Art: Blake Gopnik on the 'One-Liner' at the Venice Biennale

By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 21, 2009

VENICE -- Last in a series of articles on the 53rd Venice Biennale.

A slide of a little bonsai gets projected on a wall at real-tree size.

A crummy house from American suburbia floats in a harbor in Venice.

A bunch of funky pedestals inscribed with funny captions -- "We don't know each other, we're just hugging for the picture," "The Guilty One" -- invite visitors to mount them and have their photos taken by their friends.

It seems as if one-liners rule the art world. The most puzzling thing about these single-conceit works? It's that they were some of the most compelling pieces in "Making Worlds," the huge group show that is the main event at this year's Venice Biennale.

There is other good art here, and it is maybe more complex: eclectic photo-installations by Wolfgang Tillmans and cryptic sculptures by Rachel Harrison (both known in Washington from recent Hirshhorn shows), as well as an important survey of Hans-Peter Feldmann, a 68-year-old German whose strange photographic inventories have been hugely influential. But their subtleties seem to be eclipsed by the punch of the new one-liners.

It's said the Biennale is the Olympics of the art world. If that's right, we may be at a moment when novelty events like unicycle hockey and underwater rugby have more purchase than a classic long jump or marathon.

* * *

But maybe the punch-line pieces in Venice aren't novelties at all. It could be that innovative art has always had something one-linerish about it, at least for the first people who saw it.

Caravaggio, in his early years, was read as a guy with a limited shtick: making his sacred figures as coarse as possible. He was the Don Rickles of papal Rome. C├ęzanne, because of one lame comment he once made about nature's geometry, came to be billed as Mister Sphere-Cone-and-Cube, even though that single take barely fits his pictures.

In the early 1960s, when minimal abstraction first appeared, even its supporters thought it had a single point: to reach the very limits of what could count as art, leaving all aesthetics behind. Yet in the five decades since, the supposed one-liner of minimalism has delivered up a vast range of meanings to its viewers, from the political to the conceptual to sheer sensual delight.

Almost every work of art can be a one-liner, if all you care about is finding a punch line that fits. The trick is to delve deeper than that.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2009 The Washington Post Company