Monday, May 1st, 2006

Whitney Biennial and Tate Triennial 2006

Whitney Museum of American Art
945 Madison Avenue, New York
March 2 to May 28, 2006

Tate Britain
Millbank, London
March 1 to May 14, 2006

Mark di Suvero and Rirkrit Tiravanija (and invited artists), Peace Tower, installation at Whitney Museum
Mark di Suvero and Rirkrit Tiravanija (and invited artists), Peace Tower, installation at Whitney Museum

It may not be a fair comparison but you can’t help wondering: How can the Whitney Biennial be so exciting and the Tate Triennial so tedious when both are showcasing the same kind of contemporary art on either side of a well-traversed pond?

The Biennial is a long established event – it has history, a character of its own, and it is big. Whereas the Triennial is young (this is the third), hasn’t yet created a place for itself, and is a fraction of the size. But the art is as good in London as it is in New York. The difference is in the curating of the exhibitions.

The vitality of the Biennial spills out into the street with interventions on the sidewalk. Its character is established by the Peace Tower at the entrance. Made out of small, raw paintings by 200 invited artists, and remarkable for its non-artiness, it was conceived and built by sculptor Mark di Suvero in 1966 as a united statement against the Vietnam War. Recreating the Peace Tower in the present political and emotional climate generates connections between the protest era of the sixties and our current feelings about Iraq, to the doubts, fears and changed perspectives of post 9/11 America.

Good exhibitions quickly spread feelings of excitement and pleasure. I walked into the Whitney with a friend who kept saying: “This is like what I love!” I agreed. There was a lot to like and love in the Biennial. Videos which really touch you, pieces (like the fake obituaries of famous people) that really make you laugh, a sense of adventure as you move around the galleries, a lot of new and old artists to discover. In my view, it’s the painting – when there is any – that gives a multimedia blockbuster exhibition its gravitas. This one has a bunch of strong painters who were new to me.

Spencer Sweeney is a fabulous painter. I don’t care what the work means or what the artist or anyone else says about it. It is alive, sophisticated, original, and it stands on its own without relying on explanation. I love the luscious color, the ice-cream pinks and bloodstain reds, the layers of visual language, the passages of drawing and painting that combine with ease.

Dawolu Jabari Anderson’s drawings of iconic figures from black American history, battered and stained, and seen through a wrinkled surface, are childish yet seem as authentic as an old document. Kelley Walker uses Photoshop to create abstract expressionist images with an impersonal surface, using toothpaste and cereal boxes. Mark Bradford’s large, multilayered collages recall the scraped and repainted wall surfaces created over time in urban environments.

But the artist who represents the spirit of the show for me is the octogenarian poet, performer and painter, Taylor Mead, not so much with his painting (which is hardly known) but his exuberant life. He is a Zelig in American art history. A character among the Beats, he worked with Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and Andy Warhol. He marched with the Village Gays, was filmed by Jim Jarmusch and Rebecca Horn, and performed at the Bowery. Mead epitomizes that unique New York combination of caring and cool.

Bad exhibitions, however, are annoying. I stomped around the Tate Triennial irritably, expressing my disgust loudly to a friend, an English one this time, who encouraged me by laughing. Stuffy, predictable, conservative. The large, bland installations, the words made into sculpture or mystifying messages, the torn photographs, the inevitable room with a warning about sexually explicit material – this time it is the 1970s photo collection of a porn star turned artist – everything is somehow awfully familiar. This is art that makes you feel manipulated, makes your heart sink.

What little painting there is knows its place, minds its Ps and Qs, and won’t embarrass critics or curators by being difficult to talk about. Take Michael Fullerton, who says he is inspired by Gainsborough. But it’s not really Gainsborough’s painting, more his socio-political attitude or “aesthetic” that interests Fullerton, whose own paintings are messy, illustrative and slight. Clumsy patches of stippling are the only evidence that he’s ever looked at a Gainsborough. The large painting of a naked woman masturbating above a life-size self-portrait of the artist looking uncomfortable was particularly bad. What really makes these paintings bad is that they don’t go anywhere or open any doors for the viewer. They are closed, finite, and remain safely within the bounds of what they say they are.

“Nothing has changed all over again” says an exhibit by Liam Gillick, in mirror writing – it could be a dry comment on the way Beatrix Ruf, Director of the Kunsthalle, Zurich, curated the Triennial. The Tate claims that the exhibition “reflects the future of British Art” but instead the feeling that you have seen it all before lingers. The curating of the Triennial resembles a Procrustean bed, where the art has to fit an established and accepted format.

Rebecca Warren The Hostess 2006 re-inforced clay and plinth, 98-1/2 x 33-3/4 x 37-1/2 inches  Courtesy the artist and Maureen Paley
Rebecca Warren, The Hostess 2006 re-inforced clay and plinth, 98-1/2 x 33-3/4 x 37-1/2 inches Courtesy the artist and Maureen Paley

There is one important exception. Rebecca Warren’s figurative sculptures (which I saw last instead of first, because I came in through a side entrance) are like a breath of fresh air. Made of unbaked clay, with the look of plasticine which has been pinched and pulled by the fingers of a giant child, they are unfinished and partly formed but completely human, lively, and vulnerable. A large rock cube on wagon wheels is like an outsized toy, but manages to be worrying as well as playful.

Would I have felt differently about the exhibition if I had started where I was meant to? Another wagon near Warren’s made me think that I wouldn’t. It was filled with art materials (rather good ones), as if to satisfy creative urges generated by the Triennial. It only served to underline the negative feelings that the exhibition generated. It was like being offered a party favor after a particularly joyless occasion, and it didn’t make up for the loss.

The attitude of the Biennial curators, Chrissie Iles of the Whitney and Philippe Vergne, Director of Francois Pinault Foundation for Contemporary Art in Paris, was the opposite of Ruf’s. They say they took their cue from the artists, exploring work “where not everything is understood but everything is questioned.” This courage and openness has resulted in an exhibition including a wide spectrum of work that has depth and breadth and makes for a fascinating portrait of contemporary America.