Most of us remember the thrill and terror Alice faced, falling down the rabbit hole into another stranger, topsy-turvy world. Be prepared. Winding your way from floor to floor of the Whitney Museum’s 2012 Biennial in New York City, navigating the artists’ terrain from black box galleries to wide-open spaces, is a wonderland for any open-minded grown-up who didn’t leave his inner child at the front entrance.

Where to start? This Biennial, the 76th in the series, comprises the work of 51 artists, in all stages of their often multi-disciplinary careers. Painters, choreographers, sculptors, musicians, filmmakers—all are richly represented. Curators Elisabeth Sussman, Sondra Gilman, and Jay Sanders began researching and planning for this show in 2010 and it’s bursting at the seams with surprises—some confusing, some controversial; others delightful or downright disturbing.

If you begin on the fifth-floor level, you will undoubtedly encounter a table holding a large book for any signatures and doodles that visitors might want to provide. A Skyped-in, unidentified man watches from a facing wall terminal and comments, interfacing with the participant. This is a contribution from The Red Krayola, formerly an avant-garde rock band from Houston, Texas, who will also be presenting an opera premiere during the run of the Biennial. Virtual reality is already blurring the edges of one’s perspective.

Across the room, a work-in-progress by Georgia Sagri  entitled working the no work, reveals stray clothing, bits of paper, strewn pillows and the like, suggesting a recently-vacated room, but the wall notes indicate this as the site of future performances for a participatory book. This is only one of several encountered installations, which lay open for inspection, but await scheduled performances. These vacant spaces manage to create intrigue in the viewer, yet at the same time, they leave an unsettled feeling, as if life is going on elsewhere and, like Alice, you may have eaten too much of one of those infamous cookies.

Then a bold strain of music hits the ears and a rehearsal with Michael Clark’s dancers beckons on the fourth floor. Clark, a British choreographer well known for cutting-edge collaborations on the other side of the pond, is rehearsing with a band of professionals and non-professionals alike.

Before you head down the stairwell to the third floor’s offerings (a faster descent than a long wait for the industrial-size elevators), Kai Althoff’s asymmetrical panels on fabric and silk—tacked precariously from a beautiful hand-woven curtain by Travis Josef Meinolf—catch the eye.  These are hypnotic images. In one, a family is portrayed in a WWII period sedan, a young Hassidic boy peering from the rear seat, while in the background an iron prison gate is seen. One can only wonder how this display will become part of a play entitled There we will be buried scheduled for May, featuring the artist as one of the actors.

It’s time to descend if you dare. Jutta Koether, another New York artist from Cologne, Germany, presents the viewer with The Seasons I, four paintings of synthetic polymer and oil on canvas and glass.  These are images that sooth the eye with a palette of inviting pastels, but look closer and alien forms seem to emerge from the mire. A red cat in the fourth panel poses with its back to the viewer — the Cheshire cat perhaps? The artist has referenced the 17th century Poussin’s The Four Seasons for her own work here. But don’t look too closely for correspondences. Picasso did a prodigious late-career series with his homage to the famous Velasquez painting, Las Meninas, but neither result was about imitation.

Two other artists in direct contrast to one another—one as bold and primary in his intentions as the Mad Hatter at the helm of his party, and the other as brooding and full of riddles as Lewis Carroll’s caterpillar—deserve more than an honorable mention. They command their spaces and demand that attention be paid. Andrew Masullo, a New Jersey native who lives and works in San Francisco, dazzles the eye with his primary color canvases. Many of his works conform to an 8 x 10 inch size, grouped and numbered together like so many pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. You could label them minimalist abstractions but that would be missing the point. They have all the vigor of a gifted kindergartner with the sophistication of a Klee or a Mondrian.

Then there’s the prolific Nicole Eisenman, born in Verdun, France in 1965 and living and working in New York City. She confronts us, sometimes head-on, but mostly sideways, with the walking wounded. Her images are startling, disjointed, and unforgiving.  On one wall, 45 mixed media portraits greet us, but it’s not with a warm handshake. In another a hitchhiker stands waiting; scythe in hand, while the driver observes him in her overhead mirror.

We’ve all heard a picture is worth a thousand words, but New Yorker John Kelsey proves otherwise with Depesrsion and Impoetnce, two inkjet prints on aluminum. Misspellings are not the only means this trickster uses to deceive. In true Dadaist tradition, he jumbles individual words and sentence fragments to make us hunt for answers, but there are none.

It’s a relief to come upon Joanna Malinowska’s sculpture, From the Canyon to the Stars. Inspired by her interest in cultural anthropology, she uses shellacked plaster over Styrofoam and artificial deer sinew to evoke this eternal offering to the gods. It doesn’t give us answers, it just is and that’s enough. This Polish born, New York resident manages to deliver a stirring work, with a distinctively southwestern feel.

Another installation piece that harkens to the beauty of the natural world comes from Tom Thayer, a Chicago artist who uses beautifully constructed cranes in his performance pieces. (Though he was not performing with his paper aviary this particular afternoon, his standing cranes managed well on their own.) Don’t miss his hauntingly ethereal mixed media crane portrait, A Gesture in the Quiet of the Witching Hour, on an interior wall.

As we wind ever downward, a four-channel digital projection waits in a small and darkened side room on the second floor. German Filmmaker Werner Herzog’s projections feature the work of the 16th century Dutch painter Hercules Segers. The paintings are accompanied by Ernst Reijeseger’s music. He has often collaborated on Herzog’s films and here an excerpt from one of them features the composer on cello.

This is only a sampling of a one day’s journey through the Whitney’s labyrinthine exhibit. Participants such as the Texan painter Forrest Bess, whose semi-abstractions and theories about the uniting of sexual genders continue to confound, and Richard Hawkins’ collages that draw upon such iconic giants as Willem de Kooning and Francis Bacon for inspiration, are worth more than a glimpse. A generous host of screenings is chock-full for the return visitor. Thom Andersen’s Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003) as well as rare Los Angeles short films curated by the filmmaker and Detroit artist Mike Kelley, who built a replica of his childhood home and produced videos of the mobile journey of his creation, are an excellent choice. (The Biennial is dedicated to Mr. Kelley, who died earlier this year.)

Like Alice, we all must return from the dream, however mesmerizing it may be. Though this Biennial may not be everyone’s cup of tea in its entirety, it is definitely worth the journey.

The Whitney Biennial 2012 runs from March 1 through May 27th at the Whitney Museum of American Art located at 945 Madison Avenue at 75th Street, New York, NY  10021. All events are free with museum admission, but advance tickets are recommended for many, and may be purchased at For more information visit or call (212) 570-3600.

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