Epistle from Italy: The Biennale
After two days of traipsing through the 52nd Venice Biennale it’s difficult to decide what hurts the most, your eyes, your brain, or your feet. First there is the main exhibition hall, with a grand display of some of the big hitters of the contemporary art world, chosen by Robert Storr, the former curator of contemporary painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art, and the current Dean of the Yale School of Art. Then there are the Pavilions in the Venice Giardini: small temples scattered throughout the meandering gardens featuring the work of individual artists from around the world—one for each country that has established a residence during the 100+ years that the Biennale has been held. Getting through all this can hardly be done in one day.
Not tired of looking at art yet? Continue on your way to the Arsenale—an enormous procession of cavernous brick buildings where the Venetians, during their heyday of the 15th through 18th centuries, used to churn out battleships at the rate of one a day. Now they are filled with battleaxes instead: video art and installations with a decidedly political bent. Get ready to be preached at about the evils of war, prejudice, poverty, pollution, and also wear a good pair of shoes because you’ve got a long walk ahead of you. Fortunately at the end of your tour of the Arsenale, out in the middle of the most serene and remote part of the majestic boatyard, you can catch a ferry that will take you back around to the gardens again.
Finally, for those countries that for whatever reason don’t have a pavilion—they couldn’t afford the admission fee, they came late to the party, nobody likes them—there are temporary exhibition spaces set up in old palazzos and churches throughout the city. In some ways these are the most fun of all, because you have to go on a scavenger hunt though the maze of Venice to find them. But boy do my feet hurt now. Yes, it’s the feet, definitely the feet.
As is no surprise to anyone whatsoever (except maybe your grandma who thought she was going to an art fair) painting represents less than 5% of the work you’ll find at this year’s Biennale. The organizers of this event—just like everyone else in the curatorial, critical, gallery, and academic worlds these days—are going to continue to insist that painting is dead dead dead, even if they have to strangle the last bit of life out of it themselves.
Yet in spite of this it is consoling that some of this >5% is quite extraordinary. Mr. Storr seems to have a nostalgic attachment to painting, or certain painters anyway. Many of the artists he chose are people he has worked with or written about before: Gerhard Richter, Elizabeth Murray, Louise Bourgeois (just like Harold Rosenberg in the late 1940s, when asked to pick the artists who would prove to be the most important, he chose his friends: Kline, Pollock, DeKooning). I’m okay with this, because the people Storr chose are some of the best painters around. Certainly first and foremost for me—the best and maybe even the only great work in the entire Biennale—are the paintings by Robert Ryman.
I have a particular fondness for Ryman’s work in this context. It was in this same exhibition hall, at the Venice Biennale of 1978, that I first encountered and was stunned by his paintings. I remember them very clearly: big canvases with lovely brushed white oil paint that flowed across the surface and ended abruptly and confidently at the edges. They were so simple and elegant, yet full of brash character: a cross between Zen master and Tom Sawyer. I also saw Ryman’s 1993 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which was impressive, though of varying quality.
With this new work I’m very glad to see that Ryman has laid aside his obsession with how the painted surface is attached to the wall—all those tiresome brackets and exposed screws that were so prominent in the MOMA retrospective—and has gone back to painting on simple canvas stretched in wooden frames. Finally we can just look at the paintings and not have to look at their support. And what lovely paintings they are! Brilliant rectangles of off-white (almost but not quite pastels) create atmospheric, painterly fields of color surrounded by extremely dark black edging. The coal-black boarders frame the images and create a deep space for the delicate white surfaces to float in. Ryman’s masterful painterly touch with his brush on the surface continues to assert his presence, but now with a romantic wistfulness that is even more subtle and appealing.
The split personality Gerhardt Richter, whose work moves between photorealism and abstraction, has on display here some of his massive abstract canvases with slathered layers of paint that look like they were applied using a two-by-four dragged across the surface. I love this stuff—thick with sensuous paint in beautiful, jewel-like colors. In places the surface begins to appear like a moiré pattern, and you want to rub your eyes and look again.
