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Déjà vu at the Whitney

Posted on 04 May 2012

web col Harrison Herzog copy

Helen A. Harrison

Every two years the Whitney Museum of American Art fills its galleries with what’s billed as a survey of current trends, including work by established and emerging artists. This is a show that’s routinely scorned by the critics, but not this time around. Encouraged by Roberta Smith’s rave review in The New York Times, as well as a favorable writeup in New York magazine by her husband, Jerry Saltz, I approached the current Whitney biennial optimistically. I came away wondering if I’d stumbled into the wrong museum.

Anyone hoping for something fresh and original will be sadly disappointed. Not that art has to be fresh and original to be good, but after reading descriptions like “new and exhilarating”  (Smith), “a forest of good signs” (Saltz) and “visually entertaining as well as thought provoking” (Emily Nathan on Artnet), one might expect some innovations. Instead, to me at least, the show is more like a demonstration of how to reinvent the wheel. A stroll through the galleries is a walk down memory lane. Tom Thayer’s video reprises Len Lye’s experimental films from the 1930s, and Luther Price’s hand-manipulated 35mm slides hark back to Ibram Lassaw’s similar experiments in the 1940s. Richard Hawkins goes straight to the art history books for his collages  (based on Tatsumi Hijikata’s butoh-fu notebooks), which quote everyone from Gustave Moreau to Francis Bacon. Joanna Malinowska’s cryptically titled From the Canyons to the Stars is a large-scale reworking, in faux ivory and horn, of Duchamp’s bottle-rack readymade, as if such a droll commentary on originality in art needed further elaboration. Lutz Bacher dispenses with creativity altogether by framing up pages from a book of celestial formations. Her randomly-played Yamaha organ is a shade more interesting, although the shade is that of John Cage.

I confess that I didn’t sit through all the video and performance pieces — the “open rehearsal” by Richard Maxwell and the New York City Players that occupied most of the fourth floor on the day I was there was all I could take. It was about as interesting as watching paint dry, which you can do on the third floor, where electric fans are gradually evaporating Sam Lewitt’s “Fluid Employment.” I did stop in to see Werner Herzog’s Hearsay of the Soul. A leader of the New German Cinema who now lives in Los Angeles, Herzog has made a bombastic tribute to Hercules Segers, a very minor 16th century Dutch landscapist, whose work he presents in slide form with dramatic musical accompaniment. According to Herzog, Segers is an unrecognized genius and pioneering modernist, but I think he’s kidding. At least I hope so. A little humor is welcome in this otherwise very earnest show.

Narcissism is a sub-theme, nowhere more so than in Dawn Kasper’s installation, This Could Be Something If I Let It. The artist has moved all her stuff into the museum, and her artwork is herself spending time with it. Similarly, on the fifth floor mezzanine, Georgia Sagri has assembled a bunch of self-referential objects that have little interest to anyone but Sagri. This type of navel-gazing has been done before, and better, by performance artists like Marina Abramovic and Colette, whose tableau-vivant environments comment more broadly on gender roles, not just on first-person issues.

Call me reactionary, but the work I actually enjoyed is pretty conventional, which is not to say that it isn’t original. Nicole Eisenman’s monotype portraits don’t break any new ground technically, but each one is a singular examination of a particular subject. Eisenman is an abstract artist in the literal meaning of that term, probing the essence of what she observes. In a more formalist vein, Andrew Massulo’s small paintings follow a traditional path, using strong colors, eccentric shapes and stark contrasts to create lively, intriguing images. Both artists have managed to make novel work within established guidelines. But if you want something really subjective, go into the second floor room devoted to Forrest Bess. Not surprisingly, Massulo is a fan and a collector of his work. In a mini-retrospective assembled by the artist Robert Gober, this supremely odd painter expressed an inner vision that is at once familiarly “primitive” and totally unique. Bess, who died 35 years ago, seems more avant-garde than most of the Whitney’s live ones.

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One Response to “Déjà vu at the Whitney”

  1. Jane Johnson says:

    As a painter, I agree with Helen Harrison and would add, this is the first Whitney Biennial I can remember, where I couldn’t find much at all that interested me, although I did not see much of the video offerings.

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