Whitney Biennial 2006: Day for Night

Survey exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art through May 28.

The Whitney Museum of American Art always intimidates me. I appreciate the hulking, modernist building, but it's not exactly welcoming. It makes me feel small and lowly, unworthy and perhaps incapable of appreciating what lies within. Because of my inferiority complex (and to be fair, I'm easily intimidated, so architect Marcel Breuer is probably not to blame), I put off attending the Whitney's biennial survey of contemporary art until the closing of the exhibition was imminent. But once I accustomed myself to the windowless rooms and low-ceilinged stairwell, I enjoyed meandering among the paintings and sculptures and installations.

The biennial had a theme, "Day for Night," which referred to the artifice of American culture, but I can't begin to think of everything I saw under the blanket of a single overarching idea, however open. I can't even begin to write about the biennial as a whole. Instead, I'm going to write about a few of my favorite works at the enormously varied exhibition.

Hatshepsut: From Queen to Pharaoh

Special exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through July 9.

Whenever I look back at history, I always have to remind myself that my own frames of reference usually don’t provide the most appropriate context for understanding centuries-old events. It’s tempting to take the isolated bits of information we have and extrapolate wildly, creating stories and heroes and villains with roots more in our imagination and contemporary values than in our maddeningly incomplete archives of the past.

One reason I admired the Metropolitan Museum’s exhibit on Hatshepsut was that it gently reined me in whenever I was ready to leap into a flight of fancy. Such flights were tempting because Hatshepsut is a perfect subject for imaginative exploitation: She was a female pharaoh who ruled over a period of great prosperity during Egypt’s 18th dynasty. But even after the museum carefully acknowledges what we still don’t know about her, that which remains is fascinating.