Notes on the 1997 Whitney Museum Biennial
Once again a major art museum snubs great painting and sculpture. The 1997 Biennial Exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art (March 20-June 15, 1997), has come and gone. For those of us interested in American painting and sculpture this was definitely not the place to be. The more things change the more they stay the same.
The 1997 Biennial at the Whitney Museum featured what was probably the death knell for installation art, sociological photography, and third rate theatrical tricks designed to entertain and titillate while intimidating the audience. As a showcase for new artists this exhibition introduced a few genuinely interesting newcomers notably: Kara Walker's wall silhouettes, Matthew Ritchie and Kerry James Marshall both painters, and Pakistani miniaturist Shahzia Sikander; but frankly there is something very wrong here. Overall the level of originality, aesthetic quality and important art at the Biennial was low: - art world intellectual debris.
The exhibition makes its own rules. There are deceased artists included and that makes one wonder about the possible inclusion of any number of great American artists who have died, if we have Felix Gonzales-Torres, then why not Willem de Kooning, Robert Smithson, David Smith, Andy Warhol or Allen Ginsberg? Perhaps the malaise that infected the Biennial is best articulated by The Whitney Museum's Director David Ross who in his Foreword in the catalogue explains why this Biennial breaks the Museum's charter (or perhaps just stretches and bends it beyond recognition). Mr. Ross tells us that American Art is doing just fine (if that's true just ask the thousands of disenfranchised painters and sculptors in this city alone) and although the Whitney Museum was founded in the early days of the 20th Century to give American Artists the chance to exhibit their work in an important American Art Museum context, Mr. Ross feels that it's time to junk that concept. In a world dominated by European Art the Whitney Museum intended to create a more level playing field for Americans, and now Mr. Ross tells us that we are doing okay and its time for the Whitney Museum to drop the American part. Therefore most of this years invited participants are from all over the world. I suspect this violation of the Whitney Museum's charter makes Mr. Ross's job more interesting and more fun! And we are supposed to take this place seriously?
I suspect the ultimate irony is that Marcel Duchamp if he knew the weak level of quality of late Twentieth Century Art done under his banner would spin in his grave. Once again the Whitney Biennial has come and gone leaving in its wake a sour taste and the need for a true reflection of American painting and sculpture before the Twentieth Century comes to a close. Perhaps this years Teflon Biennial was the worst of a bad lot, or perhaps the last one was or the one four years ago....Something ought to be done already to reclaim our art world because the Salon has lost its mind.
Forget seeing important painting and sculpture here; the third rate prevailed. The exhibition should be renamed The Whitney Biennial of American video and installation photography that once lived in the US Inclusions ranged from pathetic, rehashed Alex Katz, to sixth generation abstraction, second rate sociology, and bad pop art. Andy Warhol with a vengeance - everyone wants to show us society through their little mirror, how clever, how novel, how passé. Window displays passing as sculpture, banal photography, Ron Bladen's great tilted monuments turned into David Ross's cockeyed office, - been there, done that; what fun these curators have had running amuck with the soul of a nation. We have Chris Burden's "warhammer" room, Paul Shambroom's images of nuclear doom and Louise Bourgeois's slightly nauseating tomb. Did any of these people ever hear of the Joy of Life?
This exhibition was the latest artworld abomination from the collegiate academic thinkers in control of most of our Artistic institutions for the past thirty years. Since the War in Vietnam in the late sixties, early seventies the American Artworld has gone berserk in its attempts to atone for not having taken America to task for its sins. Therefore only art that addresses racism, sexism, consumerism, homophobia, militarism, and current events will be valid. Only socially aware, theatrical, political concepts count, unless they are minimal. There are certain abstractions that are allowed, but just a few.
Sadly there is very little original thinking in this exhibition. Everywhere there are works that evoke other people's ideas. Why bother with rehashed visions? Give us the real thing. Where are Marisol's sculptures, the real Alex Katz, Peter Young, Al Held, George Segal, Jim Dine, Rosenquist, Isaac Witken, Oldenburg, Jacob Lawrence, de Kooning, Peter Hutchinson, Pollock, the real Andy Warhol, Frankenthaler, Lichtenstein, Rauschenburg, Poons, William Bailey, Morris, Judd, Bladen, etc. The curators have created a sophomoric, tired, academic salon, of shrill and boorishly pretentious junk. This year's Whitney Salon reeks of bad theatricality, collegiate incompetence and sentimentality trying to pass itself off as relevance.
