What's New and Challenging in the Visual Arts? The Whitney Biennialis a good place to find out, if you don't mind getting caughtup in a controversy or two

THE Whitney Biennial of American Art, one of New York's most important and controversial cultural events, is upon us once again. As usual, it's intended to alert the public to some of the more interesting and challenging art produced in America during the past two years. And also as usual, the 76 artists invited to participate are represented by a broad spectrum of works, including paintings, sculptures, photographs, film videos, and mixed-media installations. This year's Biennial is the 65th exhibition in an ongoing series of invitational surveys, inaugurated in 1932 by Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney. It was organized by Whitney Museum curators Richard Armstrong, John G. Hanhardt, Richard Marshall, and Lisa Phillips. Of the artists included, two-thirds have not previously exhibited at the Whitney, and only seven or eight have what could be described as substantial national reputations.

It's a fairly typical 1980s Whitney Biennial, a little blander, perhaps, than most, but also a bit less problematical.

Who, for instance, would either argue with or get favorably worked up over Allan McCollum's ``Individual Works,'' which spreads 10,000 small, toylike plastic objects evenly over an elevated platform?

And who is likely to get either upset or excited over Chris Burden's ``All the Submarines of the United States of America,'' which suspends 625 tiny cardboard, wood, and wire submarines from the ceiling?

Both pieces are just intriguing and innocuous enough to stir up a certain amount of interest without forcing the viewer to stop and consider what really is going on. For anyone familiar with recent Whitney Biennials, pieces such as these are expected. Without them, most of us would be a bit disappointed.

We'd also feel let down if there weren't any shocks or surprises, or if there weren't any works disturbing enough to get really steamed up about. If nothing else, Whitney Biennials have always been good for some laughs, some sad headshaking, or a sharp comment or two on the taste of those who assembled the show.

Viewers who share these feelings will probably find no shocks and no real surprises at this show - unless, of course, the inclusion of Jeff Koons's super-kitsch porcelain sculptures elicits shock or Chris Macdonald's huge, chunky toylike wooden constructions turn out to be surprises. Personally, I think neither does. In today's frenetically paced art market, what is shocking or surprising one day is perfectly acceptable the next. Koons, who raised many an eyebrow in the 1987 Biennial and in several exhibitions last year, seems charmingly accessible today. And Macdonald, once we get used to the gargantuan aspect of his pieces, ends up being more fun than anything else.

Neither will we be surprised by Ashley Bickerton's somewhat ominous pinball machine-like mixed media constructions; Meg Webster's huge, circular mound of dirt, ``Earth Stage''; Mike Kelley's love affair with stuffed toys and afghans, especially as manifested in ``More Love Hours Than Can Ever Be Repaid''; or Michele Zalopany's photograph-derived charcoal and pastel drawings of building and room interiors. They may raise questions - such as why Ms. Zalopany went to the trouble of producing her painstakingly detailed 7-by-10-foot drawing, ``Bequest,'' when it tells us nothing except that she is remarkably disciplined and has a superb technique - but they don't surprise us.

On the other hand, we are somewhat intrigued by Sherrie Levine's plywood boards with metallic paint knots and her pictorial ``quotations'' from George Herriman's ``Krazy Kat'' comic strip. And we are more than a little interested in Saint Clair Cemin's idiosyncratic and earthy sculptures, and Deborah Oropallo's atmospheric paintings incorporating blurred verbal references and symbols.

There's also quite a lot to be said for Mark Innerst's small oil, ``Pocket Watch''; Ross Bleckner's ``Fallen Summer''; Erik Levine's hollow sculptures; Joan Nelson's landscape evocations; and Tom Wudl's precisely representational and richly detailed panoramic canvases - although the last would probably have seemed less out of place in a late 1930s Biennial than in this one.

As usual in recent years, abstraction plays a very small role in this exhibition, and when it does appear, it tends to be a little too self-consciously geometric. Brice Marden's calligraphic improvisations and David Reed's swirling arabesques are the exceptions, but they seem a bit incongruous as a result.

Ultimately, viewing a show such as this is a frustrating experience for anyone professionally involved with the American art scene. There are any number of artists one feels should have been included, and others who were who should not have been. But that's to be expected.

There's no way, considering the richness and complexity of American art today, that an exhibition such as this could possibly succeed except in the eyes of those who share its curators' tastes and judgments. That is why these Biennials have drawn so much mixed and negative criticism, and why the Whitney staff, in an attempt to defuse or weaken future attacks, published excerpts from some of the most savage of these criticisms in the 1987 Biennial catalog. It also explains why this year's organizers saw fit to inform any and all potential critics that ``the notion that this exhibition is perilously obsessed with novelty is as inaccurate as it is parochial.''

I must say I'm relieved, since I don't believe this exhibition is perilously obsessed with novelty. But I wonder. Will I also be perceived as parochial for feeling it's too trendy?

At the Whitney through July 9.

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