The Whitney Biennial Exhibition is the Bloomingdale's of the art world. Wowingly Manhattanesque -- fash-ionable, fast and sometimes naughty-naughty -- it is just the right exhibit for the out-of-town consumer. Its flashy art may not survive two years out there in the market. See it while you can.
The show won't be a hit. The Biennials never are. In the higher reaches of the New York art world, everybody gripes about these committee-chosen shows -- everybody gripes, but everybody goes. This year's show will be condemned for being too much fun.
It's got puns by Jasper Johns. It's got lots of shiny Cibachromes. It's got a David Salle crotch shot, and eight more by Tom Otterness. It doesn't have a single work by Keith Haring, Robert Longo, Robert Morris, Jean Michel Basquiat or Julian Schnabel. But it's got Sherrie Levine's intentional and shameless plagiarisms: This year she is ripping off the post-revolutionary Russians. It's got black light in the toilets, and neat-o toys with motors. Out on Madison Avenue -- though New York is so noisy that New Yorkers might not notice -- it's got a wind-activated sound piece that moans and bleeps and twangs.
This year's Biennial pretends to be "a qualitative overview of current art activity in America." But it isn't really. It's a local art show. Two-thirds of its 84 artists live in the neighborhood. They're New Yorkers, you can tell.
New York art is usually big and brash and quick. It's got to be. If it doesn't grab you instantly, it doesn't get a second chance. Washington is different. In Washington the art scene is ruled by the museums, and the paintings in museums are not going anywhere. They'll be there when you get back. But New York is a market town. At Bloomingdale's, in SoHo, or in the 57th Street galleries, it is turnover that counts. Turnover and flash.
The Biennial is full of flash. Many of its fastest works -- say, Cindy Sherman's big photos of herself -- zap you at first glance. That high speed is intentional. Barbara Kruger's oddly juxtaposed photographs-with-texts ("When I hear the word culture I take out my checkbook") are meant to be as fast as ads. So are Jenny Holzer's maxims -- "Lack of charisma can be fatal" -- which flash by in moving lights just like the headlines that one has read high above Times Square. All three of these artists are now in high fashion. All were in the Hirshhorn's recent "Context" show.
The one thing wrong with flash is that it ends in burnout. You've got to feel compassion for Cindy Sherman's fans, for her explicators, imitators, and especially for her buyers. They are like all those other victims of chic art.
Victims of chic art are like victims of chic clothing. Think of all those art fashion victims who after buying Seventh Street abstractions, Op Art and Photo-Realist images of motorcycle gas tanks have had to clear their walls again to make room for Sherman's photographs. All last fall the Madison Avenue boutiques were busy selling winter coats of royal-blue-and-black. The fashion victims bought them. What will the poor things wear next year? Their legwarmers?
If history is any guide, they will buy both clothing and art that makes them gasp. That is one major reason why they go in droves, expecting to be zapped, to each new Biennial. Their nerve-endings are ready. They will recognize the New by its impact, by its punch.
New New York art, for 40 years, has zapped us at first glance. The huge, wall-eating paintings of the Abstract Expressionists zapped us. Claes Oldenburg's floorburger zapped us. New Yorkers get zapped daily by the scribbles in their subway cars. The Whitney show is full of zappismo, as you might expect. But its zaps are strangely sweet.
Once upon a time, new New York art, or much of it, was heavy, serious stuff. You were't supposed to smile at Mark Rothko's haunted voids, or at Barnett Newman's fields, or at Frank Stella's black paintings, or at Richard Serra's rust. The Italians and the Germans who were all the rage two years ago (but were absent from the Whitney show, which is only for Americans) hung their startling visions all over the city. Just as scary, and more violent, are the vicious dogs that bark and bite and slaver in so much angry, messy, recent New York art.
But this show does not bite. This show wags its tail. It is full of the happy colors you might put in the kid's room. It's got a little impoliteness, true, but that's to be expected: in punked-up and graffiti-sprayed fashionable Manhattan, a little bit of gross-out is still de rigeur. What is odd about this show is how little it offends. It doesn't even baffle. Its art wants to be loved.
Kenny Scharf's black light decorations, all over the johns, are like the decorations at the senior prom. (The Whitney did not have the guts to let him spray-paint the toilet stalls, they pasted paper to the walls, which has got to be a cop-out.) John Kessler's "Visions of China," with its motors and its light tricks, its fake bonsais and bamboo leaves and miniature pagodas, is as much fun as one's first childhood visit to a Chinese restaurant. The Tom Mix of old westerns, riding his horse, Tony, shows up undisguised in John Baldessari's photo piece. David Wojnarowicz's "Attack of the Alien Minds," with its floating heads with X-ray eyes, its centipedes blazoned with hammers and sickles, and its brain-eating bugs, is drenched in nostalgia. It is just like the sci-fi comic book you hid under the bed.
