Some 50 years ago a decree went out from Miss Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney that all of New York City and visitors thereunto should be taxed with the newest in American art, that unto us should be biennially given a “qualitative overview of current art activity… the cutting edge.” The bad prose gives you a good idea of what to expect in the current Whitney Biennial, where one of the few well-staged dis plays can only be seen in the women’s restroom. Wiser visitors contented themselves with attacking the Camembert mountain and refrained from ask ing, “What does it mean?” But I can eat meaningless cheese at home—which is where I should have stayed.

As might be expected in an invita tional show, most of the  artists are from New York. True, some of them actually reside outside the city limits, but their work already suffers from inner city attributes: farcical, outra geous, and abstract in the extreme. To add insult to injury, most of the remaining artists (shall we say contributors?) live in California. Illinois did have two contributors invited (just how large is the city of Chicago?), as did New Mexico (obviously a fluke). But what does the entire state of  Texas think about having only one contributor? The same goes for Pennsylvania, Minnesota, and—this surprised me—Massachusetts. I would have thought that the Whitney crowd would have a few friends in Boston.

Which brings us to some interesting omissions, such as the apparently mar ginal art worlds of Atlanta, Seattle, and a few other towns that spring to my provincial mind. This show should have been called the Whitney Bicoastal Biennial.

This bicoastal bias explains the pre ponderance of film and video, stam mering and blinking out of the void. It is disturbing when artists create cultur al criticism by using the very electron ic media which contribute to cultural deterioration.

Sculpture in the show suffered from too much form and too little content: wooden constructions (badly carpentered) that are an insult to trees; patently silly, mooning plaster people; aluminum atrocities that look like a stack of air-conditioning ducts. The only interesting “sculptural” piece was revealed—once I turned the corner—as a forklift truck operated by a maintenance crew.

Photography fared even worse. The trite and murky images of the Whitney photographs contrasted vividly with the photographs in another current show at the International Center of Photography. Entitled “Photographs From the Sam Wagstaff Collection at the J.Paul Getty Museum,” this exhi bition featured selections from the thousands of Wagstaff photographs recently purchased by the Getty Museum. The museum, which has now acquired nine private collections, is one of the few institutions where the three major influences in early photography—French, British, and American—can be studied under one roof.

The beauty of Wagstaff’s photographs at ICP is exactly that—they are beautiful, for the most part. There are the famous pieces, such as Roger Fenton’s dinosaur bones taken about 1853 at the British Museum, and Dali’s eerie collage of Marilyn Monroe’s face with that of Chairman Mao. Other pieces, which project a more universal quality, provide some provocative comments on the human condition. The best known of these is probably Weegee’s leggy lady with money on her mind, but a group of anonymous portraits from the turn of the century are equally effective. Art of the people, by the people, for the people—may it never perish from the earth. cc