MAY 23, 1997
Since 1995 the Whitney Museum of American Art has been searching through studios and galleries across the U.S. to find what's new and unusual for its Biennial Exhibit in New York City. Paul Solman reports.
PAUL SOLMAN: Since it's 1997, it's time for another Whitney Biennial. For the past two years the Whitney Museum of American Art has been scouring galleries and studios across the United States and looking at thousands of slides, trying to select what it would showcase as the most significant work done in American art since 1995. The show tends to get plenty of notice and criticism, often for the Biennial's vision--too political--too cerebral--too worried about what's hot and what's not. But that's not what we were doing here. Our purpose was to take in the show on its own terms and give you a sense of the work here, including some stuff you don't usually see on the NewsHour.
A RealAudio version of of this segment is available.
The NewsHour bids farewell to Willem de Kooning .
A fresh look at the life and work of Pablo Picasso.
Ellsworth Kelly and Jasper Johns exhibits spark the question: What is Modern Art?
Paul Solman looks at the impressionist painter some call the father of modern art, Paul Cezanne.
Crowds gather to see the works of Johannes Vermeer, the 17th Century Dutch painter.
Paul Solman reports on Edgar Degas, an artist who refused to stop growing.
A look at the Chinese art treasures from the "Imperial Collection".
Browse the Online NewsHour's coverage of Arts and Entertainment.
The theme of the Biennial this time around is narrative, so we simply went looking for stories, hoping to let a few of them and the artist-storytellers speak for themselves. Sure enough, there were stories galore at the Whitney, as well as electronic music in the elevator to take you to them. Now, one set of stories seemed mainly political--Tara Walker's brutal images of the days of slavery, for instance. Kerry James Marshal's story is about the American dream and folks for whom it seems more nearly a cruel illusion: The bluebird of happiness flying over an inner city housing project, for example. Neither of these artists was in town the day we shot, but Zoe Leonard was, and her photographs also told a political tale.
ZOE LEONARD: It's the archive of the wife of a fictional character, a woman named Fay Richards, who, had she really lived, would have been born in 1908 and basically got into film when she was pretty young. She played maids and nannies in a bunch of Hollywood films, and then at a certain point in her life became a little frustrated with the racism in Hollywood, left Hollywood, and began to work in race films in black Hollywood throughout the later part of her life.
PAUL SOLMAN: Real-life actress Lisa Marie Bronson posed as the fake Fay Richards. The nub of the project conceptual.
ZOE LEONARD It's about the idea that history isn't something that's always told completely, it's always told by certain people at certain times. And women like Fay Richards, even if they really lived, their histories aren't recorded. We know so little about black actresses of that time, so in a way Fay is a stand-in for all the women we don't know about. She could have been the black Dietrich, but there wasn't room for that in our world back then.
PAUL SOLMAN: So, in other words, for me to really appreciate what you're trying to do, you hook me in with the narrative, a story; you then layer it with these intimations of history--
ZOE LEONARD: Yes. People come in, and I've watched people look at the piece, and they get really curious, and then they're like, wait a minute, is she real, is she not real, does she exist--and then they start asking themselves the questions that I want them to be asking about her life.
PAUL SOLMAN: Okay. So much for political stories, and on to our second stop, lady's lingerie--well, not really--let's call this next group of stories Esoteric, given their extremely private frames of reference. Louise Bourgeois, for instance, a well-known artist in her 80's, calls up, it was explained to us, images from her youth. Gabriel Larosco works with more current imagery, bits and pieces of the contemporary world around us--Dannon yogurt tops--Yardley's soap boxes, and so on--more privately meaningful, or if you prefer mysterious, Diana Thader's installation, Electric Mind--and utterly internal, Annette Lawrence's Spiral of Dates, barely extinguishable, one from the other. It turns out the dates are those of her menstrual cycle, the smudges painted with, well, the alluvium of same--the title Moves. Perhaps the most esoteric work of all, though, the paintings of Matthew Ritchie---the story here, trimmed to save time--seven fall angels known as "watchers" represent the seven parts of the brain, thus, uniting myth and science as joint creators of our universe.
MATTHEW RITCHIE: This painting, which is called The Binding Problem, shows the seven characters, the watchers, who collectively embody the seven gross parts of the human brain in mythology. And what's happening here is that left is kind of leaf, you can see here, and they're falling, and they move below the horizon, they're trying to communicate with each other by sort of disintegrating and exchanging body parts, and they're failing. It's very sad.
PAUL SOLMAN: You find it sad?
MATTHEW RITCHIE: It's a very sad very part of the story.
PAUL SOLMAN: Sad perhaps, detailed definitely. For instance, one shape relates to red blood cells spilling out in it, which, in turn, relate to a red shape representing the medulla of the brain, which relates to the little embryonic forms of one of the seven characters, related to an earlier carnation of the medulla sort of parented by another fellow, The Angel for Iron, which is hemoglobin, the principal element of blood. Ritchie gives background for all of this in cyberspace with a site on the World Wide Web. But suppose you don't want to invest that kind of time. Would you still get it?
