TO some, the Whitney Museum's Biennial Exhibition is the closest thing to a three-ring circus the art world has to offer. To others, it's the major art event of the season. And to still others, it's the quickest route to national recognition as an artist.
For the majority of art lovers, however, it's the easiest and most entertaining way to discover what some of America's more imaginative and thought-provoking artists have been up to and the direction they and their colleagues might take over the following two or three years.
The Biennial has been fulfilling these functions since its inception in 1932, and it promises to continue doing so for a long time to come. Not only because it's the only exhibition of its kind in New York, and thus provides an essential service, but also because the Whitney Museum curators responsible for it are generally among the art world's most knowledgeable and committed.
Although not everyone agrees with their selections, most everyone does agree that they know how to mount lively and controversial shows that present at least some of the most vital work American artists have produced during each Biennial's preceding two years.
This year's Biennial, which opened April 10 and will run through June 28, is no exception. Richard Armstrong, John G. Hanhardt, Richard Marshall, and Lisa Phillips have assembled an impressive display of 148 paintings, sculptures, photographs, films, videotapes, and mixed-media installations by 72 artists. It fills two floors of the museum, runs the gamut from works by the young and promising to works by the old and famous, and includes a number of pieces guaranteed to raise the hackles of critics and public alike.
``At the heart of the Biennial,'' says Whitney director Tom Armstrong, ``is the belief in experimentation, in taking chances, and saying something in a new way, all of which generates dialogue and often controversy.''
This year's show displays almost all of the more extreme forms of 1980s art, but in somewhat modified form and in considerably smaller numbers than in the 1985 exhibition, which was criticized for its frivolity. Neo-Expressionism's overheated and frequently melodramatic excesses, for instance, have been moderated a bit and infused with a gentler form of romanticism than would have been acceptable earlier in the decade.
There is, in fact, a slightly nostalgic overtone to this exhibition. Bits and pieces of earlier forms and themes have been appropriated or borrowed and then combined to fashion ironic commentaries on recent art, and there are several flat-out references to older styles. Thus, fragments of Pop Art imagery rub shoulders with elements of other movements in Jeff Koons's sculpture and Lari Pittman's gothic fantasies. Echoes of Mark Rothko's rectangular abstractions persist in Peter Halley's paintings - although in day-glo colors and without the older artist's brooding pessimism. Even Op-Art's retinal pyrotechnics are conjured up to good effect in Philip Taaffe's eye-popping images.
As has been the case in most recent Biennials, straightforward depictions of American life are once again practically nonexistent. What representationalism there is tends toward the bold and expressionistic (David Bates's passionately painted landscape and figure studies and Roberto Juarez's solidly defined ``Applepeppers''), or toward the magically illusionistic (Robert Helm's exquisitely rendered trompe l'oeil pieces).
Even the sculpture veers away from the realistic, although Robert Lobe's huge reconstructions of natural objects and Louise Bourgeois's provocatively organic ``Nature Study'' appear almost aggressively real among such works as Richard Tuttle's eccentric assemblages and Nancy Dwyer's fusion of words and sculptural forms. On the other hand, Nam June Paik's two video sculptures, ``Grandmother'' and ``Grandfather,'' straddle the actual and the imagined in an altogether novel and delightful manner.
Interestingly enough, abstraction, the demise of which was loudly announced just a few years ago, is once again making an impact. This time, however, it manifests itself in a manner that is a bit more lyrical and reticent and that includes enough specific references to everyday reality to make it more accessible and less purely formal. The paintings of Peter Halley and George Condo best illustrate this trend, the former because of their use of diagrams that register as abstractions, and the latter for their intriguing interplay of natural and geometric forms.
Photography also plays a significant role, although there is less emphasis on eccentricity this year and more on parody and irony. Size and complexity occasionally also play important parts, however, especially in the work of Tina Barney and the Starn Twins, and in the huge cluster of photographic images by Bruce Weber.
For many, the film and video presentations, albeit somewhat more predictable than in the past, will still be among the most fascinating and challenging aspects of the show. The 30 artists represented in these categories use a variety of modes: the narrative, the documentary, the avant-garde, or one of several types of animation. A few also investigate feminist and political issues, as well as more purely formal matters pertaining to the issues and history of film and video art. Viewing rooms for films and videos will remain open to the public until July 2.
Theodore F. Wolff is the Monitor's art critic.