You've never seen so many people braving the cold to wait in line at the Whitney Museum. Even in New York's highest tourist season, museumgoers would likely hike up fourteen blocks to the Guggenheim in the face of such a wait. The Whitney's popularity hit a new peak on Wednesday night when it held the opening party for the Biennial 2010. Scanning the queue, one found fashions that ran the gamut from generally inappropriate (jeans and a t-shirt to the Whitney. Really?) to the blissfully festive. There was a welcome anticipation in the air, but whether it was for the open bar or to peruse the art upstairs no one could be sure.
Starting downstairs where the DJ spun a fitting mix that matched the motley crowd, wines were poured generously, and you could grab a handful of popcorn from every table, New Yorkers and transplants mingled together each asking one another if they'd yet been upstairs for a look at what curators Francesco Bonami and Gary Carrion-Murayari consider as "American-ness" in art. The general consensus was that we all needed a drink before looking into a potentially stark representation of our culture on the museum's upper floors. There was intrigue just as there was concern for what we'd see.
Drink squarely finished and sliding past a line of loitering art-lovers, it was easy to see that Bonami and his co-curator Carrion-Murayari had indeed found the pulse of the art world in America, and had uncovered exactly what made it tick. Facing this American art forces you to realize that while it all looks so melancholy, it also feels so right.
If there is one artist whose work was met with shock, and a refreshing smile, amidst a somewhat grim picture of our representative creative minds, it was Pae White's enormous Still, Untitled. It was aptly hung on the wall facing the elevators, allowing you to pay attention to little else. Her enormous black tapestry with an almost fluid cloud of white smoke invokes a shock to the senses with its size, positioning, and boldness.
Hailing from Southern California, White is one of twelve LA-based artists featured in this year's Biennial - a rare level of recognition for west coast art, especially considering that the Biennial only displays the work of 55 artists this year. Fifteen of the artists are resident New Yorkers, while the remaining twenty-eight round out the rest of the heartland from Virgina to Oregon and Michigan to Tennessee.
One aspect of the show that was perhaps less welcome was the number of video artists on display. Many of them induced eye-rolling more than they did introspective thought, largely due to their high-school level production values, and angry poetry that savored strongly of teen angst rather than intellectual debate. The same went for a number of the hyper-contemporary installations, including one room filled with random household objects suspended from the ceiling in what looked like orange fishnet stockings.
The fourth and fifth floors of the museum were dedicated to works that had been part of past Biennials at the Whitney. A surprising break from the show on the lower levels, the selection included a painting by Mark Rothko, a Claes Oldenburg sculpture, and Duane Hanson's humorously lifelike Woman & Dog. It could truly be the case that those of us camped out on the fourth and fifth floors were breathing easier than those brave souls trapped on the first three - up there it was a look at what once was; a cross section of American art as it represented a time that came before.
Downstairs, however, there was no escaping the illustration of what our world really looks like - confusing, jarring, and charged. The Biennial 2010 hits the mark - describing where our art world has found itself at this early part of the 21st century. It's just up to you to decide if we're in a good place or not - Bonami and Carrion-Murayari don't make their personal opinions known... the mark of good curators.