A Biennial Scorecard: Culling the Highlights of the Whitney's Signature Survey

Lutz Bacher's "Pipe Organ," 2009-11
(Photo © Kyle Chayka)

What’s that smell in the air that’s been wafting as of late? Is it the onset of spring? Nope, it’s the Whitney Biennial! Once again, it is time for the ever-ambitious, always-criticized exhibition that attempts to summarize two years of American contemporary art. Only this time, it’s not so contemporary, and it’s not totally American. Whereas the 2010 edition blazed with a newfound national energy showing tightly-focused selections from American artists, the 2012 biennial confounds expectations with artists young and old, local and not, and an overall mood of dark confusion.

Having gotten a look in advance of the show's official opening tomorrow, ARTINFO has picked out some of the things worth taking away from the 2012 exhibition, offering a series of superlatives for your perusal. (For a virtual tour of the Whitney exhibition, see our photo slide show.) 

Most Appropriate Adjective: Weird. Curators Elisabeth Sussman and Jay Sanders have described this biennial as taking inspiration from “old, weird America.” The show does have a funky air to it, the creepiness of an old blues song, maybe, mixed with a certain Midwestern-suburban angst and the hopeless darkness of unlit highways. Lutz Bacher’s printed book pages picturing galactic phenomena, “The Celestial Handbook,” are sprinkled throughout like punctuation marks, lending the event a certain alien quality that tickles the subconscious.

Best Gallery Floor: If you’re looking for straight-up artworks — good old paintings and objects — the third floor is the place to be. Cameron Crawford’s laboriously handmade sculptures read like the work of a post-Katrina Rachel Whiteread; their delicate beauty has a heavy, tragic quality. Andrew Masullo’s sprawling display of bright abstraction paintings is energetic but somehow severe; each work is rigorously planned. Jutta Koether also strikes a blow for painting with a loose, sketchy series of large canvases entitled “The Seasons.”

Punchiest Work: Better watch out for Wu Tsang, who also has powerful works in the New Museum’s ongoing “The Ungovernables” triennial, but really knocks it out of the park with “GREEN ROOM” at the Whitney. The work is an immersive installation that looks like a glammed-out dive bar and features two video projections documenting a transsexual-friendly bar called the Silver Platter. “GREEN ROOM” plays a functional role here as well, acting as a dressing room for the performers who will populate the Whitney’s fourth floor over the course of the biennial.

Best Moment: Lutz Bacher’s “Pipe Organ” (2009-11) evinces a distrust of modern technology via an aging Yamaha synthesizer organ tinnily played by robotic apparatus. The organ is decked out with huge tin pipes that bring to mind missile shells. Around the corner is Elaine Reichek’s “There’s No Need” (2011), an embroidered panel with a maze-design, and a quote from Argentine fabulist Jorge Luis Borges at its center: “There’s no need to invent a labyrinth when the entire world is one.” Reichek's homespun paranoia jives completely with Bacher’s apocalyptic machine, and the vibe of this biennial as a whole.

Most Popular Medium: Performo-Sculpture! Upon entering the fourth floor, viewers are blinded by an expanse of white and a bleacher full of folding chairs. A woman with a horse’s head paces slowly in a fenced-off area in Sarah Michelson's "Devotion Study #1 — The American Dancer." Wu Tsang’s installation-cum-dressing-room will be activated by performers as well as visitors while the exhibition is in motion. Joanna Malinowska's "This Project Is Not Going to Stop the War" is a retro TV as well as the document of a performance. Performo-sculpture: It’s a performance! It’s an installation! It’s a sculpture! It’s all these things at once and not quite any of them at all!

Best Back-Seat Curator: Well-known artist Robert Gober, who has played at being a guest Whitney curator before (via "Heat Waves in a Swamp," his show dedicated to Charles Burchfield), offers a gallery of works by American outsider artist Forrest Bess that comes complete with its own wall text and vitrines. The tiny exhibition is one of the more compelling things in the overall biennial — which may or may not be a problem for curators-in-chief Sussman and Sanders. 

Best Transcendent Experience: What's a German doing on the biennial list? Well, Werner Herzog is awesome, for one. And the filmmaker delivers here, contributing a series of projections intermingling gnarled abstract etchings by Dutch artist Hercules Segers with footage of Dutch composer Ernst Reijseger performing a beautiful duet with organist Harmen Fraanje. The combination is sublime; the deep notes of the organ and the fluttering cello match the intricacy of Segers's prints. 

Most :-( : Nicole Eisenman, "Breakup" (2011). Eisenman's loosely Expressionist canvas depicts a dazed figure clutching a smartphone in both hands and staring at it with blank, round eyes. In my head, the figure likely just received a nasty text message. The work's air of disconnection is another testament to technology's deadening effects (plus, we've all been there). 

Best Critique of Commercial Culture: Biennial favorite LaToya Ruby Frazier (she's also been in "Younger Than Jesus" and "Greater New York") offers a series of black-and-white photographs and appropriated advertising material that dissect Levi's latest all-American "Go Forth" ad campaign while simultaneously documenting the emotional and political landscape of her native Braddock, Pennsylvania. It's a powerful body of work that doesn't back down from a fight.

Least Obtrusive: In a show characterized by literal and conceptual smallness, Matt Hoyt’s untitled groups of minute mixed-media sculptures arranged on shelves were the tiniest artworks of all. Coming in a close second were Detroit artist Michael E. Smith's pair of strange votives that looked like gas-pump nozzles covered in oatmeal. Hung low on the wall, they were easy to miss but still hypnotic. 

The 2012 Whitney Biennial opens March 1 and runs through May 27. Click the slide show for a virtual tour of the exhibition.