Indelible Impressions

At the Whitney Biennial, Several Artists' Works Linger in Memory

Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 7, 2008; Page C01

NEW YORK, March 6

An elephant appears on-screen, projected in stunningly crisp black-and-white. Near him on a bench sit six blind people, complete with dark glasses and white canes. One by one, they approach an animal they've heard about but cannot see, then explore it with their hands.

One blind man is delighted. " This is nature," he says.

Another approaches, then retreats, shaken, after only a few pats.

A third can't stop talking, Catskill-style, as though the new experience matters less than how he can incorporate it into his established monologues.

Viewers of the footage, which went on view at Thursday's opening of the 2008 Whitney Biennial, feel a bit like its protagonists. We're instantly entranced by the quiet, solid nobility of the 35-minute work. But we're also perplexed about just what we should think about it and how it fits into the other art and experiences we've known. One thing we're sure of, however, is that we've had a powerful experience we'll need to keep revisiting, at least in our mind's eye.

Finding work like that is what any successful survey of contemporary art has always been about. Not a single lesson learned or a big-picture overview, but a collection of crucial moments and discoveries that we'll carry around with us for years. The Whitney Museum of American Art's 74th national survey, like most exhibitions of its prestige and scale, provides such moments. They may come from only 10 percent of its 260 or so objects, projections, installations and performances; only a dozen or so of its 81 artists may seem worth keeping tabs on. But you still leave knowing more good works of art than when you entered.

The notion that a biennial will explore a few coherent themes, or that it will take the moment's pulse, is almost always a fiction. The "essence" of any art-world moment is usually imposed from outside, retrospectively, based on what a very few leaders turn out to have been up to. Most of what was really going on around them is all over the map and quickly forgotten.

There is plenty of work like that in this Whitney Biennial, as in every earlier edition. There are a slew of incoherent assemblages that might have felt fresh a decade ago. Also lots of slick reworkings of modernist abstraction and design: They may aim to comment on those precedents but really just revisit them nostalgically. Yet these works' weaknesses don't matter at all, and certainly won't be remembered in a few years' time. As at any moment in art, they're just the background against which a few more important creations stand out.

Of the 13 artists I was struck by at the 2008 Whitney Biennial, three seem to me to have made work that may have the most staying power. These three may not be brand new in everything they're doing, but their art registers strongly enough to have a good chance of lingering in a museum-goer's mind.

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Javier T¿llez, the Venezuelan-born New Yorker who filmed the elephant, is a leader in this show. His projection, titled "Letter on the Blind for the Use of Those Who See," achieves a wonderful balance between the documentary -- straightforward showing such as even the Old Masters practiced -- and the suggestive.

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