The cover of the 2010 Whitney Biennial catalogue displays a picture of Barack Obama as a Dapper Dan cowboy. Inside, guest curator Francesco Bonami and co-curator Gary Carrion-Murayari call the president “the coolest artist of all” and say their show is about “innovative forms,” “new relationships,” and “personal modernism.” After two biennials devoted to dealing with “failure” and “darkness,” this catalogue speaks of “renewal” and “optimism.” Yes, it’s the Obama Biennial: alternately moving and frustrating, challenging and disappointing—and a big improvement on what came before.

It is also historic: For the first time, there are more women included than men. How thrilling and important this is shouldn’t be overlooked or treated cynically, because this biennial isn’t about women’s art, feminism, or affirmative action. Nor is it about painting, although there’s more nonphotographic, handmade two-dimensional work here than I recall seeing for decades. Instead, it provides glimpses of American strangeness, of pluralistic grassroots experimentalism. It is rich in surprises and new names, doesn’t follow too many trends, and deals with the self and aesthetics in fresh ways.

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Jerry Saltz
New York Magazine

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