The show that wears a 'hit me' sign

If the art world has a bull's-eye, it is currently sitting at Madison Avenue and 75th Street. That's the location of the Whitney Museum of American Art, which every two years holds one big exhibition that tries to sum up the latest in contemporary art. The show is the oldest of its kind in America, attracting grandmothers, the avant-garde, and lots of criticism.

Art critics and the public usually take aim at the biennial, accusing it of being pretentious or exclusive. Expectations of a critical barrage - made over and over in the media in the run-up to the opening - leave the uninitiated wondering, "Why all the fuss?"

"It's the show that has 'hit me' on its chest," jokes Robert Storr, a former curator at the Museum of Modern Art who now teaches at New York University. "It is somebody's or some group of somebodies' idea of what matters at a given moment, and any such ... selection means that then you dispute who they chose."

The 2004 exhibition, which opened Thursday, may receive fewer arrows than shows of recent years, offering works by mid- and late- career artists, as well as new talents.

"It's better than last year's," says art critic Robert C. Morgan, author of the book "The End of the Art World." "There is more substantial art. I think that even the pieces that I don't like, it's better bad art," he says. "The curators were generally more successful in their choices."

The museum is even using outdoor space, like Central Park, to give people put off by museums - or their politics - a chance to see what's new.

Taking on the critics, Maxwell Anderson, the Whitney's former director, calls the museum a "feisty interlocutor" between artists and the public, in his foreword to the exhibition's catalog. Rather than trying to please people who don't like the biennial's experimental nature, or other critics upset because their favorite up-and-comers are omitted, the museum, he writes, follows a tradition of making room "for lesser-known talents, even at the expense of artists in vogue."

One such artist in the show for the first time is Cory Arcangel. He creates images by "hacking" into classic video games, such as Super Mario Brothers from Nintendo - where he removed everything but the white clouds that float across a vibrant blue sky. Video-game musical compositions, another of his specialties, accompany his work.

"I finally figured out the formula for trying to make computer art that people might actually like," he said at a recent preview, where he greeted press and patrons in a baseball cap and a white T-shirt with the word "CodeWarrior" on it. He aimed for something his grandma might like, and discovered that simple is best. "It's ... a lot of process, and it's really hard to do, but [the art] is simple."

That kind of modern medium is what some patrons want more of, and they acknowledge that the biennial brings attention to such styles.

"How would most of this community ever learn of Cory Arcangel?" wonders Troy Tyler at the preview. "The purpose of the show is to introduce people to stuff they wouldn't normally see, and particularly people who don't get to go galleries and aren't steeped in this culture," he adds, echoing Mr. Anderson.

The Whitney's biennial is part of a proliferating group of such exhibitions. Biennials have moved beyond well-known international locales, like Venice, to Johannesburg, Shanghai, and Istanbul. The Whitney's is primarily a national show, with a tradition dating to the museum's founding in the 1930s. At one time it held annual shows that alternated between painting and sculpture. In 1973, it switched to the biennials, which include all media.

This exhibition features more than 100 artists ages 25 to 82. It doesn't have a single theme, but in the catalog the three curators cite trends that permeate the show, including mythic worlds, political and cultural moments of the recent past, and a related idea, nostalgia.

War and peace, cultural and political influences of the 1960s and '70s, and even reality TV are among the issues the works explore. One memorable piece is Yayoi Kusama's 2002 "Fireflies on the Water." It features a small room covered with mirrors, a floor covered with water, and tiny colored lights hanging from the ceiling.

"Fireflies" was a favorite of museum member Sheila Klebanow. She usually attends the biennial - undeterred by the flurry of press criticism - but often likes only a few things. This year was different.

"I found more that I enjoyed in this biennial than in many of the others put together," says the psychiatrist from Scarsdale, N.Y., who plans return with her granddaughter.

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