If you believe that art is about dignity, respect, depth of thought and purpose of craft, then the 2010 Whitney Biennial is the show for you. The exhibition's excellence begins with its monastically formal installation. Each artist has either a room of his or her own or the equivalent wide open space. Thus, the empty areas allow viewers to breathe and the art to visually prosper.
Each floor of the show has a signature introductory work filled with humor and color: Daniel McDonald's fog-enveloped pirate ship on the first floor, James Casebere's photo of a toy construction of suburban row houses (easily his best effort ever) on the second floor, Pae White's undulating sparkle of white smoke on sensual cotton introducing floor three and Piotr Uklanski's exuberant bleeding mushroom-like wall relief on the fourth.
One of the marvels of this show is that each artist brings the very best esthetic sensibility to the room, leading to an overall understatement of theme in the best traditions of Minimalism and Conceptualism. There is barely a Pop or ironic gesture in sight, but we live in a serious age, so why shouldn't our best art finally abandon the childishness of the past for a truly adult perspective?
Sounds dull, doesn't it, but when you stand in a huge room of Charles Ray's pinwheel flowers turning into kaleidoscopes, you will breathe with satisfaction. Jessica Jackson Hutchins' newspaper-covered sofa topped by two beyond-gorgeous ceramic jugs would make even Jasper Johns smile in its evocation of prim mystery. Lorraine O'Grady's stunning photo diptychs of Charles Baudelaire with Michael Jackson restore MJ to majesty and the Bruce High Quality Foundation's 1960s style motion picture about the ambiguity of trying to love America, projected on the windshield of a white ambulance, has a depth of mournful feeling that wil make you weep.
I would have to go back to Don Judd's famous red show of 1968 to find so many pools of perfect wonderment in one exhibition, as R.H. Quaytman converts the famous coffin-shaped window on the Whitney's 4th floor into a balletic installation of the window's possibilities as a shape and, believe it or not, as a woman. The videos, installed in a relaxed frieze of spacious cubes, are uniformly superb. Kate Gilmore justifies her raves in the art press with a spectacular film of her ripping a sheetrock closet into an abstract tornado from within. Rashad Newsome adds to the elegance with a spare treatment of a beautiful Harlem Voguer, a stripped down poetic tribute to the 1980s.
And there is so much more to uplift and enjoy: the lust-black daggers of Sarah Crowner, Tauba Auerbach's watery ripples of eternal color which seem to melt into the blood of Stephanie Sinclair's disturbing photos of fire-scarred Afghan women. Much of the show revels in an element of physical deconstruction, as in Alex Hubbard's amusing filmed takedown of a Ford Tempo, but the polite nods to politics, the slight dose of amusement and the dominance of line and form worthy of Chartres or Mondrian is ultimately liberating for viewer and artist alike.
This is not only the greatest of Whitney Biennials, it is the greatest show ever produced by the Whitney Museum.
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).