Every other year the Whitney Museum of American Art drops what is supposed to be a blockbuster survey of the best U.S. contemporary art ferreted out by its curators since they dumped their last load. The Whitney "Biennial" is the most famous thing of its kind in our great nation.
Before the show the museum always mutters something like, "Anyone who resists this challenging and provocative new art is a fuddy-duddy who is unwilling to accept the glorious changes transforming the native aesthetic."
The critics, hunching buzzard-style on their communications wire, descend on the prey, shredding it gleefully with ritual cries of, "It's all about fashion!" or "The Whitney is in cahoots with the commercial galleries!"
It is a kind of traditional feeding frenzy and great fun in its way.
This year, however, the exhibition has most of the earmarks of a garden variety dud. The whole enchilada includes 76 artists and leans numerically to folks who have not been previously presented. There are a few Californians, including Matt Mullican and Tom Wudl, but people move about so much these days the regional designation is nearly meaningless.
In addition to the usual painting, sculpture, photography, installations and their hybrids, the show offers a roster of performance artists and a long list of video presentations. In practical terms it is impossible to experience the "Biennial" in its entirety without hanging out at the museum until the show closes July 9.
On present evidence, however, this "Biennial" is little more than an overblown version of an ordinary contemporary survey of a type once familiar in Southern California. It may be of some significance that New York is still doing what the provinces have abandoned as both predictable and incoherent.
Well, good heavens, here is our local hero Chris Burden showing his installation, "All the Submarines of the U.S. Navy." Nice piece with its suspended fleet of toy subs swimming like a school of sardines. Haven't seen that since he showed it at the Newport Harbor Art Museum.
Generically, virtually nothing is new. Meg Webster's "Earth Stage" may grow something eventually, but right now it looks like a regulation earthwork. A team calling itself Wallace and Donohue shows a wood-frame structure with inserted television monitors that make it appear a panel is spinning or a niche contains an electric fan. Hasn't Nam June Paik fairly well covered this waterfront? There is a clever bit by Charles Ray called "Rotating Circle." Just a circle cut from a wall panel and replaced, it spins like mad on a motor but the motion is invisible. Nice lesson in perception that might make more sense in a science museum.
One pays dutiful attention to each piece but feels like he's clamping his own head in position with a giant pair of pliers.
Can this really be this boring? There are serious sculptors here like Joel Shapiro and Martin Puryear, dedicated painters like Brice Marden and Andrew Spence, but with a work or three apiece, there's no density to the experience.
The truth is art surveys are a terrible place to look at art. A big Paul Bunyan sensibility like that embodied in Chris MacDonald's huge lumberjack "Truck Variation" just wipes out the whispery nostalgia of Mark Innerst. The mind wanders off in 15 fretful directions until, quite suddenly. . . .
No artist is hotter at the moment and none has come in for more bilious criticism for careerism and cynical exploitation than Koons, but his three pieces energize the ozone. A group of grammar school kids making a sleepwalker's tour of the galleries woke up when they saw the Koonses. They tittered, danced and poked each other gleefully.
The works are from a controversial suite introduced last winter and based on kitsch porcelain knick-knacks of a type collected by your closet-alcoholic maiden aunt in the 1940s.
Koons' renditions are blown up to heroic proportions painted in livid Technicolor. One depicts a saccharine St. John the Baptist with a pig and penguin, another a stack of barnyard animals like something out of Aesop's "Fables." The kids got a particular charge out of a Pink Panther in the cuddly embrace of a Mamie Van Doren sex goddess.
If older forms of Pop art tended to be based on the Camp sensibility of the gay community, then Koons' Schlock Pop derives from the first aesthetic glimmerings of an arriviste heterosexual blue-collar bourgeoisie nurtured on the art of Disneyland and Forest Lawn.
Norman Drabble's slob dad might well be a Koons fan. The work has an energy and innocence rarely found in contemporary art. Before anything else, Koons' work has the vibrant funny charm of true vulgarity. If you want to get ponderous about it, the work is a great polemic against fussy good taste and can be seen as an extension of Marcel Duchamp's final masterpiece--a peep-show tableau showing a female Gulliver nude sprawling in a Hansel-and-Gretel landscape.
Thus refreshed by Koons, one begins to imagine the glimmers of a trend in the "Biennial." Los Angeles' Mike Kelley is represented by a quilt made of cuddly soft toys, Donald Baechler by primal, child-art figures, Robert Gober by an amusing playpen turned into an X.
What a pity the sculptor Saint Clair Cemin is not better represented. There is a concurrent commercial gallery show of his work down in Soho that is much pithier. One work looks at first like one of those archetypal funnels of bronze currently being made by sculptors sometimes styled "primal alchemists." On closer inspection Cemins' version has feet. It is a fairy-tale dwarf fallen face down in the mud. Another work looks like a mutant embryo from a sci-fi film. A blob lies on a table. It reaches out with earlike suction arms to grasp two white walls. We suddenly realize the table has no legs. It floats magically on air.
Simple trick. The vertical panels hold the whole thing up. Cemins is not merely jokey. The artist has the ferocious humor and easy command that lurks in Picasso.
The tiresome routine of the "Biennial" reveals a dawning struggle to regain artistic innocence lost in the venality of art's present estate. That's something.
Well, another "Biennial" launched. Hated it again. Can barely wait for the next one.