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A Survey of a Different Color

March 6, 2012

2012 Whitney Biennial

Librado Romero/The New York Times

2012 Whitney Biennial A dancer in Sarah Michelson’s “Devotion Study #1 — The American Dancer.” More Photos »

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One of the best Whitney Biennials in recent memory may or may not contain a lot more outstanding art than its predecessors, but that’s not the point. The 2012 incarnation is a new and exhilarating species of exhibition, an emerging curatorial life form, at least for New York.

Possessed of a remarkable clarity of vision, a striking spatial intelligence and a generous stylistic inclusiveness, it places on an equal footing art objects and time-based art — not just video and performance art but music, dance, theater, film — and does so on a scale and with a degree of aplomb we have not seen before in this town. In a way that is at once superbly ordered and open-ended, densely structured and, upon first encounter, deceptively unassuming, the exhibition manages both to reinvent the signature show of the Whitney Museum of American Art and to offer a bit of redemption for the out-of-control, money-saturated art world.

Largely avoiding both usual suspects and blue-chip galleries, this Biennial tacitly separates art objects from the market and moves them closer to where they come from, artists, whose creative processes and passion for other artists’ work are among the show’s unstated yet evident themes, along with documentary, color, collage, sexual identity and abstraction. It is a show in continual flux, and will to some extent be different each time you visit, right up to its final day. Multiple visits are warranted, in fact necessary, to get a true sense of this show’s richness and the improvisatory energy it brings to the Whitney.

The Biennial has been organized by Elisabeth Sussman, the Whitney’s curator of photography, and Jay Sanders, a writer, independent curator and former art gallery director known for his erudition in areas of poetry and performance. They have worked in tandem with Thomas Beard and Ed Halter, of Light Industry, a film-and-electronic-art space in Brooklyn, who guided the exhibition’s ambitious film and video program. From what I had time to preview, the film selections include at least two of the show’s major works: Frederick Wiseman’s 2010 excursion into unnarrated documentary, “Boxing Gym,” and Thom Andersen’s three-hour “Los Angeles Plays Itself,” a meditation on the discrepancy between movies and real life in largely architectural terms that is as enthralling as it is dispiriting.

Another filmmaker who stands out is Werner Herzog, who contributes “Hearsay of the Soul,” a ravishing five-screen digital projection, to his first-ever art show. An unexpected celebration of the handmade by the technological — and a kind of collage — it combines greatly magnified close-ups of the voluptuous landscape etchings of the Dutch artist Hercules Segers (1589-1638), whom Herzog considers “the father of modernity in art,” with some justification. The shifting scroll-like play of images is set to sonorous music, primarily by the Dutch cellist and composer Ernst Reijseger, who also appears briefly on screen, playing his heart out. I dare you not to cry.

The curators both signal and facilitate the show’s new equality of objects and events by their ingenious decision to use the museum’s vaulting fourth floor gallery, with its big Cyclopsian window overlooking Madison Avenue, for performing-arts events. In so doing they also remove from contention a space that in past Biennials has tended to encourage big, show-stopping, sometimes bombastic, implicitly macho art objects. (As for the art objects they do include, these tend to be works of modest scale, which they have arranged on the second and third floors in spare, open-plan displays that are almost startling in their avoidance of the usual Biennial overcrowding.)

Read more at: A Survey of a Different Color

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