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Contemporary Art  
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Thomas Lanigan Schmidt, also new to the Biennial but with a long history of exhibition at the Whitney and elsewhere, offered commentary in his decorative mixed-media paintings on his Catholic and gay identities.

Haring had died the year before, but was remembered in the Biennial with two large-scale paintings depicting an engorged penis, a Minotaur, an impaled globe, and a foot that invoked violence and bodily harm in an emphasis on the human body and its vulnerability.

The Body's Vulnerability

A concern for the body's vulnerability became almost a fixation in contemporary art at the end of the twentieth century. The obsession has been variously attributed to the anxieties of a dominant and aging baby-boomer generation, to a traditional preoccupation with mortality by Western artists at the end of centuries (exacerbated now by the approach of the millennium), and to the AIDS crisis, which deeply affected the art community.

The AIDS crisis is a particularly trenchant factor in the character of gay art during the early 1990s. The theme of physical frailty informed some of the most plaintive works of the decade. They were created by both gay and straight artists, many of whom were represented at the 1991 Whitney Biennial.

Group Material, an artists' collaborative of four gay artists, active since the early 1980s, installed an AIDS Timeline in the lobby of the Whitney that traced a history in images and words of society's obliviousness to the plague of the century. Nayland Blake assembled non-functional steel contraptions, one with hanging meat cleavers that conveyed imminent threat.

David Wojnarowicz, who died in 1992 of AIDS, worked in a wide range of media including painting, installation art, video, film, and the written word. He was vocal in his condemnation of such homophobic figures as John Cardinal O'Connor, Senator Jesse Helms, and the Rev. Donald Wildmon.

In a gelatin silver print of human skeletons, whose arrangement suggests an ancient burial ground, Wojnarowicz lamented the loss of physical intimacy between human beings and the wasting away of the physical self. In his own text, overprinted on the photographic image, he wrote: "All these moments will be lost in time like tears in the rain."

Robert Gober, sculptor and installation artist, began his career in the 1980s. He received critical acclaim for his handcrafted facsimiles of dollhouses, baby cribs, and porcelain sinks--objects, often distorted in shape, that sprang from his childhood memories. As his work evolved, it took on more specific reference to Gober's Catholicism, gender ambiguities, gay identity and mortality.

In Untitled, 1990, included in the 1991 Whitney Biennial, a wax effigy of a naked male figure, still wearing shoes and socks, lies prone on its stomach, truncated at the waist to appear as though it is half-embedded in the wall. A musical staff with the rising and falling notes of a melody is imprinted across his exposed buttocks. The effigy is Gober's body, the hair on its legs his own.

Félix González-Torres, a Cuban-American artist who died of AIDS in 1996, was also represented in the 1991 Biennial. He was an installation artist and maker of mysterious objects. He is perhaps best known for the strings of naked light bulbs with which he would festoon gallery spaces. Electrified, the light bulbs were allowed to burn out during exhibitions. Recalling Bleckner's "trophy paintings," these draped light strings became lyrical memorials. They played upon the symbolism of the low-burning or extinguished candle, which in traditional western art served as a reminder of the brevity of life and the inevitability of death.

The theme of human vulnerability and mortality also figured prominently in the 1991 Whitney Biennial in the art of Kiki Smith, John Coplans, Jennifer Bartlett, and the artists' collective known as Tim Rollins + K.O.S., as it had in the art of other established artists not included, notably Andres Serrano and the English painter Lucien Freud. All of these artists are heterosexual, suggesting the universality of the theme, which may have been inspired or made urgent by the AIDS crisis, but which also stemmed from an irrefutable fact of human existence.

The Retreat of Gay Identity Art

The 1991 Whitney Biennial may mark the apogee, in terms of exhibition exposure, of a contemporary art speaking to gay identity. The early 1990s were exceedingly important for letting informed general audiences know that gay artists could make great art deriving from gay experience. And yet, after this moment there would be little representation. The Whitney Biennials of the rest of the decade do not have a notable gay presence. Of the artists preoccupied with gay identity, only Gober appears in the 2000 Biennial. What happened?

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