The Impossible Exhibition

One of these days, maybe in time for the 1997 Whitney Biennial exhibition, the O.J. trial will be over. People will feel an emptiness in their lives. And they'll also feel a little bit guilty about it. Well, last week at the opening of the 1995 Biennial (on view through June 4), the art world-always ahead of the times-was mumbling its own mea culpas. "I'm sorry," people were saying under their breath, "that I complained so much about the angry, political and anti-esthetic '93 show. I didn't realize that a return to a relatively normal exhibition could seem so dreary."

Academic would be a better description. And that's not because curator Klaus Kertess has loaded the show with still lifes (there are a couple) and nudes (the show has tons, but hardly the kind you drew in art school). Rather, the Biennial has fallen into a formula ('93 was an aberration) of filling predictable slots. There's the requisite everything-but-the-kitchen-sink installation: this time, Jason Rhoades's roomful of doughnut machines, Go Kart parts and ugly green furniture. Also required are conservative paintings no one suspects can be fitted in: Jane Freilicher's delicate landscapes. Each Biennial must come up with a sprinkling of new faces. The newest, 24-year-old Christian Schumann, packs a surprising amount of subtlety and grit into his clotted cartoon paintings. And a few consensus heavyweights are necessary as counterbalance. Richard Serra, Agnes Martin, Cy Twombly and Brice Marden fill that bill, sort of. They're seemingly too savvy to donate their best work to a fairly thankless (at this stage of their careers) survey of America's hippest new art.

Not that the 1995 Biennial is bland. There's enough joyless sex in it to attract every trench coat this side of 42d Street. Nan Goldin, fascinated with seamy coupling, produced a big wall of photographs of Japanese sex clubs called "Tokyo Love." Catherine Opie's "Self-Portrait/Pervert" (the artist with leatherbound head, needle-pierced arms and PERVERT scratched into her chest) raises the Mapplethorpian masochism ante by at least a bruise and a half And Sue Williams returns with more paintings about sexual abuse--although the depictions of fellatic and anal intercourse are now camouflaged by deliberately inept brushwork.

Kertess's show pulled the Biennial back into the studio, but it's still mostly a downer. The few compelling works that don't have anything to do with nipple rings or bondage (Catherine Murphy's hyperrealistic painting, "Bathroom Sink," or Jeff Wall's "A Sudden Gust of Wind" -a huge, witty photographic takeoff on 19th-century printmaker Hokusai) aren't quite enough to lift the prevailing sadness. If the Biennial indeed functions as some claim-as a news bulletin about the Zeitgeist (slower than the Internet, but faster than MoMA), we can only sigh that it must be bad out there, real bad.