The New Yorker , June 25, 2007
The Venice Biennale
"Tranquila,” a Spanish observer was heard to judge, with a warmth just short of enthusiasm, on the opening day of the keenly anticipated fifty-second edition of the Venice Biennale—the most venerable of international art shows—directed by the American curator, critic, and teacher Robert Storr. That sounded on target to me. “Boring,” or its equivalent in other languages, was an adjective more commonly bruited about, but I found myself looking sharply at those who uttered it and wishing they were more attentive. Many were collectors, dealers, and kibbitzers impatiently primed for the casino action of the Art Basel fair, which opened three days later. Others were a trusty contemporary type: the novelty addict. (Their ilk is served by auxiliary attractions in Venice, such as an entertaining show of the French billionaire François Pinault’s violently trendy collection, at the Palazzo Grassi—champagne to the main event’s tawny port.) For me, the conduciveness to meditation that holds up throughout the acres of new and newish international art in the Biennale’s two main sites—the grandiose Fascist-era Italian Pavilion, featuring, as it usually does, a world-embracing exhibition of putatively top artists, and the quarter-mile-long Arsenale, an ancient facility of the Venetian navy, devoted to emerging talent—borders on the miraculous. As the director, Storr curated both venues, laying a cool hand on the brow of today’s money-fevered, intellectually dishevelled global art world. His presentations, grounded in his own personal tastes and loyalties, in the painting-rich Italian Pavilion, and in his penchant for melancholic political idealism, in an Arsenale that favors conceptual projects, court consideration of a genuinely critical sort. His effort is no less estimable for being, perhaps, quixotic. It thoroughly overshadows the village of national pavilions, in the leafy Giardini (overseen by curators from their home countries), whose local heroes—Great Britain’s Tracey Emin, Germany’s Isa Genzken, France’s Sophie Calle—register, for the most part, wanly.
Storr was born in 1949, and earned an M.F.A. in painting (he still paints, though rarely shows his work) from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1978. I have known him for years; he is a cosmopolitan of eager charm, formidable intelligence, and limited humor. (He is notorious for writing long, dense letters to editors, in hair-trigger response to perceived slights.) As a student spending a year abroad in France, he was swept up in the revolutionary fervor of 1968—a formative experience, he has said. He rose to prominence in New York in the nineteen-eighties as a critic championing artists at eccentric or challenging angles to fashionable taste, many of them women—notably Louise Bourgeois, Nancy Spero, Susan Rothenberg, and Elizabeth Murray—along with Bruce Nauman, Robert Ryman, Gerhard Richter, and Ilya and Emilia Kabakov. (All these artists are prominent in Storr’s shows. Another of his favorites, the late conceptualist Felix Gonzalez-Torres, commands the American pavilion this year, curated by other hands, to antiseptic, pious effect.) Storr was a curator at the Museum of Modern Art from 1990 to 2002—his exhibitions there included retrospectives of Richter, Max Beckmann, and Tony Smith—and a professor at the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University from 2002 to 2006. He is now the dean of the Yale School of Art. The most anti-academic of academics, he has fiercely opposed rationalist theoretical tendencies in criticism, arguing for the priority of the artist’s initiative and the viewer’s intuition. As the first-ever American-born director of a Venice Biennale, he mounts his point of view on tank tracks, titling the event, with Storrian benevolent bossiness, “Think with the Senses—Feel with the Mind. Art in the Present Tense.”
