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2012 Whitney Biennial... meh

After a winter of spring and a political primary that feels like a replay of the Scopes trial, I was looking forward to this year's episode of the Whitney Biennial. When it comes around every other year, I dive into it whole-hearted, open-minded, and try real hard to like it.

I really do look forward to this show, and of course there are many things each round to like. The year long run-up, choosing the curators, rumors of whose studio got a visit, and finally the announcement of the chosen -- it's fun. I don't think it will make or break a career as it once may have, but it certainly can't hurt. However, if this year's assemblage is what the curators feel is the pulse of the art world right now, we may have to call a code, because this patient is weak.

Works by the 2012 Biennial's fifty-one artists, selected by Elisabeth Sussman, Sondra Gilman (Curator of Photography at the Whitney), and Jay Sanders, take over most of the Whitney's floor space. The fourth floor has become a 6,000-square-foot, all-white performance space for music, dance, theater, and other events. That wedge of a window jutting out onto Madison Ave. has also been exposed -- new to me. It's very dramatic: I'd like to see it stay uncovered. Oddly, we weren't allowed to take pictures there.

So what did I like? The most striking piece for me is Werner Herzog's Hearsay of the Soul, an installation of projected etchings by Hercules Segers with music by Ernst Reijseger (Requiem for a Dying Planet and Cave of Forgotten Dreams). An excerpt from Herzog's film Ode to the Dawn of Man features the cellist Ernst Reijseger and Harmen Fraanje on the organ -- it's a stunning, emotional piece.

I could stop here, as nothing else in this biennial can compare with the quality and depth of Herzog's presentation. It's Hollywood-grade and he's not even an American artist. I make this judgment, of course, without seeing the performances that will take place in the fourth floor in the months to come, and as regular readers know, I don't have the patience to sit and watch too many video installations. That said, this biennial is weighted heavily toward film and video, with ongoing performances and screenings over the run of the show. Wu Tsang's environment Green Room -- part bar, part underground hang-out -- actually brought back memories of my shadowy past, it's true. Baltimore filmmaker Matt Porterfield's Putty Hill screens on May 9 to 13.

I did like Tom Thayer's mixed-media assemblages -- he shows with the Derek Eller Gallery -- and the outsider-ish artist, the late Forrest Bess. You may know Bess's paintings and constructions, but he also performed surgeries on his man-parts and documented the process with photographs -- I know. He always wanted to exhibit the documentation next to his paintings, and his gallerist, the great Betty Parsons, always politely declined. Well, this is your chance, along with a letter to President Eisenhower and other archival curiosities. I do enjoy his paintings.

Add Nicole Eisenman's paintings to my also-likes. The Breakup (by Blackberry) is a hoot, and also an arrangement of forty-five monotypes, nice work. Andrew Masullo's colorful canvases reminded me of Tom Nozkowski paintings. Kai Althoff makes a dramatic statement as you enter the fourth-floor galleries, with paintings hanging from a woven silk drape.

See, I did find goodness. It's impossible to have such a large gathering of artists and not find something to like, hopefully love and be inspired by. I'm fortunate enough to see many art exhibits, many great ones -- all over the country -- lots of inspired, knee-weakening, heart-throbbing art being produced. If you don't find it at this edition of the biennial, there's always Baltimore, D.C., Philly, Boston, St. Louis -- pssst, the Museum of Modern Art has a pretty nice Cindy Sherman retro, Diego Rivera, and a very inspiring print exhibit.

The 2012 Whitney Biennial runs through May 27th. More pictures here.

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