"A Giant Burst of Happiness"
The Press on the Whitney Biennial 2010
It’s widely regarded to be the most important exhibition of contemporary American art. The Whitney Biennial not only takes stock of the latest movements; it also measures social moods. The current Biennial, which is once again sponsored by Deutsche Bank, is as usual hotly debated by critics. It’s no wonder, because every two years the exhibition documents the curators’ highly subjective view of the state of American art.
"No frills. Tight belts. (…) Spectacle is out. Much of what’s in is quiet and hermetic." This is how Holland Cotter describes the current Whitney Biennial. The New York Times critic writes of a "solid and considered" show and is especially impressed by the video installations—particularly Parole, a "standout" work by Sharon Hayes, who is also represented by the Deutsche Bank Collection, or the "gripping” installation" We Love America, and America Loves Us by the Bruce High Quality Foundation. A work that Kriston Capps of the Guardian can’t quite see the point of. Its message comes across "clumsily and unsubtly." Yet Capps asserts that the 75th Biennial forms a "milestone for the Whitney as well as the art world: for the first time in its history, more women than men have found their way into the biennial." To his mind, "this is a long-overdue correction." On the other hand, Ingeborg Wiensowski of Spiegel Magazine asks "if this is why a personal and quiet tone prevails in most of the works? Nothing rocks, there is no punk band playing, nothing scandalous or sexual can be seen, there are no ironic commentaries and the criticism of social and political conditions seems rather sensitive." Claudia Bodin of Art also discerns a new modesty. "While the 2006 Biennial was loud and sexy and presented itself in a replayed punk rock pose, and the artists shown in 2008 engaged in a lot of navel-gazing with complicated stories, this year’s participants have paused to reflect upon their environment."
Biennial curator Francesco Bonami explains this tendency in an interview with Dan Fox of Frieze: "I think a lot of artists have withdrawn into the intimacy of their own environment. (…) Looking within yourself and, in doing so, hoping to find a tool for making a bigger change outside, rather than using political activism." In a conversation with Lisa Phillips, director of the New Museum in New York City, the curator explains in Interview Magazine that during the exhibition preparations "you don’t find many erotic and heroic figures around, but you do find a lot of very precise, introverted work." As an "old art-world pro," as Howard Halle of Time Out New York formulates it, Bonami and his co-curator, Gary Carrion-Murayari, succeeded in their task to "organize the works into a coherent whole." "Instead of the usual blustery, blockbustery attempt at bottling a zeitgeist that’s presumably different from two years before, this show offers a master class on curating. (…) It’s the smallest such roundup since 1989, a recessionary concession no doubt, but one that actually leaves room for the work (including—gasp!—painting) to breathe."
Lance Esplund of the Wall Street Journal sees this entirely differently: the current Whitney Biennial is "as thin as it is oppressive. (…) It also has no point. Many of its artists seem mildly obsessed with the culture, imagery, and events of 1960s America—signifying not a zeitgeist but an aloof and ambivalent nostalgia." On the other hand, Richard Lacayo of Time Magazine offers the laconic judgment "not bad"—particularly Nina Berman’s documentary photo series of a soldier disfigured in the Iraq war, Kate Gilmore’s powerful video installation, and the paintings of Lesley Vance "are things not to be missed." Linda Yablonsky of Bloomberg is also very impressed by Berman’s series. In this "emphatically anti-heroic show (…) it is left to documentary photography (…) to raise any goose bumps." Jerry Saltz of New York Magazine writes of an "Obama Biennial: alternately moving and frustrating, challenging and disappointing—and a big improvement on what came before (…) it is rich in surprises and new names, doesn’t follow too many trends. (…) It’s also—praise God—small." And besides: the Biennial put him in a great mood: "I left the museum with a giant burst of happiness for the infinite creativity of America."