A kid could get this art. What is going on here? How can avant-garde art be avant garde if everybody gets it? Has the cutting edge gone dull?
Consider Jasper Johns. Remember how he boggled the best minds in the art world with the unexpected blankness of his targets, numbers, flags? That was 30 years ago. Look what he's got here.
He's got paintings full of jokes, self-parodies, double-entendres, puns and easy-to-read clues. Who has the best-known smile in the history of painting? The Mona Lisa. Who is the best-known dealer in Manhattan? Leo Castelli. Both their faces show up in Johns' "Racing Thoughts" (1983). The picture also includes a print by Barnett Newman, a slightly phallic faucet, and -- hanging on a nail as if they had been crucified -- the painter's pants. And that's not all. Johns also has included a well-known optical illusion -- that vase that is a vase or, click, a pair of facing profiles. Beside the vase he's painted in a jug made by George Orr. An Orr jug by an either-or jug. Get it?
Puns, juxtapositions and various mind-stretching conjunctions are used by many of the painters in the show.
This is David Salle's major gimmick. In the handsome picture that he calls "The Disappearance of the Booming Voice," he puts a badly drawn pornographic drawing (Salle, though an art star, can't draw worth a damn) next to a group of dowels whose ends he's painted green. Had they been separated, his crotch shots and his dowels would not have made this show, but together they look chic. This juxtaposition isn't difficult to understand. There is nothing to understand.
The toothbrush that appears in the other Salle here recalls a print by Jasper Johns. Beside it Salle has crudely sketched a dissipated Donald Duck. References to older art lead one like a string through the Whitney show.
At the center of a happy-go-lucky, rather toylike assemblage by Rodney Alan Greenblat is a kind of twirling pedestal that bears Walt Disney's name. And not only Disney's. It also mentions Gertrude Stein, Mary Tyler Moore, Babe Ruth, Copernicus and Picasso. The reference to Picasso is immediately caught, like a perfectly thrown forward pass, by the Jo Anne Carson paintings displayed across the room.
Carson, a Chicagoan, makes witty, three-dimensional, tightly worked-out pictures that pay homage to the early 20th-century paintings of Braque, de Chirico, Picasso. The screaming horse from Guernica, a Paris cafe' table, a wine glass and a zebra (a zebra? yes, a zebra) appear in her "Tomfoolery." Picasso, as the Minotaur, and the towers of de Chirico, and a cubist mandolin have cameo roles to play in her "The Amazed Man."
One feels a lot of Hollywood throughout this Biennial, and not only in the numerous films and videos that have been included in the show. Robert Yarber's memorable painting "Big Fall," for example, seems a vision from a movie, a film set in L.A., a murder mystery or a love story, the viewer is not sure. Is that couple in mid-air -- above the city's twinkling lights, above the dark Pacific -- floating in pure bliss? Or have they jumped out of the window? It doesn't really matter.
Time and time again the exhibition feels as gaudy as a circus. Joel-Peter Witkin's photographs of fat ladies, dead Indians and four-armed men recall a circus freak show. Witkin's works are black-and-white. But the color photographs on view -- Frank Majore's of martinis and manhattans and Chanel No. 5, and Sarah Charlesworth's photographs-on-fields, and Laurie Simmons' of plastic dolls who seem to be on holiday in Europe -- are all as substanceless as cotton candy. This is one fad we can do without. Enough Cibachromes already! There will not be so many, you can bet on that, in the next Whitney show.
The 1985 exhibit, despite its easy entertainments, does include some works of substance. Its sculptures -- by Jill Giegerich, Mel Kendrick, John Newman, Ned Smyth, Robert Therrien and especially James Surls -- are particularly fine. It is perhaps worth noting that there is little new about them. The sculptures on display -- some are vaguely Minimalist, or Futurist, or Folky -- will not give the hungry seekers-of-the-chic very much to chew on. But still they add beauty to the show.
Only a small number of the painters represented can withstand the competition. Eric Fischl is one of them. His "Portrait of the Artist as an Old Man," with its evocations of van Gogh and Francis Bacon, and his "The Power of Rock and Roll," with its naked dancing child happily ignoring the Rietveld chair before him and the Warhol on the wall, are sexy, searing paintings not easy to forget. Doug Anderson of Boston, Ed Paschke of Chicago and Elizabeth Murray of New York are also serious painters who lend needed weight to this often giddy show.
It was chosen, collectively, by six Whitney curators -- Richard Armstrong, John G. Hanhardt, Barbara Haskell, Richard Marshall, Lisa Phillips and Patterson Sims. They suggest that Minimalism may be due for a revival, but the Minimalist objects they have chosen -- boxes by Donald Judd and eggs by Robert Mangold -- leave one full of doubts. However, they have worked hard to banish the messy, expressionist figuration that plagued the scene a year ago, and their show is not as wordy as one might have feared. The Whitney Museum of American Art is at 75th and Madison. The Biennial closes on June 2.