shitting and pissing) along with the upended set, shocks no one. It is evidence that a pedagogue can successfully use shock tactics to engage students, who can be impressed by authorized naughtiness. Michael Ashkin has some good ideas about ecology, but his model here, though excellently made, is disappointing. Possibly due to museum pressures, the work is made it so big and kept so simple that it leaves out anything disturbing about radioactive wastes or toxic dumps. The construction looked like a wooden stage with some sand on top; oh, yeah, add the two HO-scale cars.
It seems that the Whitney IS exhibiting architecture, but neglects to call it that.
The Whitney Biennial is on view Mar. 20-June 1, 1997.