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Art Review

Whitney show is an anthem to the awful

By Sebastian Smee
Globe Staff / February 25, 2010

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NEW YORK - The Whitney Biennial is the most venerable, the most watched show of its kind in the United States - a major, temperature-taking survey of what’s going on in contemporary art. This year, an unusually high proportion of the artists chosen for the Biennial (eight out of 55) have connections to New England.

That sounds like something for New England’s art scene to celebrate. Unfortunately - and there’s no gentle way to put this - the show as a whole is a debacle. Not only is it incoherent, it is overburdened with art about art, sloppy gestures of pseudo-revolt, dreary and repetitive video art, and arcane conceptualism.

The biennial at the Whitney Museum of American Art is, of course, the show that critics most love to hate. But there are incarnations of it so dire, so self-involved, so unsympathetic, and so essentially clueless that no amount of wishful thinking or resistance to critical cliché can skirt the truth. “Whitney Biennial: 2010’’ is one of them.

Is it all bad? No. There are some really good artists in the show, and some of them (George Condo, Maureen Gallace, and R.H. Quaytman) hail from New England. But they are surrounded by dross and displayed in such uncongenial ways that perceiving their merits is like looking for fireflies at midday.

Major biennial shows are inevitably contentious, and no doubt harder to pull off than most critics realize. Yet the Whitney Biennial, which is now in its 75th edition, endures. More than any other show devoted to the latest art on American soil, it has the capacity to make reputations and reorient careers.

So what has gone wrong? Why is this Whitney Biennial, which is also smaller than usual, looking so limp? And what does it say about the state of art in America today?

The question becomes pressing not only because this Biennial is bad, but because, as a way of marking the 75th edition, the Whitney has invited its curators, Francesco Bonami and Gary Carrion-Murayari, to mount a concurrent show called “Collecting Biennials.’’ Filling the Whitney’s fifth-floor galleries, the retrospective is an installation of paintings, sculptures, and videos that have appeared in past Biennials and found their way into the permanent collection.

Unsurprisingly, it’s full of wonderful things, including works - many of them masterpieces - by Edward Hopper, Robert Rauschenberg, Richard Diebenkorn, Mark Rothko, George Tooker, Philip Guston, Barnett Newman, Cy Twombly, and Milton Avery. There are terrific pieces by more contemporary artists, too, including Paul Pfeiffer, Matthew Barney, and Condo. (Born in New Hampshire, Condo is the only artist who appears in both shows.)

Of course, any all-star team is likely to overwhelm a selection of relative rookies. But the contrast - between the incoherence and hopelessly underdone feeling of the current edition and the blast of ambition and unmistakable conviction in “Collecting Biennials’’ - is so acute that it makes you wonder what’s happened.

Are artists that much worse today?

It would be folly to think so. There are, after all, more self-described artists (more by a factor that is frankly disturbing) trying their hand at the game than ever before. And among them, inevitably, are artists of rare and extraordinary talent, artists who respond to the challenge of the present with spellbinding aplomb.

Why do we see so little evidence of this in the Biennial? I fear it’s simple. Bonami, a globe-trotting Italian who organized the widely panned 2003 Venice Biennale, and assistant curator Carrion-Murayari have made a hash of it. They are so mired in outdated academic discourse and aesthetic navel-gazing that they can no longer tell good from bad, engaging from alienating. Even when they do find good things, they fail to display them in lucid and sympathetic surroundings.

Their show, which runs through May 30, covers three floors at the museum. The highest level contains paintings, drawings, photographs, and installations. There are compelling paintings employing trompe l’oeil by Tauba Auerbach and Boston’s Quaytman, who now has a solo show at the Institute of Contemporary Art. There’s also an engrossing video projected onto the windshield of an old car by a collective named the Bruce High Quality Foundation.

Titled “We Like America and America Likes Us’’ (a nod to a famous performance by the artist Joseph Beuys and a coyote), the video takes the form of a collage of pop-culture imagery and a voiceover narrative that recounts a troubled relationship with “America’’ in wry sentences full of regret and dismay. (The tone of it put me in mind of Jeffrey Eugenides’s novel “The Virgin Suicides.’’)

Aside from that, it’s slim pickings. But it gets worse on the floor below, which is dominated by a disorienting maze of darkened rooms devoted to repetitive moving images with grating soundtracks. As cultural critique, Josephine Meckseper’s parody of Minnesota’s Mall of America is trenchant, if somewhat glib. The Mall is such an easy target.

But the neighboring videos and installations, many of which seem to have dance or choreography as a theme, by Kelly Nipper, Kate Gilmore, Sharon Hayes, Erika Vogt, Rashaad Newsome, Alex Hubbard, and Boston’s Jesse Aron Green, are all more or less unendurable: conceptually overloaded, politically limp, tedious, arcane - you name it. The experience is made worse by a frenetic soundtrack of electronic noise coming from an inane video by Ari Marcopoulos that spills into all the other galleries.

The final floor has some intriguing small paintings by Maureen Gallace (they’re stringent and yet sensuous: Hopper meets Giorgio Morandi, with a dash of amateur Sunday painting), and a series of brilliant, ambiguous photographs by Josh Brand. A mysteriously layered, densely compacted painting by Condo also detains the eye for more than a few seconds. But almost everything else is bad - in so many ways it exhausts one’s powers of discrimination.

It’s unfair, perhaps, to single out offenders, but Jessica Jackson Hutchins’s contribution, “Couch for a Long Time,’’ is, in its own peculiar way, characteristic. It’s a couch, from the artist’s living room, covered in every newspaper article about President Obama the artist encountered. Glazed ceramics sit in apparently random positions on the seat of the couch. That’s it.

You look at it, and search your memory for anything that has looked quite as arbitrary, as ugly, or as pointless. You then read the explanation, which can be found in the catalog: “The vessels,’’ we are told, “relate to the artist’s interest in regeneration through their metaphoric association with the female body and the transformative influence they enact as they are placed in a specific relationship to the couch and to each other.’’

It goes on in this vein for several paragraphs, but of course none of it bears fruit - aesthetic, intellectual, or any other kind.

Young and ambitious artists are going to come to the Whitney Biennial from all over the world, and they are going to think: “So this is the kind of thing you need to make to get noticed.’’

What’s incredible to contemplate is that on the evidence here, they’d be right.

Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com

Photo Gallery

New England standouts
Of the eight artists with connections to New England in the Whitney Biennial, five, tellingly, now live in New York City. The following three stood out from the crowd:

R. H. Quaytman
The Boston native, who also has a solo show at the Institute of Contemporary Art, works with the same images in different media, especially painting and photography. At times seeming arcane, her work nevertheless encourages an acute sensitivity to the way we perceive images. It's mesmerizing and intelligent at the same time.

George Condo
Born in Concord, N.H., Condo makes gutsy, visceral paintings and sculptures. Awkward, even violent, they're nonetheless weirdly thrilling and brilliantly attuned to space, texture, and color.

Maureen Gallace
Born in Stamford, Conn., Gallace paints rural New England scenes on a small scale and in a simplified palette. At first glance she may look like a mere Sunday painter, but closer inspection reveals a feeling for spatial ambiguities and light reminiscent of the great Italian Giorgio Morandi. -- SEBASTIAN SMEE