“1997 Biennial Exhibition”
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York City
Through June 1, 1997
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About 25 years ago, artist Chris Burden arranged to have a friend shoot him in the arm with a rifle. He also crawled over broken glass and was briefly crucified on top of a Volkswagen Bug. Works like “Shoot” made Burden famous within art circles, after a Guinness Book of World Records fashion. But Burden’s masochistic performance art had something in common with more mainstream American art of the 1960s and 1970s. Like pop and minimalism, it was provocatively easy to make. Aside from the hours spent documenting such feats, and recovering from them, Burden’s art didn’t occupy much of his time.
At this year’s Whitney Biennial, the prestigious roundup of new American art, Burden’s “Pizza City” is one of the highlights of the show. There are no guns or glass shards here, however; Burden has abandoned drama for a childlike laboriousness. Composed of thousands of miniature parts, “Pizza City” is a scale model of a sprawling, whimsical metropolis, laid out on table tops–a model train set minus the trains. Some of the houses, shrubs, trees, and cars actually come from train-set manufacturers. The other elements are miscellaneous: plumbing fixtures, kitchen appliances, yard-sale leftovers, all ingeniously recycled to become skyscrapers, factories, freeways. The result is likable, but not much more. It’s a kid’s toy, albeit one that an established artist devoted seven years of his life to making.
S uch cottage industriousness is the ruling spirit of the 1997 Biennial. At its best, it translates into a kind of stoop-sale liveliness. There’s lots to look at; most of it has an introverted, made-from-scratch intensity. Like Burden, Michael Ashkin does scale models, though his are solemn, not whimsical: stretches of miniature Western highway so realistic that photographs of them are indistinguishable from photos of real highways. Ashkin’s fastidiousness pales beside that of Charles Ray. For a film project called “Self Portrait with Homemade Clothes,” Ray learned how to sew his own clothing and grind his own eyeglasses, then traveled to Switzerland to learn to make a watch from scratch. Obsession is the name of the game. Devote three months to a project, and you’re a hobbyist. Devote seven years, and you’re in the Biennial.
Obsession has always been a buzzword in the art world, a less corny, more secular-sounding synonym for “inspiration.” But suddenly it’s a word that art is measured against. Obsession, after all, is what connects increasingly popular outsider artists such as Henry Darger, a Chicago janitor who painted and wrote a 15,000-page fantasy about little girls with penises, to insider artists such as Burden, Ashkin, and Ray. Darger isn’t in this exhibition, but his work ethic is. In the catalog essay, curators Lisa Philips and Louise Neri give a nod to the insider-outsider connection, but they dismiss it as a fluke of economic history–they claim that in today’s weak market, artists have more time on their hands. This is ridiculous. For most artists, fewer sales means less time to work, more time spent paying the rent. The explanation for the ethos of laboriousness strikes me as much simpler–it serves as proof of the artist’s personal commitment. Even the worst work demands from you the admission that at least the artists are authentic. They’ve put in too much sweat equity to be bluffing.
O f course, getting shot in the arm is about as far as you can go in the “I’m not bluffing” department, which may be why the curators call Burden one of the two role models for the mostly younger artists in this Biennial. (The other is Vija Celmins, who paints numbing, meticulous copies of nature photographs.) But the real role model here is Marcel Duchamp. Duchamp’s “The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even,” familiarly known as the “Large Glass,” is the granddaddy of this kind of hands-on conceptualist art. Duchamp worked for more than 12 years on the “Large Glass,” devising pet names for its idiosyncratic imagery and writing detailed, incomprehensible notes. (Calvin Tomkins, an ardent Duchampian, calls them “magisterially unclear.”) As anyone who has ever been to Philadelphia to see it knows, the result isn’t particularly engaging. By the time he made it, Duchamp was opposed to visual art as such. He disparaged painting as “retinal stupidity.”
Many of the works on display here could be seen as personal variations on the “Large Glass.” They vary enormously in appearance, since appearances are not necessarily important. They can be big and messy, as in Jason Rhoades’ factory-floor-style installation, or small and neat, as in Bruce Conner’s inkblot drawings. The only visual quality they have in common is a dogged intricacy. This intricacy isn’t just unlike minimalism; it is its ideological opposite. Minimalist art was simple, serious, and totally public. It sat on the wall and left us to make up our own minds about what it was all about. Obsessivism drags us into its space, though we remain voyeurs. Minimalism enforced a poker-faced code of silence. Obsessivism chatters to itself in a bizarre idiolect. Both, however, leave us out in the cold.
For me, the low point of the show–and of obsessivism in general–is Annette Lawrence’s “Moon” series. Lawrence draws large spirals composed of hundreds of calendar dates (“12/2/95, 12/7/95, 1/1/96, 1/5/96,” etc.), arranged, we’re told, according to a Mayan counting system. Once, work like this might have at least had a polemical feminist edge. Now it just comes across as a new form of navel-gazing. It’s menstrual narcissism.
In his most recent book, philosopher Arthur Danto claims that this bleak retreat into the fortress of the self is a permanent one. Art history has flickered out, he says, and though art will continue to be made, each artist will follow his or her bliss, without any larger motive or connective scheme. It’s “Pizza City” forever. Walking around this Biennial, which happens to be the last of the 20th century, I had the glum feeling that Danto was right.
O n the other hand, millennial melancholia has a way of being wrong. There are reasons to be optimistic about the future of art, even at the Whitney. One of them is Kara Walker, a young African-American artist from Atlanta who makes narrative murals in a 19th century-style silhouette technique. Walker’s works are a sort of lewd fantasia about the Old South, full of sex, cannibalism, chivalry, folklore, and humor. It isn’t always easy to figure out what she is talking about. Her stories, too, can seem hermetic, like pictures from a private universe. But most of the time, her cutouts are generously imaginative and outward-directed, connecting viewers to their shared national past. Walker makes History painting, that musty patriarchal fossil, seem like the most seditious and vital new idea of the 21st century.