If the Whitney Biennial is meant to be a radar screen for the art world of the past two years – which is exactly what it claims to be – then the idea of art as artifacts of beauty has died and become the victim of vicious and proud necrophilia. Walking through the exhibit, which takes over several floors of the Whitney Museum of American Art, I felt alternately as if I’d been crammed into a sweat shop or suffered serious brain trauma. At least twice, I felt both ways at once.
Let me share my horror with you for a brief moment. One room is devoted to the “art” of Forrest Bess, whose leering and unattractive paintings are each paired with an utterly irrelevant and in-depth description of how and why he mutilated his own genitals. If the point of these works was to evoke anything other than disgust, it was lost on me. If the point was disgust, I didn’t appreciate it.
Outside of this torture chamber was another, wider room, its circumference framed with the collages of Richard Hawkins, which also paired images with words. These were smarter pieces than Bess’s, but still felt stale and unoriginal. The collages felt less like intelligent and innovative amalgamations of familiar material, and more like creepy pages from a Satanic bible. I was not amused.
But the exhibit is not comprised only of paintings and horror stories. If that’s not your thing, there’s plenty of pretentious and abstract films to view as well. Charles Atlas was by far the worst of these directors, and I dare you to try tolerating him. Werner Herzog also contributed a film, “Hearsay of the Soul”, comprised of five separate projections, four of which displayed a cycle of etchings by Hercules Segers, and the last of which was a shot of a cello player performing. Directionless and stupid.
Other contributions to the Biennial included 12 blank white canvases with subtle horizontal graphite lines by Agnes Martin (“The Islands”), a large viking burial ship by Matthew Day Jackson (“Viking Burial Ship”), and about 50 cartoonish portraits by Nicole Eisenman (described by the artist as “unsettled contemplation and disenchantment” – the exact description of my experience with the Biennial as a whole).
Altogether as one idea, the Biennial exhibit was, in a word, horrifying. It’s as if today’s artists are just trying to scare the shit out of you, not make you think or appreciate beauty. I don’t get it. I don’t see the appeal of it. And I certainly can’t recommend it. Zero out of a thousand billion stars.
The Biennial is running from March 1st to May 27th In New York City. If it’s really a record of the modern art scene, you don’t want to see how far it’s rotted. Give it a miss.