What passes for old masters here include: Bruce Nauman's video of a guy playing a steel string guitar with Colorfield, Ed Ruscha's corporately slick pop paintings informing us of the bravery of the men in his family (these were very tired looking pictures), Vija Celmins - the would be Agnes Martin of the nineties - hopelessly academic slices of night sky that look like Peter Young paintings of the mid-sixties, Francesco Clemente's slightly demented but ravishingly decadent pastels of body parts and moons - sort of Giorgio di Chirico via ecstasy, Dan Graham's room dividers, Ilya Kabakov's installation of memories that reminded me of all those places where I don't ever want to be, Robert Wilson and the already mentioned Burden and Bourgeois.
The surprise of the show besides the presence of Ken Jacobs, a pioneer of underground film and video whose works are both genuine and interesting, was Bruce Connor. Bruce Connor's beautiful, quiet and elegant mandala like inkblots on paper in ink and graphite on paper, mounted on silk, were perhaps the only aesthetic pieces to be found in the exhibition. And what irony indeed, that this exhibition which reads as a Bruce Connor mind dream nightmare from the early sixties would be one in which only he offers traditional works of high aesthetic sensibility. As interesting as Connor's work was however they remind me of the paintings made by Peter Young in the mid-seventies.
My personal experiences of the 1997 Whitney Biennial are framed by these two anecdotes: I attended the Opening on Friday evening, March 14 and I enjoyed myself but my initial impression of the show was that there was nothing that stayed with me more than three seconds. The next day on Saturday, March 15, I saw the incredibly beautiful Bonnard/Rothko exhibition at Pace/Wildenstein Gallery. I felt myself being psychically healed by the paintings, and I realized that the Biennial had made me feel spiritually sick.
I saw the Biennial again on Thursday, May 29th. That morning about eleven o'clock I entered the Museum only to be told to return at 1 o'clock when the Museum would open to the public. I went to see the Matisse Jazz Exhibition at Hirschl and Adler and my old friend John Duff's show at Knoedler Gallery. Along the way to 70th and Madison I was stopped by a tall and beautiful young woman who looked a little bit like Darryl Hannah. She asked me if I knew where the Whitney Museum was and I started to laugh. I told her that I was laughing because I'd just come from the Museum and it was closed and would open at 1 o'clock. I told her how to get there and she seemed disappointed, so I asked her if she had ever visited the Frick Museum. She said that she never heard of it, so I pointed up 70th Street and suggested to her that she go check it out. I then went to Knoedler and to Hirshl and Adler.
After I saw the Matisse show and the Duff exhibition I decided to go to the Frick Museum myself because it was still pretty early. As I was entering the Frick, the same young woman came running out of the Museum looking really distressed. I asked her what she thought of the Frick Museum? She looked really unhappy and she said that all the work was so old, so ancient, she couldn't stand it. I was a little surprised, and after seeing the Vermeers, the Rembrandts, the El Grecos, the Bellini, the Whistlers, the Holbeins, the Watteau and the Fragonards I forgot about her.
My experience with the Biennial Exhibition at the Whitney Museum began long before the 1967 Annual that marked my debut as a young painter. As an art student in the early sixties I looked forward to and enjoyed seeing the shows because they were a great barometer of painting. I was thrilled when at the age of twenty I was invited to participate in the 1967 Annual, and then in 1969 and once again in 1973. Those shows mixed generations, styles, reputations, and aesthetic orientations. There were Realists, Social Realists, Super Realists, Hard-edge painters, Pop artists, Abstract Expressionists, Lyrical Abstractionists, Colorfield painters, Minimalists all in the same exhibition.
