The Whitney's Biennial. Eye-popping but incomplete . . .

FIRST the good news. The 1985 Biennial Exhibition being held at the Whitney Museum here is the best Biennial in recent years. It is big, flamboyant, exciting, mind-boggling, militantly up to date, and as full of energy and surprises as a three-ring circus. It is also a very clearly defined and shrewdly presented statement on what its six curators think is most representative of the best American art produced during the past two years.

The show is so aggressively impressive, in fact, that it isn't until one is well away from its huge canvases, oversize sculptures, eye-popping light works, fascinating video installations, and hypnotic mixed-media constructions that one is even capable of perceiving it as anything but a huge piece of environmental art all by itself.

That, of course, leads me to the bad news. The moment one can sufficiently detach oneself to examine this Biennial, not as a powerful multimedia event but as an exhibition representing the best of today's art, it becomes dramatically clear that it no more truly fulfills its stated objectives than did its recent predecessors. And I'm not referring to the exclusion of established artists, necessarily, but of ``emerging'' and lesser-known artists of quality who deserve to be included but have not been chosen.

Perhaps this Biennial was primarily intended to be an exciting eye-popping event, a kind of art-world circus featuring only the most colorful, provocative, and daring pieces produced in the United States over the past two years. It certainly is tempting to think so -- and indeed I have heard it so described by several individuals who've seen it.

I cannot go along with that conclusion, however, even though the exhibition is woefully short of work that doesn't strive for maximum effect and that doesn't shout when its substance is actually more appropriate for a whisper.

Having spent considerable time viewing it, and knowing a little about those who assembled it, I am left with the very definite impression that it actually does represent the insights and best intentions of the men and women responsible for its selection.

But consider the image of today's art it projects. If we accept this show at face value, American art is strident, flamboyant, iconoclastic, ambitious, innovative, and ironic -- all of which it is, of course, but not exclusively. Today's art is also subtle, meditative, radiant, celebratory, cautious, and profound -- to say nothing of highly accomplished, a quality in relatively short supply in this show, dedicated as it is more to promise than to solid achievement.

Now, I don't want to be misunderstood. With very few exceptions (primarily the blatant works of Ed Paschke and Robert Yarber), I liked and admired what I saw in this exhibition. A great deal of it is excellent, and some of it is quite extraordinary. Most of it belongs in any show purporting to reflect what is going on in today's art.

My quarrel -- let me be very clear -- is not with what is in the Biennial, but with the decision to leave certain kinds of work out.

Once again, the curators have equated the word ``best'' with what is most flamboyant, extreme, ``innovative,'' controversial, and aggressive in today's art -- and with hardly anything else. Once again they have seen fit to opt primarily for the most sensational and startling aspects of the art of the 1980s and have excluded the more quiet, contemplative, and nonabrasive creative voices whose works are beginning to have a significant impact upon the actual art world, the one that is not overwhelmed by size, power, and stridency, and that is emerging to view in New York and around the country in truly surprising fashion.

For instance, it is symptomatic of the show as a whole that the photographs of Joel-Peter Witkin are included, and the paintings of Jerome Witkin, his identical twin brother, are not. Both are profoundly interesting, even superb artists of roughly equal creative imagination and commitment. And both have been visible to the art world for a number of years.

The works of Joel-Peter, however, are dramatically idiosyncratic, shockingly unconventional, and often deeply disturbing, while those of Jerome make their point with equal originality, but with greater subtlety, and in a mode that at first, superficial glance appears more conventional. Joel-Peter concentrates on the disturbing and the bizarre and makes a fetish out of oddness. Jerome, on the other hand, paints powerfully provocative but seemingly more ``traditional'' sociopolitical metaphors. The truth of the matter is that both are very good, and that both should be in this show.

This Biennial consists of 146 paintings, sculptures, photographs, films, videotapes, slide presentations, and mixed-media installations by 84 artists, taking up all the Whitney's exhibiton space except for its galleries on the third floor.

The work ranges from Sherrie Levine's tiny but acute comments on Constructivist masters to the fascinating, multi-room, black-light environment of Kenny Scharf; from the sumptuous ``decorations'' of Robert Kushner to the wonderfully idiosyncratic and somewhat derisive sculptures of James Surls.

Also excellent are the contributions of Gregory Amenoff (what a painter he is turning out to be!), Doug Anderson, Jo Anne Carson, Sarah Charlesworth, Jack Goldstein, Doug Hall, Mel Kendrick, Jon Kessler, Susan Rothenberg, Cindy Sherman, and Ed Emshwiller. And mention must also be made of Jedd Garet's ``Two,'' Tom Otterness's ``The Old World,'' and Bryan Hunt's ``Stillscape I.''

It all adds up to a fascinating, challenging, and occasionally fun-filled exhibition, which I recommend to any and all who are interested in the more far-fetched and far-reaching aspects of contemporary American art. For those particularly interested in its film and video works, the museum has schedules available in the lobby and on the second floor.

At the Whitney through June 2.

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