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Whitney Biennial 2012


by Charlie Finch
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When and if you attend this year's Whitney Biennial, head right to the fifth floor, where the Whitney exhibits selections from its permanent collection, and where you can see what a proper biennial should look like.

A huge gorgeous Lee Krasner painting, The Seasons (1957), is so permeated with luscious reds that my companion described it as "pomegranate sex." It puts to shame the twee little color studies of Andrew Masullo on view downstairs, resembling anything that you might find in Bushwick on a Friday night. Matthew Day Jackson's majestic slave ship, while not as good as similar efforts by Sergei Bugaev (aka Afrika), would cruise past the walls and more walls of horrible Richard Hawkins montages, in the actual biennial, with disdain. For one of the things about this space-liberating biennial is that there is a lot more work by much worse artists.

Josephine Meckseper's agitprop irritates the hell out of me with its strident simplicity, but her photo installation on the fifth floor about the Iraq War buries the insipid pretensions of Werner Herzog's awful five-channel tribute to a justly forgotten landscape painter (completed by an out of tune cello player) with a powerful political punch. A floor five gallery is filled with white Agnes Martins, infused with a range of subtle grays that only Agnes could conjure up. You could spend hours there because the biennial has no paintings, except for a room full of mediocre Forrest Bess works (he was either excellent or terrible and the Whitney opted for terrible) and a mournful, tragic Marsden Hartley portrait that would make that great painter weep if he could see the mediocrities near it.

You say you want play? Try two vitrines of Alexander Calder's very familiar circus figures on five, complete with a charming film of Sandy making them bob up and down. Dawn Kasper, downstairs, spends her time describing to onlookers how she is streaming a radio interview on her computer to Los Angeles, an exercise in playless, self-preening egoism. Now, to be fair, when you walk down the back stairs from floor five to floor five-M, you will find yourself in a charming little Alice in Wonderland environment (that is part of the biennial) featuring objects by the collectives Red Krayola and Art & Language, a pair of bloody feet mittens here, some cardboard spectacles there, and a large guard so amiably somnolent that you might wish to pocket a souvenir, so to speak.

But the rest of the biennial is beyond awful in its strategic and pictorial irrelevance. Why is Lutz Bacher, who exhibited all those ironic pinups at Pat Hearn Gallery for so many years, given acres of space to make stupid industrial musical instruments? Why do the curators allow the great artist Nicole Eisenman two walls worth of throwaway portraits which truly suck? To give you an idea of the phoniness of the whole show, a group of young female art students from London were sitting cross-legged on the floor with sketchbooks, making copies of the awful Eisenmans!

I stood before them and announced, "Kids, I am an art critic. Please don't copy these terrible pieces by this talented artist. Do your own drawings now and put them on the walls," which produced paroxysms of giggles. At least, my performance was heartfelt, but the whole meme of the show, that if you buy an extra ticket some artist might dance past you or a badger could crawl out of the woods, is so fake that it makes your skin crawl.

The Whitney these days is about one thing only, director Adam Weinberg toadying up to the elites of Bloombergland, i.e. the simulacrum of New York manufactured by the elites, in a manner so egregious that Thomas Krens seems modest and dignified by comparison. If you want a taste of what the Whitney once was and could be again, biennials included, check out the fifth floor and skip the others.

“Whitney Biennial 2012,” Mar. 1-May 27, 2012, Whitney Museum of American Art, 945 Madison Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10021.

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