VENICE— The Venice Biennale has been the Olympics of the visual arts since its inception in 1895. In odd years, countries choose their artist representatives for permanent pavilions in the Giardini or in rented spaces around town: scuoli, palazzi, churches, cultural foundations. In addition there are major curated exhibitions that offer overviews of the state of art: in the Italy Pavilion, the largest in the Giardini, which since the demise of fascism has become an international survey; in the Arsenale, where generally hipper talents are showcased in a mammoth, historic rope factory, and in a cornucopia of "collateral" satellite events.
This year, for the first time, the director is an American: Robert Storr, a former Museum of Modern Art curator and recently appointed dean of the Yale Art School. The title he has come up with is "Think with the senses, feel with the mind: Art in the present tense." While his selections and reasonings reflect a notion of art in troubled times, his generally neat, sober, focused festival is a deal less anarchic and querulous than biennials past. Pax Americana has arrived in the Serene Republic.
Actually, a division between the Giardini and the Arsenale, crudely speaking, is between war and peace. The rougher, former military-industrial buildings include such meditations on conflict as Mr. Storr's choices of Italian artists Paolo Canevari, whose "Bouncing Skull" (2007) features a child kicking around a skull in front of a gutted tower block in the former army HQ in Belgrade, and Gabriele Basilico's sumptuously ruinous cityscapes, "Beirut 1991" (2003). The mood in the work of both, however, is melancholy and poignant rather than desperate or macabre. Argentine Léon Ferrari, by contrast, went for the jugular with "Western-Christian Civilization" (1965), in which Christ is crucified on an American bomber. The inclusion of this early work at the opening of the exhibit reads as a political apologia by Mr. Storr.
Having, so to speak, atoned for his passport at the Arsenale, the American curator has no qualms in presenting many of his countrymen in the Italia pavilion, which is the heart of the Biennale. There are rooms devoted to Biennale familiars Robert Ryman, Ellsworth Kelly, Jenny Holzer, Louise Bourgeois, and Sol LeWitt, as well as newer introductions for an international audience such as Elizabeth Murray, Thomas Nozkowski, and Raymond Pettibon. Mr. Nozkowski's thoughtful, quirkily compact little abstractions — loosely intimating specific sources and improvising playfully upon art historical precedents — epitomize Mr. Storr's thesis of art at the nexus of the sensual and the cerebral.
Two of the largest rooms are given over to German giants of the contemporary scene, Gerhard Richter (whose 2002 MoMA retrospective was organized by Mr. Storr) and Sigmar Polke. But where Mr. Richter might have contributed to the sense of political tension and terrorism with his Baader-Meinhof paintings, and Mr. Polke with his cacophonous, deliberately overloaded referential paintings, they are shown instead here in a serene mode, Mr. Richter with his enigmatically lush smudge paintings and Mr. Polke by a series of arcane, nearmonochrome sensual pictures using violet pigments on irregular stretches of fabric, as in "Neo Byzantium" (2005) [...]