For 80 years now, the Whitney Museum’s Biennial has been dedicated to capturing the current moment in American art. The latest edition, which opens March 1 in New York, does that job to perfection. Unfortunately, what it shows is that contemporary art no longer suits a standard biennial. The exhibition confirms that most of the exciting work made today doesn’t hang on a museum’s walls or sit on its floors. It shines out of a projector or gets performed live in a space, as the Whitney’s curators have acknowledged by planning a full roster of screenings and events to play out over the coming months.
This year, for the first time, the Whitney is as much a festival as an exhibition, with most of the museum’s fourth floor set aside for scheduled performances of one kind or another. The first, by the choreographer Sarah Michelson, consisted of several dancers walking backward in circles for well over an hour. One briefly appeared in a horse-head mask. It was slit-your-wrists dull, but in a hackneyed avant-garde manner. Other coming performances—and any number of screenings—seem more promising.
As for the paintings and photos and sculptures that are filling the other three floors of the Whitney Museum of American Art, “slight” seems the operative word. There’s nothing much wrong with most of them, but almost nothing that’s excitingly right. The show feels like what you might see on a decent Saturday in New York’s best commercial galleries, or on a fine day at an art fair. It’s as though the current market frenzy for contemporary art has sucked the energy out of all the objects that get bought and sold, turning them into interchangeable commodities.
At the Biennial, only a very few artworks escape to stand on their own.
The vintage abstractions of the Texan Forrest Bess, an eccentric fisherman-artist who died in 1977, still manage to catch your eye and hold it. But what to do with Bess’s insane, quasi-mystical ideas about hermaphroditic gender, which led him to cut a new orifice at the base of his penis? A vitrine documents those ideas and shows photos of the artist’s modified member.
I was also drawn, not for the first time, to the works of Matt Hoyt. He fills small shelves with assortments of the tiny sculptures he’s made, which could pass for an archeologist’s more obscure finds. Each of his shelves feels like an outtake from some parallel, miniature world. Somehow, Hoyt’s works seem too absolutely foreign to have caught the art-market virus.
An artist named Lutz Bacher has taken the illustrated pages of a vintage astronomy text and scattered them here and there across the museum. They, too, feel just strange enough to escape the just-another-bauble feeling that permeates so much of the art that’s made now.
The one Biennial work that tried most fully to escape the market’s gravitational pull is an installation and nonstop performance by Dawn Kasper, from Los Angeles. Kasper has moved her whole life as an artist into the museum, setting up one of its galleries as a combination bedroom and studio, where she will be living and working whenever the Biennial’s open. The only problem with this project is that it seems to confirm all our favorite wacky-artist clichés, from the giant mess Kasper’s made of her space to the vinyl blues albums she spins on her turntable and her hippified willingness to change shirts in public. In the end, Kasper presents the artist as a cutesy-pie clown that others can ogle at will. Nowhere in sight is the old idea of the artist as a hard-nosed professional, dedicated to making things, and doing things, that truly matter.
We could sure use some more artists like that.
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Forrest Bess died in an asylum.