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Change We Can Believe In

February 25, 2010

The Whitney Biennial is thoughtful, humanly scaled, and blessedly low on hype.

Jessica Jackson Hutchins, Couch For a Long Time, 2009. Couch, newspaper, ceramic, 76 x 29 x 35.5 in. (193 x 73.7 x 90.2 cm).  (Photo: Dan Kvitka; Collection of the artist; courtesy Small A Projects, New York, and Derek Eller Gallery, New York)

The cover of the 2010 Whitney Biennial catalogue displays a picture of Barack Obama as a Dapper Dan cowboy. Inside, guest curator Francesco Bonami and co-curator Gary Carrion-Murayari call the president “the coolest artist of all” and say their show is about “innovative forms,” “new relationships,” and “personal modernism.” After two biennials devoted to dealing with “failure” and “darkness,” this catalogue speaks of “renewal” and “optimism.” Yes, it’s the Obama Biennial: alternately moving and frustrating, challenging and disappointing—and a big improvement on what came before.

It is also historic: For the first time, there are more women included than men. How thrilling and important this is shouldn’t be overlooked or treated cynically, because this biennial isn’t about women’s art, feminism, or affirmative action. Nor is it about painting, although there’s more nonphotographic, handmade two-dimensional work here than I recall seeing for decades. Instead, it provides glimpses of American strangeness, of pluralistic grassroots experimentalism. It is rich in surprises and new names, doesn’t follow too many trends, and deals with the self and aesthetics in fresh ways.

It’s also—praise God—small. The Biennial has finally been pared down to a manage-able 55 artists. It is not visually assaultive; it gives all the art room to breathe, whereupon you realize how bombastic most such shows are. The 2010 Biennial is anti-blockbuster. It avoids razzmatazz, star power, and high production. It’s more like a medium-size group show than a big museum smorgasbord. It isn’t New York–centric, youth obsessed, or drawn mainly from a coterie of high-powered New York galleries. It is quiet. The art world has clamored for these things for years, and people should cheer this show.

Read more: Jerry Saltz on the 2010 Whitney Biennial — New York Magazine Art Review

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