MATTHEW RITCHIE: Well, first off, I mean, this is not a test--this is art. If you go into something like the Sistine Chapel you see all these characters and angels and guys with wings--and it's all going on--and it's another language and you don't feel obliged because you're there that you have to figure it all out. And I would hope that people could approach this the same way.
PAUL SOLMAN: Okay. On to a third set of stories that we'd categorize--for want of a better rubric--as primarily playful. Glen Cedars' tilted replica of the Whitney director's old office, for example, here the joke was on me--this exhibit actually made me queasy. Jennifer Pastor was one of several artists to play with ideas of scale in her work, The Four Seasons. Brian Crockett's Ignus Fatuous looked like an exploded intestine or maybe a balloon sculpture from a kid's birthday party and seemed playfully inviting. One exhibit insisted on touch. Charles Long's Clay Clump, designed to bring out the Michelangelo or Jim Henson in almost everyone, with music provided by stereo lab to soothe or stir the savage breast. (music in background) But the installation that really caught our eye was this one--How, I asked Tony Oursler, would he advise our audience to experience his work?
TONY OURSLER: Just take a look. You know, because these things are designed to be kind of one half of a conversation and the viewer is envisioned as the other half of the conversation.
PAUL SOLMAN: Oursler's part of the dialogue is subversive children's rhymes--an attempt to trigger the subversive child in the viewer.
VOICE IN EXHIBIT: I hate you. You hate me. I got a machine gun to kill Barney. One big shot, Barney's on the floor.
PAUL SOLMAN: This is Barney, the PBS puppet, right?
TONY OURSLER: Yeah, the puppet. So there you have, you know, these kids kind of figuring out different ways to kill this thing that's being shoved down their throat, you know, as a kind of corporate package--
VOICE IN EXHIBIT: Pull the trigger. Hit him in the head. Whoopsie daisy--Barney's dead.
PAUL SOLMAN: Oursler says he wants to break the hypnotic trends of commercial culture--even on non-commercial TV--with something subversive that asks viewers to participate.
TONY OURSLER: These particular attacks are--they're not exactly childish--you know, they're actually kind of intense and violent, sexual, so that was kind of the idea with these heads--kind of detached heads in a way, kind of echoing to one another through time and space different variations on these--on these poems.
PAUL SOLMAN: As you can see, Oursler answered my oh, so serious questions with serious answers, but he thought I was missing the essential fun of it all, so I played along in a demonstration of his craft. First, he videotapes a face within a black frame.
PAUL SOLMAN: When I'm looking at your exhibit, what do you expect me to be doing?
TONY OURSLER: I read a statistic once that the average museum goers spends about 1.5 seconds in front of each painting.
PAUL SOLMAN: And he plays back the tape onto a molded head.
TONY OURSLER: People spend two hours in a Hollywood movie that you could sum up in 10 seconds, so I think it's a matter of priorities and a different way of looking at time, really.
PAUL SOLMAN: Yeah, but movies have a vocabulary, a set of conventions that we're already familiar with, whereas with new artists and works of art, you've got to, as an act of faith, learn their vocabulary, enter into their world, and you don't know what the payoff is going to be.
TONY OURSLER: I disagree. I think that most Hollywood movies induce in the viewer a hypnogogic trance, a druglike state, and that culturally art might be difficult in the beginning but eventually it's a lot more playful experience than I think you're letting on.
PAUL SOLMAN: If you had to state a sort of overall purpose for your work, would you say it's to break the hypnotic trance that we're in as a result of this culture?
TONY OURSLER: That would be great if the Whitney Biennial could do that.
PAUL SOLMAN: This answer of Tony Oursler's brought us back to the Biennial for one last concern. When were at the Whitney, we had to leave some of our TV gear alone for much of the day. Some museum goers had taken to contemplating it as yet another exhibit. In the spirit of the show a nearby guard answered their questions.
MUSEUM GUARD: Is that a piece of artwork? I says, yes, it is. What is titled? I says, it's untitled.
PAUL SOLMAN: Over the years, critics of modern art have put forth such instances as evidence that esthetic judgment has become random. But Tony Oursler had a completely different response.
TONY OURSLER: I love that story. I mean, it's just incredible people could have that--take that attitude with them out of the museum into their daily lives.
PAUL SOLMAN: You mean, they could look at the world as if it were all art?
TONY OURSLER: For a time anyway.
PAUL SOLMAN: Everything is art. Pop art made that point back in the 1960's, but it's not the main point of this Whitney Biennial, which is, as we've said, about stories--playful ones, political ones, esoteric ones. Most of them, of course, we simply don't have time for, so we've shown you a small sample of the exhibition which in the final analysis is in turn only a tiny sample of American art done in the last two years.