Sooner or later, the critic grows tired of bashing the Whitney biennial, which bills itself as an "invitational survey of the most outstanding and challenging American art produced during the last two years," but which all too often seems wildly unfocused.
How often can one say that, though? And is it really fair? After all, think about what went into this biennial alone! The work of thousands of artists had to be pared down to a mere 71 (in painting, sculpture and photography, plus 30 in film and video). In addition to curators Richard Armstrong, Richard Marshall and Lisa Phillips, this year there was an advisory committee to recommend artists outside of New York and broaden the biennial's scope (resulting in 20 artists from elsewhere).
And for the first time since 1981 the museum's entire exhibition space was taken over in order to show artists from several generations (installed chronologically). Think of the organizational difficulties.
And whatever one's overall impression of any biennial, these shows do one undeniable service: They bring together in one place what a group of well-informed curators consider the most important art (or words to that effect) produced in the last two years. Especially for anyone who isn't on the New York scene, there's a lot of value in that.
Is it the fault, then, of those very curators if, after all their efforts, and despite their obviously sincere desire to serve both art and the art-viewing public, the "1991 Biennial Exhibition" is wildly unfocused?
In part, no. In part, of course, it's the fragmented nature of art today. Curator Armstrong begins his essay, titled "c.1991," by stating that the representational predominates over the abstract, then immediately launches into a paragraph about the abstract artists included, from Joan Mitchell to Ellsworth Kelly to Frank Stella, themselves quite different from one another. Turning to representational artists, he identifies a strain of narration in much of their work, but acknowledges such influences as realism, impressionism, conceptualism and pop.
Curator Marshall, similarly, notes the "diverse creative vitality that characterizes the art of this period" or in other words the fragmentation. And that's not the Whitney's fault.
Or is it, at least partly? The trouble with this biennial as with others is that it's too inclusive. In trying not to overlook something that might prove important, the biennial typically spreads itself too thin and may even contribute to the very fragmentation it reflects. Were it bold enough to show a certain kind of work in real depth, it could focus the attention of the art world and make a strong, coherent statement.
There was a perfect opportunity this year, one which was not only not overlooked but to which Phillips devoted the longest of the catalog essays: In brief, art related to controversial issues, such as sexuality, feminism and racism, that have provoked attacks by politicians, fundamentalists and others.
Phillips' essay does cover old ground, from the Corcoran's cancellation of the Robert Mapplethorpe exhibit with its homoerotic photographs to the battle over National Endowment for the Arts funding and other issues, but it does, as she writes, provide a "socio-political context for much [well, some] of the art on view." Toward the end, Phillips identifies that art, dealing with such subjects as homoeroticism (e.g., David Wojnarowicz, Keith Haring, Nayland Blake), racial stereotypes (Carrie Mae Weems, Glenn Ligon), the environment (Jessica Diamond) or a more generalized anxiety (Bruce Nauman).
True, some of the strongest work in the show comes from such artists. In particular, Wojnarowicz's three photograph-and-text combinations may shock and repel some (he frankly confronts, for instance, the fact that people with AIDS want to go on having sex); but they will definitely get to you. And his rumination on being with a loved one ends on a note of universal loneliness: "All these moments will be lost in time like tears in the rain."
The problem is that when seen in the context of this show, where we wander from the power of Wojnarowicz to the lovely, muted landscapes of Ellen Phelan to the geometric abstractions of Ellsworth Kelly, the impact of everything inevitably gets dissipated. Had this exhibit been exclusively devoted to art that raises the issues that have been so much with us these past two years, what a splash it could have made, what a service it could have performed.
The usual biennial lack-of-focus problem is here exacerbated by generational and geographic as well as stylistic sprawl. One might make a valid show out of other individual aspects: art from the West Coast, art outside New York, art by important older artists. But when it's all thrown in together nothing gets adequate treatment, and conclusions are effectively impossible.