Ellsworth Kelly’s paintings are, well, Ellsworth Kelly: boring as always. Here he paints shaped monochromatic canvases and attaches them to other canvases. I’ve never understood the appeal of his work, and I tend to respond strongly to minimalist abstraction. His work has always struck me as being both effete and slight.
Elizabeth Murray and Susan Rothenberg are both artists who have played out their hands and are searching for what to do next. Murray shows big cartoonish shaped-canvas assemblages that resemble what 80s painter Kenny Scharf might have been dreaming about in kindergarten. They are a little too cute. Rothenberg’s work, to be blunt, looks like a big mess (no, tell us what you really think!)
Out in the garden, in the pavilions, there is nary a painting to be found. This year the US was represented by Felix Gonzalez-Torres, a Cuban-born conceptual artist who died of AIDS in 1996 at the age of 38. Mr. Gonzalez-Torres is only the second artist to represent the US posthumously. The pavilion consists of some of Gonzalez-Torres’s signature work: strings of light bulbs, piles of candy, large documentary photographs, stack of posters that visitors are allowed to take with them, and two large marble pools of water positioned in a figure eight in the courtyard. The funniest thing is to see people all over the city, everywhere you go, carrying the large unwieldy posters rolled up under their arms. How are they planning to get those things home on the airplane?
I have to say, I really want to like Gonzalez-Torres, and his work. It’s a relief to see conceptual art that is so soft spoken and subtle. After researching more about him online, he seems to have been a thoroughly likable guy—good-natured, witty, handsome (adorable really). It’s easy to see why he would be successful in the art world. How could you not like him? But I can’t help but feel that the work can’t possibly express much of anything to the mass of people who pass through the pavilion. They take their poster or their piece of candy and move on. This work could only be effective for museum curators and art insiders, and who cares about them?
By contrast the Russian pavilion is a multimedia extravaganza, featuring a number of artists, but most notably the work of Alexander Ponomaryov. Mr. Ponomaryov, a former sailor, presents video works with a nautical theme, including an amazing video shower booth with cascading images that surrounds the viewer, rows of large flat screen televisions that drip with water and are squeegeed clean by giant windshield-wipers, and a large wave machine that is activated when Mr Ponomaryov appears on a giant video monitor and blows across it’s surface. It’s all very clever. At the opening the oddest thing was to see Mr. Ponomaryov’s larger-than-life head appear on the screen, with his wild mop of graying hair and his intense gaze, and then to look over and see him in person, standing in the corner. He was the only artist in the whole place that you could surely identify.
The rest of the Biennale, stretching on endlessly, contains art of every possible description: neon fabrications, assemblage kitsch, installation funhouses (an actual maze of mirrors in the Belgium pavilion!), comic books, sour-natured graffiti, dada clothing, and pseudo-anthropological temple sculpture-structures, to name a few.
Photography and video dominate throughout. The photos are often polemic and documentary in nature-—an arty kind of photojournalism for the clever and the initiated. The videos are simply impossible to watch. If I have to peer around the corner through a crowded door into one more pitch-black, stuffy, video projection space filled with stalwart viewers leaning up against the wall or sitting earnestly on the floor I’m going to swear off contemporary art for good. Give me the DVD and I’ll snore through it in the comfort of my own living room. I guess it’s hard to evaluate something if you don’t bother to watch it, but if I had taken the time to sit on the floor with the rest of them I would be sitting there still. As the old 1979 pop song by the Buggles says, Video Killed the Radio Star. Well, I’m afraid it’s killing more than that.
For me, the one exception to this video ennui can be found at the very end of the Biennale, in a small scruffy garden behind the last building of the Arsenale. Part of the China Pavilion, "China Tracy," by Cao Fei consists of a large inflated and air-conditioned balloon environment—a white space pod reminiscent of 2001: A Space Odyssey—for which visitors must remove their shoes (ah!...my feet!) to enter. Once inside you find cushions to lounge on, soft mesmerizing music, and gentle reassuring computer animated videos recounting stories about an ideal utopian future world. It’s not great art, but it was so nice of the artist to provide this relaxing respite after two long weary days of looking at art.