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All this useful beauty

All this useful beauty
The hottest art show in America is never better than Tom Cruise in his underwear. Wouldn't a nice Kate Spade handbag be so much more practical?

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By Sarah Vowell

March 29, 2000 |  Seeing the new Whitney Biennial is like struggling through some interminable Jackie Chan movie -- minute after bleak minute of watching a bunch of cartoon characters dork around. If this museum show collects the best American art has to offer at this moment, then the American century really is over. Good thing the Whitney owns all those nice old existential Edward Hopper paintings it keeps trotting out every few months -- it's going to need them. I didn't learn anything, wasn't moved and only smiled once at the biennial: at Paul Pfeiffer's "The Pure Products Go Crazy," a digital video loop (alluding to William Carlos Williams' line that "the pure products of America go crazy") of young Tom Cruise humping the couch in his tighty-whities in "Risky Business."

Sarah Vowell

Sarah Vowell's column appears on the Arts & Entertainment site every other Wednesday.

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The delight of seeing Cruise flail around only underlines the biennial's misfortune. Opening four days before the Academy Awards, which, for the first time in recent memory, honor an embarrassment of film riches, the exhibit makes one wonder if this is simply a season of moving pictures, not hanging ones. Except that 15 blocks north of the Whitney, the Smithsonian's Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum is hosting its first triennial, "Design Culture Now." Where the biennial seems pointless and stale, the triennial is full of surprises. If painting and sculpture seem to be enduring some kind of crisis, advertising, housewares, graphics and industrial design seem to be flourishing at fine art's expense. Both shows demonstrate how current visual practitioners play with, and are indebted to, art history. But the utilitarian designers have something over the artists-for-art's-sake, and that is utility itself.

Much has been made of the Whitney's inclusion, for the first time, of Internet art in its biennial. Including such art seems like a good idea until one enters the chosen sites. John F. Simon Jr.'s Web site, "Every Icon," for example, is a grid containing 32-by-32 black and white squares programmed to move around through every possible geometric configuration. According to the museum, "On an average home computer, it will take several hundred trillion years for the process to conclude, when every square is black." Watching it for five minutes feels like a trillion years. "Every Icon" might be a sly attack on abstraction's critics, pointing out that geometric compositions have endless prospects, but it doesn't come off sly -- only endless. By comparison, Kate Spade's crisp "Vertical Bucket Handbag" in the design show -- a cotton striped purse with multicolored, horizontal lines -- exudes a similar devotion to straight lines, but at least is handy enough to hold lipstick and gum.

"Design Culture Now" affords examples of how the ideas of artists can trickle down into everyday objects. Pablo Picasso's 1943 sculpture "Bull's Head," in which the animal's head is suggested by a bicycle seat and its horns are formed by bike handlebars, is given loving tribute in the "Picasso Internet Radio." Designed by Paul Pierce and Dennis Erber for Thomson Consumer Electronics, the radio is shaped like the Picasso bull, but its "horns" transmit sound like an old-time Victrola. It is a playful thing, a sculpture that is both tool and toy.

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