In Treatment–Art on the couch at the Whitney


Bert Rodriguez
Bert Rodriguez’s white cube within a room at the armory

Oy, the art world still in crisis. At least this year’s Whitney Biennial has the perfect installation for the situation. It’s Bert Rodriguez‘s white cube therapy room, where he promises to conduct free therapeutic sessions that include art projects.

The installation is a room within a room at the Park Avenue Armory, where a bunch of installations by biennial artists are on display, a sort of sidebar to the main event at the Whitney. Or maybe the armory is the main event. This split in venues is the first part of the schizophrenia of this year’s Biennial.

Bert Rodriguez
The potted plant–that’s about all you could see at the press preview

At the press opening, Rodriguez’ cube offered a partial view of what goes on inside. The door was slightly ajar, but stuck in place. All you get to see was a leather chair and a potted plant. Outside the cube, a sofa, a coffee table and blank magazines–a waiting room awaiting content. Only the future can determine what goes in these magazines and in that white cube

Bert Rodriguez
I stuck my hand into the opening and got a bit more of therapy central.

The installation can be about any part of the present. But given its position in the Whitney, it’s easily interpreted as being about galleries and art, with the Biennial on the couch.

I can just hear the Biennial talking about the art world’s current schizophrenia–painting is dead, drawing is dead; sculpture is dead–but maybe not really, if you think about what’s cooking at the art fairs, where all these media are selling like hotcakes.

Olaf Breuning's army of foreign import tschotschkes atop embroidered shoes and ceramic bases, also at the armory, suggest the invasion of foreign goods and useless but amusing wow-factor collectibles.
Olaf Breuning’s army of foreign import tschotschkes atop embroidered shoes and ceramic bases, also at the armory, suggest the invasion of foreign goods and useless but amusing wow-factor collectibles.

Then there’s the fact that it’s events–fairs–where so much of the selling is going on, as opposed to at standing galleries.

And then there’s the biggest truth of all, and it has to do with youth. If you look around the art world, what’s pulling in people by droves is a different variety of event than art fairs. It’s “openings,” which have become excuses for throwing a party and hooking up and networking with friends.

Eduardo Sarabia
Eduardo Sarabia‘s personal tequila brand, at his eponymous bar at the armory–a watering hole for third world travellers run by artist as barkeep. Sarabia has another terrific installation inside the museum itself, that’s more or less about being inside the museum itself. Toungue in cheek and fabulous.

So openings have music and droves of hipsters making their scene, which is not a bad thing. It’s a good thing. But it is a fact and it’s a fact that this Whitney is trying to deal with. Hence all the enormous number of performance events.

And in this other art world, which here in Philadelphia we’ve seen brought into the ICA in its Locally Localized Gravity exhibit, and in New York we see bing captured by MoMA/PS 1 in its PopRally events (Philly’s groundbreaking artist network Space 1026 made both scenes!!!), installation, the group think approach and the utopian network is king.

So it’s no surprise, in a way, that we have this schizophrenic Whitney, divided between two venues–the museum and the armory. And it’s no surprise that most of the work in the show is installation. And surely it’s no surprise that so much of the museum show is about rebuilding–rebuilding the art world, rebuilding the nation, rebuilding the world.

No wonder the museum show has only three painters, and none is a spring chicken (I’m talking about my generation). We go from Robert Bechtle‘s wonderful representations of light at California intersections to Mary Heilmann floor-plan evocative abstractions to a pair of Olivier Mosset color fields–that appropriately enough given the building theme look like two different sandpaper grits–coarse and fine. (No, I wouldn’t call Karen Kilimnik a painter; her installation of four puny paintings and a crystal chandelier fell flat; her space should have been Heilmann’s space, given that Heilmann practically died in the chilly elevator hallway and probably would have sung in a more intimate setting).

Jedediah Caesar
Jedediah Caesar, Helium Brick aka Summer Snow, 2006, resin, pigment, polystyrene and wood, in rear, Dry Stock, urethane resin, polyester resin, pigment, aluminum, titanium, wood and mixed

Sculpture was a flimsy presence indeed, with only Jedediah Caesar making an impression on me, especially with his Helium Brick aka Summer Snow, which happened to stink like a homeless person when you got too close. But it gave the visual joy of a summer snow cone–and suggested with its pitted surface that we’re all heading toward a meltdown after our present summer of orgasmic, color-drenched love.

There wasn’t much by way of drawing either. A little here and little there. Same for prints. And same for more traditional sculpture.

William Cordova
William Cordova, The house that Frank Lloyd Wright built for Fred Hampton and Mark Clark, wood and mixed media on paper. (Hampton and Clark are two Black Panthers killed by Chicago Police in 1969, and the building is based on the footprint of the house where they died.

What there was was a lot of nostalgia for times past, expressed via architectural and home decor installations–for the ’50s and the Cleavers (Alice Konitz), for an 1800s communal business run by women (Mika Rottenberg), for political engagement memorialized (William Cordova), and for a listening room/installation that evokes a wide range of remembrance of things past (Stephen Prina). (I was not too crazy about Konitz’ furniture/decor).

Phoebe Washburn
Phoebe Washburn’s While Enhancing a Diminishing Deep Down Thirst, the Juice Broke Loose (the Birth of a Soda shop), 2008, mixed

There was worry for the future, the highlight of which was Phoebe Washburn‘s architectural survivalist soda shop bunker, dispensing lurid shades of gatorade–even to the flowers. I presume the bug juice and the random towels were for the sweating victims of global warming.

Phoebe Washburn
Phoebe Washburn, detail of While Enhancing a Diminishing Deep Down Thirst, the Juice Broke Loose (the Birth of a Soda shop), 2008, mixed

But most of all, the point here is that the art world, which is in love with temporal media like video and performance, hasn’t really figured out how to serve it up in a manageable way. (I need to get in here that movies are the most important storytelling art form of our times, and that to ignore video would be bull-headed). I mean I don’t know how I’m supposed to take in 15 or 20 hours of video on my visit to the Whitney. Perhaps they should be giving out write-protected DVDs with a limited shelf-life so I can take them home with me and watch them all.

Javier Tellez
Javier Tellez, Letter on the Blind, For the Use of Those Who See, a fabulous video based on the Indian proverb of seven blind men who each feel a different part of an elephant and draw conclusions on the nature of the beast with not enough information. This piece too seems to me to be a metaphor for the biennial, although it goes way bigger.

Ultimately, if the Whitney doesn’t think outside its white cube, it’s lost. And if the Whitney doesn’t offer up some white cube offerings that are saleable, it’s lost. No wonder it has taken to the couch.


burt rodriguez, eduardo sarabia, javier tellez, jedediah caesar, olaf breuning, phoebe washburn, whitney biennial 2008, williamm cordova



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