Your correspondents slunk down to see the Whitney Biennial just last Friday, some three weeks after its opening, and so cannot report on the State of the Art World at Present. We are presuming (mustn’t one?) that every member of the Friday crowd had been abroad or in a coma for the last month, or must not care that much about contemporary art. In the current art world, a first-night or at least a first-week appearance is fully de rigueur, to the best of our provincial understanding. Anyone showing up as late as we did belonged to the ranks of the silly, the stupid, the sculturati, so to speak.
And so we saw no gallerinas (or should it be gallerine, like Italian?), no bearded lumberjackish art handlers, no gallerists or critics or Z-list Chelsea celebrities. We did see: the grey half-cultured masses, tardy art students with notebooks, a few older women with German-expressionist makeup and disturbingly even-cut bobs. We heard: several specimens (specimina?) of the Bombastic Whitney Tour Guide, that earsplitting creature endemic to a certain Brutalist edifice at Madison and 75th.
Standing in front of Aki Sasomoto’s installation Strange Attractors, one guide declaimed, “This piece was inspired by the—Lorenz attractor—which is a mathematical concept I don’t even begin to understand,” she declaimed, in the chilling tones of a schoolgirl, or a girl at her bat mitzvah, reciting something in a language whose sounds she knows, but not whose meaning. “It maps—charts—diagrams the patterns that, uh, sort of appear in chaos over time.” It occurred to your correspondents that this might serve as a good epigraph, or maybe epitaph, for the Biennial, generally.
A floor or two up, there was a side-exhibit devoted to work from Biennials past, which actually had a few good paintings in it. These served mainly to remind us that, once upon a possibly paleolithic time, the Biennial had a real raison d’être, institutional inertia aside. A tour guide there shepherded his flock from a room with a Rothko into one full of Rauschenbergs, loudly intoning: “For me, they’re the ying [sic] and yang of the late twentieth century.”
We also heard: a small, charming British boy who, exiting a short film about a famous amnesiac, explained to his small, charmed companion, “Narcolepsy is when you—em, em—forget everything.”
On the olfactory and tactile fronts, not so much to write home about.
There was, in our provincial opinion, precisely one good piece in the whole show: a series of four diptychs by Lorraine O’Grady, each of them showing Baudelaire on the left side and Michael Jackson on the right. They looked lovely together, the Prince of Pop and the Parisian flâneur, the sequined moonwalker and the old composer of glittering, poisonous verse—both of them dignified and full up with Weltschmerz, poseurs but aching visibly with elemental, near-regal despair.
(The work’s title, The First and the Last of the Modernists, is clever enough, but we liked the piece better before we learned the pretext. We preferred to to focus on the contrast—unexpected, riotous, sublime.)
Other works of interest included Charles Ray’s flower drawings—a whole room of them, in many-colored ink. From a distance, they’re lush and seductive but on closer inspection, they turn out to be sloppy and a little incoherent. (Perhaps he was thinking of Pointillism, or the Common American Stripper.) Stephanie Sinclair’s photo series Self-Immolation in Afghanistan: A Cry For Help, showing wounded women in a rural Afghan hospital, was vivid and moving—but made about as much sense here as a majestic, burqaed woman at a rave.
There was a jazz band playing in the basement. The bassist looked like Philip Seymour Hoffman; the singer wore a knit cap and had his back to the audience. Between songs, he mumbled: “I just want you to look at these objects and, uh, think about what’s goin’ on here.” And so we skulked back up to Rhode Island, doing our provincial damnedest to follow his advice.
What is going on at the Whitney? We’ve got a few theories—some to do with the death of an old art, others on the slow birth of a new and even worse one. We’ve wondered and whispered, pondered in silence. Murmured prayers that, if it’s true about the Mayan calendar, the world will manage to end before the 2012 show opens and we’re forced again to attend. But we don’t really know, when it comes down to it. There are some things about Manhattan that we’ll never understand.