Fade From White

The Royal Academy in Paris sponsored the old official salons in the 18th and 19th centuries, where artists who wanted to get ahead contributed lots of heavily framed oil paintings and smooth bronze sculptures celebrating glorious moments in European history. New York's Whitney Museum of American Art sponsors the new, quasi-official salons called biennial exhibitions. The 1993 edition is on view through June 13. It contains lots of film, video, performance and installation art (that is, mixed-media environments built to fit the site) protesting sordid inequities in the American present. Although the 82 artists in the Biennial care to the point of apoplexy about what the museum calls "such dominant current issues as class, race, gender, sexuality, and the family," they also fill the bill of artist-as-victim increasingly demanded by the contemporary art scene. Shu Lea Cheang's "Those Fluttering Objects of Desire," for example (a video installation about lesbian eroticism within racial minorities within a hostile America), is as orthodox these days as, say, Ingress stilted neoclassic painting, "Antiochus and Stratonice" was back in 1840.

The old salons were stuffy and dull but boasted the occasional masterpiece. This newest salon sports the occasional witty work (like Janine Antoni's airlessly glitzy mock boutique of lipstick and chocolate, "Gnaw") but is mostly preachy and glum. At the reception counter, the customary admission buttons have been replaced by ones bearing fragments of "I can't imagine ever wanting to be white" from Daniel J. Martinez's conceptual art work, "Museum Tags." In a video room, George Holliday's incendiary tape of the Rodney King beating (dubbed a work of art by the Biennial) and Lourdes Portillo's "Columbus on Trial" play regularly.

Out in the galleries, Sue Williams's autobiographical sculpture of a woman, "Irresistible," cringes in fetal position trying to ward off sudden kicks to the face delivered by an unseen male "sweetheart." While Charles Atlas's stupefyingly bloody short film "Son of Sam and Delilah" may at first seem as silly as Monty Python's old garden-party parody of Sam Peckinpah movies, curator John Hanhardt says in the show's mildly inflammatory catalog that it's really "a metaphor for the assault-whether physical or attitudinal-against homosexuals in this time of the AIDS crisis." Lest there be any doubt that the show's primary scoldee is the Whitney's largely straight white audience itself, fellow curator Thelma Golden confirms in her essay "What's White ... ?" that many of the Biennial artists "work consciously to deconstruct and de-center the politically constructed site of whiteness and its relation to the ever-changing definition of Americanness." She means the worm has turned.

If your heart resides in one of the show's amen corners, you can woof with abandon. If not, it's best to get a little perspective before hollering reverse discrimination. The Biennial has always sent people in the art world into tizzies, usually because they, or artists they represent, don't get in. The difference now is that the 1993 Biennial has replaced the perfumy scent of art-dealer alliances with the cordite aroma of cultural reparations: fewer overprivileged spokespersons on behalf of the underprivileged, almost no hot properties from the finer Soho emporiums and no token fogies like Roy Lichtenstein and Cy Twombly in 1991. This Biennial is as close as a museum can get to a Salon of the Other without becoming an outsider art festival.

Shortly after Pat Rileyesque director David Ross (personable, energetic, well tailored) arrived in 1991, he brought in Elisabeth Sussman, his curator for five years at Boston's Institute of Contemporary Art. Ross, 43, gave her veto power over the work in the previously picked-by-committee Biennial. Sussman, 50, has made the 1993 Biennial even more thorny and fractious. "This Rodney King thing bothered me," she says. "The Hill/Thomas thing bothered me ... The last two years felt that kind of way to me."

If viewers aren't turned away by the lashes of guilt the show dishes out, the Biennial will be one of the Whitney's better draws. It usually pulls in 80,000 to 100,000 visitors in the course of a 15-week run. The museum could also use a little good will. It's taken its lumps in the press recently for the acrimonious firing of previous director Tom Armstrong, the proposed gaudy, Lego-like addition by architect Michael Graves which is now (in Ross's words) on "deep hold" and the announcement of a who-needs-it 1994 retrospective of fashion photographer Richard Avedon. But Ross now has his sea legs with an "active ... generous" board and just closed a $3 million deal to supply the San Jose (Calif.) Museum of Art's new wing with four 18-month-long shows from the Whitney collection. "Part of my job was to take the museum through to the establishment of peace, the establishment of harmony," he says.

All of which doesn't help the current Biennial, which ends up more a dyspeptically sad show than a radically feisty one. It's a melange of social complaints that sometimes takes on the tone of the New York Post edited by the Guerrilla Girls. If merely displaying and asserting were the equivalent of examining and arguing, Fred Wilson's draping replicas of old Egyptian statuary with African beads, in his "Re: Claiming Egypt" installation, might better convince us that Western culture was born black. Sometimes the Biennial is simply academically dense. If embellishing prosaic texts with tritely arty color photographs were the equal of a galvanizing Goyaesque image, Allan Sekula's wall essay on cargo ports, "Fish Story," wouldn't feel like a sociology field trip on a drizzly day. What this Biennial needs is a few dissenting works. Without them, the show isn't real discourse, just self-congratulation. And that, career considerations aside, is the essence of a salon.