Savvy Collectors flock to Whitney Biennial 2010

This year's biennial, titled simply "2010," is concise, elegant, and far tamer than previous editions of the show, which purports to take the temperature of American art every two years. The geographic constraint has generated increasing confusion in recent years, as so many artists now move all over the world, rarely confining themselves to their country of origin. In their efforts to navigate around that issue, curators Francesco Bonami and Gary Carrion-Murayari decided to focus on artists whose works reflect the American spirit at this moment in history. Their search resulted in a succinct gathering of 55 artists, many of whose artworks convey both the high hopes that surrounded the last presidential election and the diminished expectations following the downturn in the economy.

Suburbia, once seen as the fulfillment of the American Dream, is here presented as a setting fraught with disappointments. Photographer James Casebere, with his brightly colored pictures of models of suburban developments, captures the vacuity of these builder-designed communities, while Maureen Gallace, in her modest paintings of empty summer homes, reflects on the disconsolate landscape produced by the deflated real-estate market. In one room, Jessica Jackson Hutchins's Couch for a Long Time (2009)—a sofa laminated with newspaper pages and topped with sloppily glazed ceramic pots—faces off against Jim Lute's Tool (2009), a paranoiac abstract painting in which a man's face peers out from behind a surface of swirls. The energy of this warped rec room is intensified by Nina Berman's 2006 series of photographs of a severely disfigured ex-marine preparing for his upcoming wedding.

With the contraction of the art market over the past two years, many artists have turned inward and recommitted themselves to experimentation, a trend the curators describe in the catalogue as "personal modernism." This attitude is best demonstrated in a roomful of Charles Ray's joyous flower paintings—a departure from his usual funny, hyperrealist sculptures. The exhibition reflects a return to painting by many artists. Several explore new approaches to minimalism, such as Tauba Auerbach, with large-scale two-dimensional depictions of folded and creased canvases; Roland Flexner, with miniature Sumi-ink splatters; and Sarah Crowner, with stark black-and-white sewn-together canvas triangles. R. H. Quaytman contributes a beautiful and challenging series of conceptually based paintings with optically engaging patterning. Meanwhile, stalwart minimalist-colorist Suzan Frecon presents two huge and subtle architectonic canvases.

Although many of these gestures may feel modest and circumspect, as if the artists were resisting making a heroic statement, spectacle is certainly not absent from the show-witness Pae White's monumental tapestry Smoke Knows (2009), a stunning composition of plumes of smoke that greets visitors as they step onto the third floor.

But the biennial most comes into focus when it returns to the theme of the American spirit. In one room, the Bruce High Quality Foundation, an artist's collective that stages Happenings and other activities, offers We Like America and America Likes Us (2010)—an actual 1960s white Cadillac hearse with video clips depicting the American landscape, from movies such as North by Northwest andGhostbusters, playing on its windshield. Nearby, Lorraine O'Grady pairs portraits of Charles Baudelaire with pictures of Michael Jackson in her work The First and the Last of the Modernists (2010). Among the video artists grouped on the third floor, Josephine Meckseper stands out with her Mall of America(2009), a chilling presentation of the largest shopping mall in the country. At one point, the camera zooms in on a television screen in a store window playing the action movie Fighter Pilot: Operation Red Flag, a Hollywood version of the war in Iraq. Probably the most topical work in the show, and certainly the least forgettable, is Stephanie Sinclair's 2005 series of documentary photographs of women who have set themselves on fire in Afghanistan.

For the first time, women make up more than half of the participating artists in the biennial, but none of them are using this opportunity to promote an aggressively feminist agenda. Instead, the artists here—both men and women—usually take a more subtle approach, addressing American society without attacking any particular political leader or belaboring any issue. Some observers might mistake this for apathy. But actually, this biennial, while low-key, is almost Whitmanesque in allowing so many artists to present themselves as complicated, idiosyncratic individuals. Impeccably installed, giving all the artists plenty of room to express themselves, this exhibition offers an optimistic vision of American art. Despite the problems in the world, evidenced in a few of the artworks, nuance and metaphor characterize many of the pieces here, making 2010 a very good year for the Whitney Biennial.