'Sir," bellowed a guard at New York's Whitney Museum one recent morning, "you are standing on the artwork."
Well, wags might ask, why not? The visitor was, after all, viewing the Whitney Biennial. Critics have been stomping all over the highly political sculptures, installations, films, videos, photos and paintings that have filled the museum since Mar. 4. Robert Hughes in Time called the show "a saturnalia of political correctness..a fiesta of whining agitprop." Roberta Smith in The New York Times tagged it "pious, often arid." Kay Larson in New York warned: "If you scare easily, stay home." No wonder that for weeks Whitney Director David A. Ross spent an hour a day answering hate mail, which is outrunning complimentary letters four to one.
Every odd year, the Whitney culls studios around the U.S. for the best contemporary art made in the previous two years. Every time, the Biennial disappoints--at best. But for those connected with the arts business, there's a major difference this year. The '93 Biennial breaks with its recent predecessors, which drew criticism for being too attuned to star artists promoted by trendy galleries. This Biennial is loaded with hard-to-sell works. If it's an omen, the contemporary art business is in for rough times.
"The Biennial may reflect what's going on in the eyes of young artists and young collectors in the view of the context and the media, but it does not help the art market one bit," says Los Angeles collector Eli Broad, chairman of SunAmerica Inc. "This is not the kind of work that we would be soliciting," says Diane Upright, director of contemporary art at Christie's. "It needs to be nurtured by galleries." Even then, reports New York art dealer Josh Baer, "there are only a couple of thousand people worldwide who collect the kind of art the Whitney Biennial is showing."
UNGAINLY PIECES. Blame both the media and the message. Most of the works make decidedly unsubtle statements about AIDS, racism, sexism, and other political and social issues of the '90s. "For the past five years, these problems have been on the minds of many artists, but a lot of collectors are not at all interested in this kind of work," notes New York dealer Paula Cooper. Those who are want to find the successors to Picasso, Daumier, and other artists who dealt with the world's woes in enduring ways. Such potential masters, by virtually all accounts, are few at the Biennial.
Still, Manet often belittled Renoir's talents. Who's to say, definitively, what art will last? Far less subjective, and far more meaningful, is the impact of the Biennial artists' chosen media. Nearly half work in film or video; others built installations or huge sculptural pieces. Only 8 of the 82 artists are painters. Although film, video, and installation art have been around for years, their preponderance at the Biennial drives home the point that the art world has changed. "More and more artists have found that they cannot express themselves through the canvas or in bronze," says Donald Young, a Seattle dealer.
Yet paintings are what the vast bulk of collectors want to buy. Says Broad, who for his own collection or foundation has bought more than 1,000 works of art in the past 10 years: "Very few collectors have the interest or the space needed for collecting the media artists in the Biennial are working in."
A look at a few Biennial pieces shows that. Pepn Osorio's The Scene of the Crime (Whose Crime?) -- a recreation of a murder scene-was built in the museum. Land of Projection, by Bruce Yonemoto, Norman Yonemoto, and Timothy Martin, is a huge model of an Easter Island sculpture that serves as the screen for TV clips. Charles Ray's 45-foot-long Fire Truck didn't even fit in the Whitney. It's parked out front on Madison Ave. Only foundations, museums, and a few collectors can buy these works.
What's more, notes New York dealer Barbara Gladstone, an installation piece "is not as liquid as other art purchases, because it has to be built into a space. If you move, paintings are not a problem." And when these installations use electronic technology -- as many do -- collectors must pay a huge sum just for the equipment. That can boost the price of video installations to $100,000 or more -- whether the artist is established or not.
Even collectors who seek out cutting-edge works acknowledge difficulties with both elaborate video installations and simple film and video offerings. "I liked the show; most of the video was interesting," says adman Jay Chiat, founder of Chiat/Day Inc. and owner of six or seven art tapes among his many artworks. "The problem with buying video is, what do you do with it when you buy it? Some people are making video rooms." Then there's the time investment. Even a glimpse of a painting or a sculpture can be worthwhile, but videos must be watched to make sense.
VIDEO VULTURES? Galleries have their own problem with videos: Some sell them, but they can't make a living on pieces that sell for $100, $300 or maybe $1,200 for limited editions. Rival distribution channels are likely to develop alongside the non-profit groups that do much of the job now. "These things will evolve into legitimate markets with reasonable profit margins," says Ross.
Experts predict other pluses down the road. As the world goes digital, technology won't be a barrier. "I think tapes are going to take off in the next five years or so because you'll have high-definition TV" and other advances, says Chiat.
Clearly, video appeals more to the young generations that are growing up with it. Says Gladstone: "There'll be a huge and important market because it will be an area for young people who don't have a lot of money but who want to be connected to the art of their time." With video serving as an entry point, as prints do now, the art world could expand.
Paradoxically, because the bellwether Biennial left collectors in a state of painting deprivation, it could foment a revival on canvas. Art advisor Thea Westreich forecasts "a redetermination to investigate what we can do with painting." If any of those things occur, the '93 Biennial will be remembered far more fondly than it was initially received.