As a twenty year old abstract painter it meant a lot to me to be in the 1967 Whitney Annual, even though it was generally a grueling experience. I was in the same exhibition with Jules Olitski, Frank Stella, Larry Poons, Ken Noland, Al Held, Elsworth Kelly, Robert Mangold, Chuck Hinman, Josef Albers, Alfred Jensen, Georgia O'Keefe, I. Rice Pereira, Helen Frankenthaler, Joan Mitchell, Agnes Martin, Jo Baer, Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, Jim Rosenquist, Tom Wesselman, Cy Twombly, Jasper Johns, Larry Rivers, Nathan Oliveira, Richard Diebenkorn, Fairfield Porter, Alex Katz, Lennart Anderson, William Bailey, Paul Georges, Richard Pousette-Dart, Willem de Kooning, Robert Motherwell, Adolph Gottlieb, James Brooks, Barnet Newman, Mark Tobey, Conrad Marca-Relli, Jack Tworkov, Al Leslie, Knox Martin, Mike Goldberg, Stephen Green, Ben Shahn, Jack Levine, Andrew Wyeth, as well as several dozen more painters. Young painters including William Pettet, Ron Davis, David Novros, Dan Christensen, Ken Showell and Peter Young were friends of mine included for the first time in a Whitney Annual. Like the Whitney Museum Biennials of the previous several years the last chapter of Robert Hughes' mini-series American Visions also missed the mark. Hughes has apparently bought hook, line and sinker into the notion that the only important American Contemporary art these days is media savvy, installation, photographic, and literal, rehashed reflections of the eighties art market. The cutting edge avant garde in American Art is not to be seen here or in Hughes' program. Hughes' comments on contemporary American abstract painting were beneath contempt. Unworthy and uninformed indicating that Mr. Hughes still has a lot to learn. Framed by two slides of Helen Frankenthaler and the work of Richard Diebenkorn, Hughes remarked that in the seventies American abstract painting was intelligent and pretty salon Art. Hughes' thesis on the power of American spiritual landscape painting of the Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries is generally on the mark, what a pity that such a bright voice has been so hideously deceived by the hucksters in today's art market. Look again Mr. Hughes, look deeper and with common sense.
The more things change the more they stay the same. Great painting and sculpture seems to always take a back seat to the artworld and museum hierarchy. Just over one hundred years ago in 1894 the Louvre, France's greatest Art Museum made a monumental blunder by refusing to accept the Caillebotte bequest of dozens of important and great Impressionist paintings. Upon his untimely death in 1894 at the age of 46, Gustave Caillebotte willed to the Louvre, paintings on the highest level, by his friends the artists: Edouard Manet, Edgar Degas, Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Paul Cezanne, Camille Pissarro, Alfred Sisley, and Berthe Morisot.
To its shame The Louvre caved in to the power of the Salon, local artworld politics that brought pressure to bear against the bequest and refused to accept the paintings, thus depriving itself to this day of the single greatest collection of Impressionist paintings in the world. To its credit eventually the Louvre agreed to accept part of the bequest.
Gustave Caillebotte the son of wealthy parents was friend, collaborator, and major patron to the Impressionist painters. During their times of struggle for survival and recognition - when it counted most - Caillebotte used his wealth to help his friends often in times of great need. Caillebotte, was also an interesting painter, who exhibited his work in several of the original Impressionist exhibitions during the 1870's. My two favorite Caillebotte paintings are The Floor Scrapers, of 1875 and 1876. His greatest pictures are powerful and clear visions of Parisian life, using architecture as compositional and geometric devices that give his work a contemporary look.
Caillebotte's paintings are good but not quite as great, influential or aesthetic minded as his more famous Impressionist colleagues. His great collection made up the bulk of the Jeu de Palme's Impressionist Collection in Paris.
Its time for painters and sculptors in New York City to voice their disapproval and outrage against these hopelessly corrupt, dense, obtuse and academic institutions like the Whitney, Guggenheim and the Museum of Modern Art that dance to the tune of a handful of private investors, market forces, foreign governments and private agendas; all in the name of the so called avant garde. The real avant garde is not to be found in these Museums anymore, these museums like their nineteenth century counterparts just don't get it. Like Picasso said to Matisse as the Nazis marched on Paris - "It's the School of Fine Arts all over again." We have lost our great Art Institutions in New York City and it's time for a new and a great Art Museum to be founded for the new century, that can reflect the range of art that really is produced; here and around the world . . .
American artists would do well to get together and have their own Annual Exhibitions, inclusive salons, etc. and let go the idea of these spiritually bankrupt art museums ever doing the right thing again. The mediocre, the political hack, the academic propaganda machine has it's fascist grip on the Whitney, the Modern and the Guggenheim. The real disgrace is that so many of us care so much about these historical institutions to the point of turning a blind eye and letting go of common sense when we see what they do. When careerists and blind ambition define the artistic landscape its time to rethink why we do what we do, and find a new way forward with our art and our integrity intact. As Dylan said, "When the foot of pride come down there ain't no going back". These are still great times for the making of art. The Whitney, The Guggenheim and The Museum of Modern Art have the potential for a grand summation of the Art of The Twentieth-Century and I hope they pull it off with all sides having the platform, and not just the same old thing.
Ronnie Landfield, NYC. July, 1997
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