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Whitney Biennial 2010: still flying the flag?

March 4, 2010

This may be the first year it features more female artists than men, but as America’s snapshot through contemporary art hits 75, can it still hold its own?

Whitney 2010 Biennual: Bruce High Quality Foundation

Cars and stripes … We Like America and America Likes Us (2010) by the Bruce High Quality Foundation. Photograph: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The 2010 Whitney Biennial – defiantly and unassailably labelled “2010” – is slimmer in scope and size than its immediate predecessors. Call it an attempt to trim the sails of a programme that is perennially attacked for editorial overreach. This time around, the show lacks the prescriptive thrust of either the politically trenchant 2006 edition or its lo-fi, recession-minded 2008 incarnation. Instead, curators Francesco Bonami and Gary Carrion-Murayari have put together what Bonami described in his opening remarks as a “very American, subtle atmosphere”.

If anything, though, this is something of a birthday party. With 2010, the whole museum has been given over to celebrating the 75th anniversary of the show: alongside Collecting Biennials, an installation of works from the permanent collection by artists who have previously appeared, all the way from Edward Hopper, Warhol and Rothko to Kenneth Anger, Eva Hesse and Julian Schnabel. The Whitney is pre-eminent in its ability to take the temperature of American art, particularly if it’s being made in LA or New York. But the world has changed: it now competes for relevance with the art fairs that happen nearly every month around the world.

And even a biennial that snubs categorisation cannot escape context. 2010 forms a milestone for the Whitney as well as the art world: for the first time in its history, more women than men have found their way into the biennial. This is a long-overdue correction, though Bonami has pooh-poohed the suggestion that this was his goal.

Even so, sometimes the effect is ghettoising. The show inadvisedly lumps formalist abstractions by Tauba AuerbachSarah Crowner and Suzan Frecon into one room. Auerbach folds her canvases before flattening and spray-painting them, merging two and three dimensions in industrial-looking, monochromatic paintings. Crowner’s chevrons in white and black are similarly clinical, while Frecon’s abstractions reference Adolph Gottlieb and Mark Rothko but without the heroism. By zeroing in on the similarities between the works – scale, severity, austerity and square format – the curators miss an opportunity to put these artists into dialogue with any other mode of American art. It’s as if one conversation is being held by three artists who are rhyming, not debating.

Read more at: Still flying the flag?

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