The Whitney Tries Again

Slender, soft-spoken curator of drawings Klaus Kertess sure doesn't seem like the guy to straighten out the troubled Whitney Biennial exhibition. At 54, he's decidedly past the median age on the art world's hipness profile. He admits he has ""trouble working with people.'' The Bykert gallery he founded in 1966 was known for championing minimalism, currently the most unfashionable art this side of clown paintings. During 30 years in the business as a dealer/critic/curator and all-around presence, he's accumulated a coterie of artist-friends to whom he's assumed to be loyal to a fault. And he writes homoerotic fiction (""hairless boys with skin as flawless and smooth as translucent travertine'') the New York Post doesn't approve of. But the Biennial -- the only regular major-museum survey of contemporary American art -- has acquired a political-art stigma. (Remember those ""I Can't Imagine Ever Wanting to Be White'' admissions buttons in 1993?) Kertess's being named sole organizer of the 1995 Biennial was thought in many quarters to be the perfect corrective. Lately he's talked about restoring ""process'' and ""visual intelligence'' (a.k.a. craft and beauty) to the show.

The Whitney Biennial, however, is more than an art exhibition. It's a small orgy of confirmation for the artists (and their dealers) picked to be in it, and a huge catharsis of discontent for those who aren't. While the '95 edition doesn't open until March 23, the list of 54 anointed artists is already under attack. One critic has written that the show is ""too much within the bounds of good taste . . . an all-too-suspiciously balanced picture of what's been going on.'' (Talk about can't win for losing!) Highprofile dealer Irving Blum says, ""Klaus has opened himself to criticism because he included Helen Marden [wife of well-known painter Brice Marden]. He admits that she's a close friend, but you would have thought he'd have bent over backward not to put her in.'' Even Robert Pincus-Witten of the Gagosian gallery (which has three artists in the show) says, ""I would like Klaus to say simply, "I'm a connoisseur of painting -- the way a hairy-stick technology hits the surface of a canvas.' "Visual intelligence' can mean Victor Vasarely.''

Kertess is unfazed. Or at least his elegantly droopy face appeared calm when he took time out from the arduous task of installing this year's Biennial to converse in the Whitney's ominous steel-gray boardroom. ""Buckets of crap get poured on this show no matter who does it,'' he says with a wistful smile. ""People's lives and careers go on after the Biennial. This is not the Last Judgment.'' No, it just feels a little like Armageddon to those concerned. To Kertess, the current scene is characterized by a re-emphasis of metaphor that was ""suppressed'' in the abstract art of the '60s and '70s. He adds: ""Subject matter alone doesn't validate the work; what does is how the subject takes on physical presence.'' Translation: political sentiments can't get ugly work into the show.

Kertess says he momentarily considered a radically pruned show of a dozen artists, then realized it would be construed as ""an amazing piece of arrogance,'' unfair to the selectees as well as to the public. So he started with ""anchors'' -- established artists such as Brice Marden and Cy Twombly -- about whom emerging artists are talking most. As for finding the show's comparative youngsters (like cartoony painter Christian Schumann, 24, or 29-year-old muralist Nicole Eisenman), Kertess says he was ""to a degree dependent on the tribal network of the art scene.'' He looked at thousands of slides and visited hundreds of studios. In New York he worked with critic Jerry Saltz (""a great list-maker''), and in the rest of the country he lined up people familiar with the local turf to guide him to studios and galleries. ""Chicago was unfortunate,'' he recalls ruefully. ""My three people gave me exactly the same 10 artists. I didn't have time to go back, so Chicago [with one artist in the show] was a sort of a bust.'' Kertess is also saddened by the flap about Helen Marden: ""She's the whipping woman for this show. Unless her paintings look better than de Kooning's, people will insist on asking why she's there.''

Kertess himself survived a controversy following a January public reading, at a SoHo gallery, of his book ""Desire by Numbers.'' It's a brief, explicit tale of homosexual love and loss in a Bangkok bar, illustrated by Nan Goldin's raunchy photos of Thai bar boys. The Post wondered in print whether Kertess was the kind of curator the Whitney needed at this Helmsian moment. ""I read the whole thing a year ago at a Tribeca bookshop, and no one complained,'' Kertess retorts. But a weary Kertess, whose life has been ""totally consumed'' for two years by the Biennial, says, ""If I had to name my first priority now, it would be my fiction.''