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The 2000 Whitney Biennial: A return to the halcyon days of American Art or the dawn of a new era?

The pull of past traditions is juxtaposed with the push of digital innovations

New York

The Whitney Biennial seems to loom terribly frequently as a cultural (if not journalistic) obligation. At its inception in 1932 the annual exhibition did not provoke as much scandal and discussion, partly because American art was itself an altogether smaller, gentler and more regional affair.

This year the Whitney Biennial demonstrates a nostalgia for those halcyon days of modest regionalism by fielding six curators from all over the country who have avoided too many big names from New York or Los Angeles galleries in their choice of ninety-seven artists. As a result, it will be harder for the media to play their favourite game of “discovering” that one octogenarian from Alabama whose photo-collages somehow slipped into the show.

This is the first time that a whole team of external curators has been invited to curate the Whitney Biennial. This panel of guides may have been set up with the aim of broadening the horizon of the show, but was also a necessary outcome of a more immediate predicament: the Whitney curator who was supposed to be at the helm of this year’s show is no longer with the museum and the rest of the staff were too busy with the “American century” project. (Within months of his appointment in 1998, the Whitney’s director Maxwell L. Anderson restructured the museum’s administration, eliminating several departmental positions including that of Thelma Golden, who earlier that year had been named the directing curator of the 2000 Biennial. Ms Golden was given the option of continuing to work on the Biennial but she declined. She is now the director of exhibitions at the Studio Museum in Harlem.)

The result of the collaboration is a balanced list of participants. Many established names are well paired with younger artists of similar influence, such as Richard Tuttle and Sarah Sze. For every “hot” name such as Vanessa Beecroft there are compensations such as Lutz Bacher, notorious underground feminist-porn transgressor. Indeed the choice seems almost too judicious, too consciously spread between emergent excitements and revered veterans. Rina Benerjee’s Indian heritage and Franco Mondini-Ruiz’s Tex-Mex vendor stall deliver a dose of multiculturalim; Roman De Slavo’s special meal trays at the museum restaurant and Kay Rosen’s wall text provide conceptual play; there is figurative and abstract painting and photography, installation, video, architecture and drawings. Indeed, there is the usual “everything” that makes up the state of contemporary art in the US today.

Any list that can include Joseph Marioni’s elegant monochromes and Lisa Yuskavage’s busty babes; the conceptual photos of Vik Muniz with those of Louise Lawler, is clearly aiming to provide something for everyone.

In 1997 the Biennial opened its doors to artists born outside (but still living and working in) America. This year twenty-one of the artists originate from a variety of exotic locations—Iran, Egypt, India or London—but as they are all still listed with American addresses, it remains unclear as to whether or not American citizenship is actually required. At least the over-ambitious notion of extending the show to cover Canada, Mexico and anywhere else in “the Americas” has been abandoned.

Those of us (and how many we are) who complain that the Biennial always presents the most obvious choices of fashionable practitioners, are faced with the enviable task of finding something else to complain about in this new line-up.

The most likely target is the section devoted to the Internet. With a new $50,000 annual prize for Internet art recently announced by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the medium is clearly establishing itself. The internet component of the exhibition has high-technology money behind it: it is funded by France Telecom, and the processor-giant Intel has contributed computers.

Internet-based art is the first new medium to be introduced to the Biennial since video art made its debut in 1975, and one may justifiably wonder how it will stand up in a museum context. The work of nine internet artists, including well-known novelist and art writer Darcey Steinke and the counterculture legend Mark Amerika, a forty-year-old pioneer of the genre based in Boulder, Colorado, who has been running his “Grammatron” site since 1992, is projected on big screens in an open projection room.

“Internet art is already being institutionalised, as it is here in the Whitney Biennial”, commented Mr Amerika. “With the internet people are not necessarily aware that they are looking at art, it could just be a site they come across while surfing. Presenting internet art as large-screen projections in the context of the Whitney raises all sorts of questions. It is important to see web-based work in as many contexts as possible, but I also want to emphasise that my work is already available twenty-four hours, seven days a week to anyone with internet access.”

As anyone who has perused the old catalogues of “Annuals” and “Biennials” displayed at the museum knows well, this is not a show that guarantees longevity or fame. However, the sophistication of composition of the 2000 Biennial jury and subsequent smoothness of their choices suggests that the Whitney may be moving towards a new level of intelligent openness.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as : 'A return to the halcyon days of American Art or the dawn of a new era?'