In New York, the Whitney Museum of American Art is presenting its 72nd Biennial show of contemporary art, long known as the most controversial art exhibition in the United States. The 2004 show is a gentler, less contentious Biennial, reflecting the impact the September 11, 2001, attacks had on American artists.
It is the bad boy of the art world. Every two years the Whitney Museum of American Art presents its panoramic survey of new U.S. art and emerging artists, often scandalizing audiences and enraging critics with its choices. But the show critics love to hate still packs the Museum, fills arts columns and grabs international headlines in arts publications.
Adam Weinberg, the director of the Whitney, says the Museum organizes the Biennial to take the pulse of American art at the moment, not to judge it or to forecast future trends. But inevitably common threads do emerge.
"There is a degree of anxiety in some of the work that one would imagine in a post-9-11 environment, although very few works, if any, have a direct reference to 9-11," he said. "We did not want this to be a reaction to that. But there are also a lot of works that reflect back on social protest of the 1960s. There is almost the sense that artists are looking to the pioneers of the 60s generation and some of the protests in political art as a way to regain their voice."
The Biennial's three curators traveled separately across the United States, eventually selecting 108 works for the show. And everywhere they went, co-curator Debra Singer says, they saw and heard the effects of September 11 on the American art community.
"There wasn't a studio visit that I can recall in any city in the country where politics and that event didn't come up in discussion," said Debra Singer. "And so there was this intensity of focus perhaps within art-making of the last 2 years, and it was an incredibly rich moment to be organizing this kind of exhibition."
The curators wanted to encourage a dialogue between different generations of American artists. The oldest artist on exhibit is 82. The youngest is 25. The result is a look at the political ferment and fantastical world of the 1960s and 70s through the eyes of both artists who came of age during that period and younger artists. Co-curator Chrissie Iles says contemporary artists are relating to the turbulence of the 60s.
"I think you can see that taking place all over the place in our culture, in fashion and music, even in television," said Chrissie Iles. "The artists are doing the same thing. Sometimes they are quoting the 60s in psychedelic terms. I think it is partly to do with the fact that late 60s and early 70s were a radical moment, it was like the hinge between one phase in our culture and another. I think we are looking at another kind of hinging moment now."
The music and psychedelic aspects of the period are reflected paintings, sculptures, installations, and films and videos throughout the exhibit.
In an installation by an artist who calls himself "Assume Vivid Astro Focus," viewers are able to immerse themselves in the psychedelic aspect of the period by walking around a brightly colored multimedia room that includes a staircase, while many styles of music are played. Artist David Muller is saluting the music of the 60s and 70s with a whimsical 14-meter mural tracing the roots of the era's rock and roll groups.
"I finally decide to deal with one of my obsessions, music, just music in general," he said. "So a lot of this has to do with either the history of rock and roll or different things I think about music and how I can integrate that into making drawings."
For the first time in years, painting and drawing are at the forefront of the Whitney Biennial. The curators suggest that at a time of upheaval, artists want to leave a mark, literally.
Artist Zak Smith has created a monumental tapestry made up of 755 separate drawings, paintings and photographs presenting the narrative of a gothic novel.
Of course, the Whitney Biennial would not live up to its reputation without works that stretch imagination and, sometimes, credibility. Julianne Swarz has installed plastic tubing to carry sound along the museum's stairwells.
"The piece is a sculptural system that irrigates sound through the six-floor stairwell," she said. "The sound that it is moving is a collage of many people, many adults, singing 'Somewhere Over the Rainbow.' "
The often strange and always intriguing Biennial is no longer confined to the Museum itself. For the second time, the Whitney is joining forces with the Public Art Fund to present works outdoors in New York City's Central Park.