Whitney Biennial: fun and games, with flashes of genius

The Whitney Museum of American Art's invitational Biennial Exhibition of American Art is upon us once again -- and without doubt this 1981 version is the biggest, brashest, and most entertaining of all those I've seen. It's extremely colorful -- in every sense of the word -- as well as intriguing and challenging. And, lest it sound otherwise, there even is some genuine art among all its fun and games.

This biennial continues the tradition established by Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney in 1932 of showing the work of contemporary American artists. It consists of paintings, sculpture, photographs, films, and video installations created in the past two years by 115 American artists, and runs the full stylistic gamut from the most precisely realistic to the most open and improvised.

The inclusion of film and video installations in this year's biennial focuses attention upon this key development in recent art, and explores new forms of expression outside the conventional documentary and narrative traditions. The videotapes are of particular interest in that they demonstrate dramatic new creative realizations in the use of synthesizers and colorizers, and new achievements in editing techniques.

But, as always, painting takes center stage, with pride of place going to Richard Diebenkorn, Robert Zakanitch (his "Hearts of Swan" is the loveliest painting in the show), Wayne Thiebaud, Jack Tworkov, Al Held, Elizabeth Murray, William Bailey, and Rackstraw Downes.

I also particularly liked the sculpture of Lynda Benglis, Bryan Hunt, and Kenneth Price, and the photographs of Harry Callahan, David Haxton, -- and, for pure delight, the photographs of William Wegman and Sandy Skoglund.

It's an exhibition which will stir a great deal of controversy. It's quality ranges from the first-rate (Diebenkorn and Zakanitch), to the abysmal (Ed Paschke), with most of it hovering considerably above the midpoint between these two extremes. It's a show which must be seen by anyone curious to know what some of new trends in art look like. And by anyone interested in the experimental work being done today in video and film. I do not, however, recommend it to anyone eager to get the full picture of American art in this year 1981.

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