Whitney Biennial: what's latest - and fashionable. But don't expect this show to be comprehensive

ANY critical evaluation of this year's Whitney Museum Biennial Exhibition must take three factors into consideration: Its selection was a collaborative effort by four Whitney Museum curators - Richard Armstrong, John G. Hanhardt, Richard Marshall, and Lisa Phillips.

Its 148 paintings, sculptures, photographs, films, videotapes, and mixed-media installations by 72 artists represent what these curators believe to be some of the most vital work produced by living American artists over the past two years.

It is not - nor was it intended to be - a comprehensive survey of the full range of contemporary American art.

One should also add that this year's Biennial is huge (it fills two of the Whitney's floors, plus a few walls and nooks and crannies); covers a fairly wide spectrum of today's more successful styles; and includes artists from almost every area of the United States.

Anyone who has seen a number of these Biennials, however, will not be surprised by what he or she encounters in this one. True enough, over half the artists are new, and several of the works represent fairly significant (or at least interesting) departures from what was previously shown. And there also is no question that the entries this year are a bit less flashy and eccentric than those in 1983 and 1985. Even so, it all adds up to pretty much what one would expect of a Whitney Biennial of the 1980s.

There is, for instance, the usual sense of breathless urgency, of being in the company of some of the art world's latest and most fashionable creations, and of being drawn rapidly from item to item - not so much in pursuit of the significant or good, but in order not to miss the next startling, mystifying, or exciting thing that is certain to pop up. And it always does - to be immediately replaced, of course, by another, and by another. Which is probably all to the good, considering how relatively few of the works on view are capable of surviving serious and sustained critical attention.

But what of the viewer who not only insists on taking his or her time, but actually returns to the museum for one or more visits? What will such an individual make of it - will it be worth the effort?

Speaking as one who did take his time and who returned for several visits (but who limited most of them to the paintings, sculptures, and photographs), I must admit to ending up with rather mixed reactions as far as individual works were concerned.

I was pleasantly surprised, on the one hand, to discover how well the very large color photographs of Tina Barney and Clegg & Guttmann held up - especially the latter's subtly ritualized and oddly official-looking group portraits - and how increasingly fascinating they became every time I returned to them. And much the same was true of the sculpture of Richard Artschwager, R.M. Fischer, and Richard Tuttle, as well as of the paintings of David Bates, George Condo, Louise Fishman, Neil Jenney, Roberto Juarez, Robert Helm, and Terry Winters.

On the other hand, a few of the pieces that had originally seemed worthy of note proved, upon repeated viewing, not to be so. Ross Bleckner's muted and enigmatic canvases, for instance, became utterly vacuous the third time around, and Robert Greene's charming landscapes with figures quickly deteriorated into being merely facile and cute. Even Nam June Paik's two video sculptures and Jeff Koons's constructions, which had tickled my fancy at first, turned out to be a bit too gimmicky upon closer examination.

Nothing, however, was as much of a disappointment as Willem de Kooning's two recent paintings, which were all the more sad and pointless in the light of his long and distinguished career. Even to have included them was an affront to his outstanding accomplishments, as well as a slap in the face to the public that has been conditioned to respond respectfully to anything that bears a famous name.

Although their work is more promising than accomplished, I would like to see more of Stephen Mueller's bluntly gestural images, Robert Lobe's gigantic reconstructions of natural objects, and Jim Lutes's idiosyncratic personages. Each of these artists has something special to offer that is bound to be developed further in the next few years.

On the whole, however, I came away from repeated visits to this most recent biennial with the distinct impression that, while it might not be quite as flashy as its immediate predecessors, it is no less trendy and limited in scope.

The more I walked around the dozen or so galleries here, the more I felt I was viewing a shrewdly chosen but ultimately brittle and shallow accounting of contemporary American art. Its curators' disclaimers notwithstanding, I kept wishing - and with increasing fervor - that they had attempted to make it a comprehensive survey of what is being produced in the US today. To have tried that and failed would still have been preferable to what they've given us: an exhibition that reminds me altogether too much of a meal that consists almost entirely of hors d'oeuvres and fancy desserts.

At the Whitney Museum through June 28. Viewing rooms for the films and videos will remain open to the public through July 2.

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