The product is as lucid as its label is murky. It kicks off, in the Italian Pavilion, with a skylit exhibition of paintings by the paragon of antic irrationalism, Sigmar Polke: abstract works, with cartoonish elements, that are preposterously big on purpose, I think, to make sport of their own ambition. Translucent, in brownish pigmented resin, they are hypersensitive to the moods of the Venetian sky. Then come superb abstractions by established stars—Ellsworth Kelly, Richter, and Ryman—and by two veteran painters of small, tangy pictures, who should be better known, the American Thomas Nozkowski and the Belgian Raoul De Keyser. Storr hereby invites open-eyed aesthetic receptiveness for the mixed array that follows. There is a riveting new Nauman, “Venice Fountains,” in which crude wax life masks spew water into sinks with faintly nightmarish relentlessness. (Many art folks cited this as the show’s crown jewel.) Other successes are animations by the Americans Kara Walker (horrors of the Old South) and Joshua Mosley (clay figures of Pascal and Rousseau sharing lofty thoughts in real woods) and by the young Japanese master Ayako Tabata, who calls herself Tabaimo (big hands furnish a Victorian doll house that develops symptoms of organic distress, including erupting sea creatures). The Palestinian Emily Jacir elaborately documents the assassination of the Palestinian intellectual Wael Zwaiter by Israeli agents in Rome, in 1972, for an alleged role in the massacre of Israeli athletes at that year’s Summer Olympics. (The incident is a stark episode in Steven Spielberg’s “Munich.”) Jacir is undoubtedly partisan, but her work allows for a range of reflections on the Middle East’s world of pain. Its mournful ambiguities anticipate the prevailing elegiac, even despairing tenor of the Arsenale.
Like the Italian Pavilion, the Arsenale starts with a bang: “A Very Beautiful Day After Tomorrow,” an installation by the Italian Luca Buvoli commemorating futurism, the movement that was announced in a manifesto by its leading propagandist, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, in 1909. (A year later, Marinetti leafleted Venice from atop the clock tower in St. Mark’s Square.) Rakish sculptural elements in flimsy materials and rich colors apostrophize futurist forms and typography. Video documentary clips and animations evoke an artistic delirium that meshed with the afflatus of early Fascism. On two video screens, sufferers of aphasia struggle, in Italian and English, to read Marinetti’s 1909 screed, with lines like “We will glorify war—the world’s only hygiene!” Buvoli’s bottomlessly ironic work does for Italy, in tones of light opera, something like what Anselm Kiefer’s did a quarter century ago, in tones of Wagner, for Germany—bringing to consciousness a historical nexus of aesthetic rapture and political insanity. Stirring the very emotions that he criticizes, Buvoli eschews the starchy condescension of academic political art.
Much of the art in the Arsenale conveys similarly brave intimations of excitement and dread in the present day, without the advantage of hindsight. In a video of bombed-out ruins, a boy kicks around a human skull; people in photographs conduct normal daily lives at the fringes of minefields. Tiny drawings catalogue American war dead in Iraq and Afghanistan; a comic strip details an African’s failed attempt to emigrate to Europe. In a huge mechanized mixed-media sculpture, an airliner repeatedly crashes in a city of skyscrapers. (With miserable prescience, it was made by the American Charles Gaines in 1997.) Is there no hope? There’s some, of a solemn variety, in a great film by Yang Fudong, of China, “Seven Intellectuals in Bamboo Forest,” whose five parts punctuate the Arsenale. Its questing young heroes wander their country in black-and-white tableaux that are part scroll painting, part neo-Antonioni, and altogether entrancing. There is also a heartening separate section of zestful contemporary African art, “Check List Luanda Pop.”
Visitors whose attention skates over the depths of perception and feeling in Storr’s Biennale are not wrong, if the purpose of new art now is, as the dictatorship of commerce affirms, to enable a general glorying in products of creative crackle and fizz, never mind graver yearnings of the soul and dire news of the day. I can’t condemn the skaters, given that sheer energy, no matter how apparently feckless, is always the truest sign of what will distinguish the art, and the styles of enthusiasm, in any era. Art doesn’t change the world, and the world changes art only in ways that, whatever else they may be, are consistent with unforced pleasure. By insisting on contemplative absorption and civic conscience, Storr is a bit of a schoolmarm, demanding dignity of irresponsible pupils. But he marshals a lot of artistic talent to his side—and, for clarity and rhythm of presentation, his shows constitute by a long shot the most elegant of the several Biennales I’ve seen. I think the event will be remembered as a cautionary service, conservative in spirit and progressive in principle, to a frenetic time. ♦