Taking the Pulse

2010: The Whitney Biennial

an exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York City, February 25–May 30, 2010.
Catalog of the exhibition edited by Francesco Bonami and Gary Carrion-Muryari. Whitney Museum of American Art/Yale University Press, 264 pp., $45.00 (paper)
Dakis Joannou Collection, Athens/Benoit Pailley
Andro Wekua’s installation Wait to Wait (2006), center, in the New Museum’s exhibition ‘Skin Fruit.’ At left is Chris Ofili’s Rodin…The Thinker (1997); at right are Paweł Althamer’s gold-painted figure Nomo (2009), Dan Colen’s sculpture Nostalgia aint what it used to be (2006), Mike Kelley’s Cave Painting (1984), and Elliott Hundley’s hanging sculpture Garland (2007). The ladder reflected in the green glass at front left is from Althamer’s Schedule of the Crucifix (2005). For more images from the New Museum and Whitney exhibitions, see the NYR blog, blogs.nybooks.com.

New Yorkers currently have two large exhibitions with which to take the pulse of contemporary art, and neither shows the patient feeling altogether well. At the Whitney Biennial, this time around presenting many videos along with paintings, installations, and artists’ collaboratives performing music, the spirit is retiring, docile, and a little like spending an afternoon at some lackluster shows in Chelsea.

There are some veterans on hand—the minimalist sculptor Robert Grosvenor, the whizbang figurative painter and sculptor George Condo, and James Casebere, who photographs tabletop models of buildings and interiors he first makes by hand; but they aren’t seen at their best. And while there are a number of engaging works, especially videos (which I will come back to), one takes in what feel like inevitable Biennial items: abstract paintings of a monkish austerity, a sofa upholstered with newspaper clippings about current politics, a photo display showing how alike Michael Jackson and Charles Baudelaire were (maybe you knew this already).

At the New Museum, on the other hand, which has been given over to “Skin Fruit,” the title of a selection of works from the collection of the Athens-based Dakis Joannou—he has been acquiring art since 1985—the message is raucous, almost assaultive. In the crowded and vivid show, which has been organized by the artist Jeff Koons (who has chosen one of his own works for inclusion), our chief impression is of large, sometimes overbearing, figurative sculptures. The scariest, Roberto Cuoghi’s Pazuzu, a takeoff on Assyrian art, is some twenty feet high. More specifically, Joannou’s collection tends to show the human body as a tarnished or humiliated survivor—and not in an abject spirit but with a certain glee. This is an exhibition where pieces such as Paweł Althamer’s Schedule of the Crucifix, a performance art reenactment of the Crucifixion, and David Altmejd’s The Giant, which gives us, in effect, Michelangelo’s David as it might appear after some futuristic cyclone, are right at home.

There are sweet surprises, particularly Christiana Soulou’s delicate pencil drawings of women, and we are given the chance to brush up on work by a number of by now well-known and esteemed figures, including Cindy Sherman, Charles Ray, Robert Gober, Chris Ofili, and Kiki Smith. But either their voices are lost in the din, or else their own feeling for the gruesome…

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