After 2010's Biennial, I wondered if its coherence, which distinguished it from every other iteration of the show I'd seen, was an aberration. Well, the 2012 edition has arrived and the answer is yes. Yes it was. The current survey sticks to its predecessor's formula of fielding fewer artists than Biennials past, and mixing older artists with emerging ones. But it lacks the impeccable selectivity and narrative flow of the 2010 exhibition, helmed by Francesco Bonami, which guided you from room to room and floor to floor with cogent reasons for looking at the art.
Instead, there are offerings that are solidly enjoyable, though not exactly groundbreaking, alongside misfires that aren't terrible enough to get the blood boiling. The result is a middling muddle, timid and something of a snore. Welcome to the Whitney Meh 2012.
The show has managed to spark one (very) tiny controversy, over the role of "independent" curator Jay Sanders. A former director of Chelsea's Greene Naftali gallery, Sanders, as it turned out, wasn't quite as former as the Whitney let on, which prompted charges of conflict of interest. But as I've said before, and will say again, when it comes to the way in which the art world conducts its affairs (and I mean this in all senses of the word affairs, inevitably intertwined as they are in the case of artists and their supporters), conflict of interest is an oxymoron.
Sanders's relationship with Greene Naftali scarcely does any favors for longtime queer-aesthetic painter Richard Hawkins, one of the gallery's artists. He has been given a preponderance of Sheetrock for a string of small, repetitive collages awkwardly interrupted by the occasional canvas. This hanging makes his efforts appear weak, or worse, uninteresting, qualities I've never ascribed to his work before.
The real problem with Sanders's involvement is the fact that he's plainly out of his depth. Apparently, his co-organizer, Whitney curator Elisabeth Sussman, couldn't be bothered to take up the slack, because there's a lot about the installation that's confusing, and not in a good way.
For example, getting off the elevator on the third floor, you're confronted by a 1940 Marsden Hartley painting owned by the Whitney. A dogleg right takes you through a door into a hallway painted with a cartoonish mural of something like an Upper East Side maisonette entrance, complete with Beaux Arts architectural details. Beyond lies a group of other works by Charles Demuth, Eyre de Lanux, Ellsworth Kelly, May Wilson, Andy Warhol and Garry Winogrand. The whole business is actually an installation by Nick Mauss, though you wouldn't know it, because instead of being given its own room, the piece is opened to the rest of the floor. The main takeaway is a thorough head-scratching.
In general, the apportionment of space is questionable. I know that sculptor Oscar Tuazon tends to jam his pieces into tight spaces, but his conglomeration of high-rise windows, low-rise security gates and stairs leading nowhere looks like an afterthought, wedged into the Whitney's lobby gallery. Meanwhile, Dawn Kasper is inexplicably given pride of place in the middle of the third floor for a messy atelier in which she will interact with the public and make her work—or maybe not. It's an expression of what she calls nomadic studio practice, but it strikes me as onanistic.
More than half of the fourth floor is given over to a brightly lit stadium-cum-performance-space for British choreographers Michael Clark and Sarah Michelson, who will spend the Biennial in a kind of residency, mounting "unconventional encounters with spectators," to quote a New York Times preview. The day I was there, a woman wearing a brown leotard and a horse's head walked around silently, as another woman on her hands and knees cleaned small areas of the floor. Unconventional? The piece felt tired and slight considering the amount of real estate provided.
Far more compelling contributions can be found shoved into a darkened corridor behind this area. Wu Tsang's video installation re-creates the dressing room of an old blue-collar-bar-turned-drag-venue in East L.A.'s barrio. Among other things, it movingly meditates on people's willingness to change and accept the same. Gisle Vienne's collaboration with Dennis Copper, Stephen O'Malley and Peter Rehberg offers the creepy-comic spectacle of an audio-animatronic boy mumbling dark thoughts, in a voice that sounds like a combination of Peter Lorre and Werner Herzog.
Speaking of the latter, he's in the show with his own four-channel video installation celebrating the work of Hercules Segers (1590--1638). An obscure contemporary of Rembrandt, Segers created moody etchings, which, in Herzog's view, represent the opening shots of modernism. One can agree or disagree with this assessment. But there's no doubting that the piece itself is beautiful, with projections of Segers's roiling landscapes interspersed with film scenes of a cellist and organist. They play some of the haunting music from Herzog's spellbinding documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams. Here, Herzog goes spelunking into art history to find another of his favored characters: the romantic who is marginalized by his vision.
The rescue of Segers's reputation is echoed in the show within the show of paintings by the remarkable self-taught Texas artist Forrest Bess. Bess once showed alongside Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko, and the ten examples of his works on view—all small quasi-abstractions—open like windows onto his private mythology, which somehow seems universal.
I suppose if the 2012 Biennial has a theme, it has something to do with process: some notion that there shouldn't be barriers between the artwork and its making, or among fields of cultural production. Fair enough. But none of these ideas are argued for; they're simply presented as givens. Rather than offer an insight into limitless possibilities, the show is mired in its own assumptions. It appears stuck in another decade, almost as if Sanders, and especially Sussman, wants to take us back to 1993, when the Biennial actually meant something. But that era was also drenched in nostalgia for another, the revolutionary period of late-'60s--early-'70s art. Doubling down on a longing for the past is the same as doubling down on fearing the future, and in this respect, the 2012 Biennial seems very afraid.