The Whitney’s Virtual Art: It’s Not the Real Thing

“This is a watershed moment in the entire field of contemporary art, one which will bring new, previously unimagined forms of artistic expression as well as new possibilities for more established forms.” So writes Lawrence Rinder, the Anne & Joel Ehrenkranz Curator of Contemporary Art at the Whitney Museum of American Art apropos of BitStreams, an exhibition of “digital art practice” currently at that venue. Not only will digital technology, in Mr. Rinder’s estimation, usher in a brave new world, it has also “dramatically and irrevocably widened the dimensions of artistic expression.” That the advent of such technology has affected-and will continue to affect-our lives is indisputable. Yet has it really made a dramatic, let alone irrevocable, dent in the life of art?

It’s true that there are a lot of artists dazzled by the possibilities of technology, viewing it as a legitimate means of artistic inquiry. It’s also true, although less remarked upon, that many artists worry how such technology might hamper the manner in which we see and experience the world. These are sticky issues, and the Whitney doesn’t pretend it has all the answers. But by placing bets on this particular horse, the museum is acting on its hunch that “digital art practice” is the shape of things to come.

Of course, the Whitney’s betting record in recent years has been less than profitable. The museum has a habit, one as unfortunate as it is congenital, of treating every trend that rolls down the pike as a “watershed moment,” and BitStreams is no exception. The most remarkable thing about it, in fact, is how previously imagined the whole thing is. Notwithstanding the technological wizardry that’s plugged into the museum’s electrical outlets, BitStreams isn’t about the future of art: It’s about the art of presentation. The dry and depressing lesson we’ve learned from the triumph of the Conceptualist aesthetic-an aesthetic that informs this exhibition more than any single technological advance-is that the more art removes itself from the sensuality of materials, the more significant becomes its means of display. Installation, in other words, provides the alibi for a deficit of body.

Those employing digital media, which are by their very nature bodiless, are forced to make their efforts actual enough to occupy exhibition space. This goes to explain the finical attention to scale and environment that exemplifies BitStreams. The artists at the Whitney, from all appearances, employ the following strategy: If you can’t make it real, make it big, and if you can’t make it big, call the interior decorator. If all of this sounds like a Luddite’s complaint, then ask yourself why these harbingers of the “unreal” rely on-to name just two items proffered-sod and grease to put their putative art across?

Whether digital technology will make a significant contribution to the visual arts is an open question. I remain skeptical. The more virtual our world becomes, the more, I think, human beings will seek solace and sustenance in the real. We as a species have too much of an investment-a primordial investment, if you will-in the material to forsake its complications, contradictions and pleasures. BitStreams is a breathless, empty venture. What it lacks, ultimately and profoundly, is the there without which we are nothing. BitStreams is at the Whitney Museum of American Art, 945 Madison Avenue, until June 10.

Meditations On Permanence

Pat Adams, whose paintings are currently on display at Zabriskie Gallery, could teach the current generation of technophiles a thing or two about the potentialities of substance, of stuff celebrated and transformed. Ms. Adams employs a gamut of materials-oil, acrylic, enamel, grit, beads, shells and the lethal-sounding isobutyl metha-crylate-to create dense cosmologies of geometry and pattern. The surfaces of Ms. Adams’ pictures are obdurate in their physicality, but the pictures themselves aren’t finished or, more to the point, final. Each one retains an openness, a sense that the image arrived at is a temporary state of some unknown event or phenomenon.

While there’s a strain of mysticism permeating Ms. Adams’ art, there’s nothing flaky or vague about her paintings. They’re as firm, sharp and condensed as those of Paul Klee, an artist with whom she warrants some comparison. Like Klee, Ms. Adams favors an earthy palette-a dark red, tinged with purple and tending to brown, is her signature color-and her art is similarly taken with the symbolic. Unlike Klee, Ms. Adams’ art is more private than whimsical, and her images risk a rune-like inaccessibility. Yet, the more her paintings bury their secrets, the more their secrets gain in purity.

Ms. Adams’ finest pieces, Until (2000) and Nor Perhaps (2001), transfigure straightforward-not to say simple-compositions into mesmerizing meditations on permanence, continuity and our own fleeting toehold in the firmament. Which means that Ms. Adams’ art is, in a not so oblique way after all, accessible indeed. Pat Adams: Recent Paintings is at Zabriskie Gallery, 41 East 57th Street, until June 15.

What Goes On Above the Horizon

Prior to the opening of her current exhibition at DC Moore Gallery, the painter Jane Wilson had provided this observer-and, from what I gather, not this observer alone-with one of the most memorable moments of the season. Her painting Snow, a 1964 oil on canvas, wasn’t only featured in The First Fifty Years 1950-2000, an exhibition seen last winter at Tibor de Nagy Gallery, it was the best thing in it. This was some feat, given that The First Fifty Years was a compilation, and an impressive one at that, of “greatest hits” documenting the gallery’s history. With its diffuse yet sharply stated light, Snow coupled the in-and-of-itself painterliness of Abstract Expressionism with the just-outside-the-window imperatives of realist art. The painting evinced an artist who, while not immune to pictorial bravado, found a tersely stated equanimity more suited to her vision.

The same unassuming probity-albeit now offset by a low-key grandeur-informs Ms. Wilson’s recent work, the subject of Land/Sea/Sky at DC Moore Gallery. Of the three title motifs, it is the latter that predominates in her art. Each of Ms. Wilson’s squarish canvases is devoted largely to what goes on above the horizon: an ominous bank of rolling clouds, the cleansing orange-yellow light of morning, an enveloping gray-green fog. The sky’s unfolding expanse of space and its innumerable varieties of color and light hold Ms. Wilson and power her art. Land and sea, in contrast, don’t do all that much for her. The horizons seen traversing the bottom of her pictures exist mainly as compositional foils and, as such, receive only obligatory attention. The best paintings at DC Moore are the “emptiest,” the most given to the fugitive subtleties of atmosphere and light: Sun in February, Fog-Lit Night and the magisterial Lingering Blue (all 2000), whose fluttering greens, purples and blues only wobble when they’re obliged to demarcate the concrete. One wonders if Ms. Wilson’s work wouldn’t benefit from her disregarding the land and sea altogether. Only when she relinquishes the pull of gravity does her art flourish. Jane Wilson: Land/Sea/Sky is at DC Moore, 724 Fifth Avenue, until June 8.