The 54th edition of the Venice Biennale opened this month and remains on view through late fall. The core of the show is the Giardini park where 29 national pavilions present official exhibitions sent from Europe and the Americas, with a few from Asia, Africa and the Middle East, relative latecomers to the international art circuit. Nations lacking permanent pavilions get space in the nearby Arsenale or around town. A record 89 nations are participating this year, up from 77 in 2009.
The art collection inside the new United States Mission to the United Nations, as curated by Yale art school dean Robert Storr, is American art at its least provocative. The decorative mix of mainly abstract prints by well-known U.S. artists is unadventurous and uniformly anodyne — about what one would expect for a government building: nothing to ruffle the American eagle’s feathers.
Glenn Ligon, 50, the subject of a retrospective at the Whitney Museum, is a Bronx-born African American who has devoted his career to making word-based art that elegizes his reflections on being gay and black in America. His technical range is severely limited, and for all the inarguable righteousness of his project, I cannot help but feel his work is overly self-referential, lacking the universality of great art.
Prompted by the Smithsonian Institution’s removal of a controversial artwork from an exhibit about homosexual identity, the Philadelphia Museum of Art has mounted a photography exhibition that looks back to the so-called culture wars of the late 1970s through the 1990s, when social conservatives fought to prevent tax money from supporting art that dealt with homosexuality, feminism, racism or other contentious issues.
There was no decree naming Alexander Calder (1898-1976) the capital’s official artist, but walking around the National Mall, you’d think there had been. His abstract sheet-metal sculptures are in the National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden and on the grounds of the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn and American History museums, and a mammoth mobile dominates the atrium of the National Gallery’s East Building. An abundance of his works is on display in these museums as well as in the Phillips Collection. He also invented meatl-wire drawing in space. All told, he made a few hundred wire figures before abandoning the medium for abstraction in the 1930s. Among them were several dozen celebrities, athletes and art-world friends that are the main focus of “Calder’s Portraits: A New Language” at the National Portrait Gallery through August 14, 2011.