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It Happens Every Two Years

Complaining about the Whitney Museum of American Art's Biennial is an art world ritual. The twist this year is the surprising number of West Coast artists.

March 09, 1997|Kristine McKenna | Kristine McKenna is a regular contributor to Calendar

Everybody loves to hate the Whitney Biennial. Why? That depends on whom and when you ask. Established in 1932 by the Whitney Museum of American Art's founder, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, as an annual survey of new work by living American artists, and changed to a biannual in 1973, this exhibition is invariably trounced by critics regardless of who curates it, how they do it or who's in it. Nonetheless, it remains one of the most talked-about shows on the art circuit.

The last one was faulted for being a timid show that was the subject of so much advance publicity everyone had lost interest by the time it opened; the 1993 version was deemed didactic and overly concerned with being politically correct; the 1985 show had too much art from Manhattan's then-burgeoning East Village scene--and so on. It's always something when it comes to the Whitney.

It remains to be seen who'll take the bullets in 1997, but the one thing everyone's talking about as the March 20 opening approaches is the unprecedented and significant presence California has in the show. The Biennial of 10 years ago included just two West Coast artists--Edward Ruscha and Lari Pittman; this year's has 16 (11 of them from Los Angeles), plus three more who lived in L.A. at crucial points in their development--Bruce Nauman, Vija Celmins and Kerry James Marshall.

Including 70 artists ranging in age from 22 to 85, the show was overseen by Louise Neri, U.S. editor of Parkett, the international art journal, and Whitney curator Lisa Phillips, who's lived in Los Angeles part time for the past two years.

"The work by the seven L.A. artists in the last Biennial was maybe the strongest in the show, and we wanted to recognize the fact that California is as important an art center as New York," Phillips says. "We saw so much good work by West Coast artists, it could've been all California people, and we ended up allocating 50% of the floor space to artists from California. That, I think, is reflective of the way L.A. artists can work--the scale of the work there mirrors the horizontal sprawl of the city, and the availability of space."

Continues Neri: "Among the recurring themes in this Biennial are storytelling, information overload, cultural alchemy and obsession, and many of these artists--particularly those from California--set themselves enormous tasks in their work. Jason Rhoades spent a year building an environment, Chris Burden spent eight years developing a model city, Charles Ray did four years of preparatory research for a four-minute film, and Diana Thater's 'The Electric Mind' is a huge, Brechtian, wraparound video environment about behavior and animal training. Most of these are big pieces, and we've given them the space they need."

So, is everybody--at least everybody in California--happy? A random sampling of art world insiders suggests the answer is: "No, of course not!"

"Institutions now run the art world, and the Biennial is the institutions' way of telling us what this year's important themes are," observes Las Vegas-based critic Dave Hickey. "In my opinion the Whitney no longer has a raison d'e^tre because it's nothing more than a theme show.

"From what I know of who's in this one, it looks as if they've just rounded up the usual suspects, too," he adds. "I have no idea why West Coast art is so prominently featured in this Biennial, although it seems obvious to me that with Bruce Nauman living in Galisteo, New Mexico, and Mike Kelley in L.A., the power has shifted to the West."

Painter Ruscha concurs with Hickey as far as having "no idea why this one's so heavily weighted toward California." But, he suggests, "the show may get slammed for that very reason. New York is a provincial town--I've always thought of it as the Hollywood of the art world--and they still like to go gunning for California."

Needless to say, the younger California artists on the guest list approach the Biennial with their own set of concerns and reservations. L.A. artist Doug Aitken, whose contribution to the show is "Diamond Sea," a 20-minute film shot last fall in the diamond mines of Namibia, says: "People interpret the Biennial as the art world's State of the Union address, which is too bad--it would be better if it were treated as just a group show."

A group show in a difficult venue is how installation artist Rhoades would describe it. "When I was in the last Biennial, I discovered it's not a very interesting place to build a piece, and if they'd asked me to do something new for the show I probably would've declined; major American museums are made for dead things and are just too dysfunctional to handle strong work.

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