Three curators — Stuart Comer, Michelle Grabner and Anthony Elms — chose the works included in the 2014 Whitney Biennial, with each one taking a floor of the museum.
With nearly every inch of display space enlisted for the Whitney Biennial, which opens Friday at the Whitney Museum of American Art, one New York native went to work on the periphery.
“I’ve been coming to the museum since it was built, and I’ve always loved the staircase,” said Charlemagne Palestine, participating in his first biennial at the age of 66. “This particular kind of concrete has a fantastic resonance. It’s Taj Mahal-esque.”
For his installation in the Whitney’s stairwell, he sought to create what he called “a sonorous altar,” following visitors as they go up and down the museum’s floors. Twelve speakers, set up in corners of the stairwell, play all day. Within the din are the sounds of his singing voice, which he recorded while walking the stairs with a glass of cognac, as well as an electronic drone.
Mr. Palestine used 12 speakers adorned with stuffed animals in the hallway of the museum. Agaton Strom for The Wall Street Journal
“If it works well and the sound is encompassing enough, when people come up the staircase they will be nicely disoriented, even hypnotized,” Mr. Palestine said.
There is a visual element too: Each speaker is adorned with some of the artist’s collection of stuffed animals, or “soft divinities,” as he calls them. Among the cast are a monkey, a rabbit, a bear and a droopy pink elephant.
How many plush animals does he own? “Ten thousand and growing,” Mr. Palestine said. “I’ve become a kind of orphanage.”
Most of the animals are back home in Brussels, where Mr. Palestine now lives, but some date back to his coming-of-age in New York. He grew up in Brooklyn and established himself as an artist in the 1960s and ’70s. His activities included theatrical performances and concerts whose boundaries would blur, often with an aggressive edge that could find him destroying piano strings in recital or filming a video (“Island Song”) for which he screamed and sang while racing a motorcycle.
“At the time, it was totally unheard of,” said Antonio Homem, director of the Sonnabend Gallery, which staged a recent show of Mr. Palestine’s early work in Chelsea. “He was such a perfect example that what was going on in art didn’t just have to do with painting or sculpting in traditional terms. There were many other possibilities.”
During his formative years, Mr. Palestine held down a job performing music high above the streets of Midtown, in the bell tower at St. Thomas Church on Fifth Avenue. “I started to play this crazy stuff when he asked me to try them out, and he found it great,” he said of the church’s retiring bell master, who hired him while he was still in high school. “Nobody approached bells like a monster except for me, which goes to how I work in general.”
Charlemagne Palestine created ‘a sonorous altar’ for the Whitney Biennial. Agaton Strom for The Wall Street Journal
For his piece on the stairs at the Whitney, Mr. Palestine channeled part of his past, as well as the past of the Whitney. For the last biennial before the museum moves to a new site in the Meatpacking District, his installation strikes up a last dance with the building itself, which was designed by the famed Bauhaus architect Marcel Breuer.
“I was trying to think about what kinds of voices I felt belonged in the Breuer building,” said Anthony Elms, one of the biennial’s three curators.
“He’s a really important maker for me, and for a lot of people—curators and artists,” he added. “He seems to be on lots of people’s minds.”
As one of several older artists in this year’s biennial, which takes history as one of its themes, Mr. Palestine said he’s happy for the attention granted to timely but fleeting work that for many years had been forgotten.
“Ephemeral is in again. It’s fabulous for somebody like me,” he said. “I like to make things, but my things can always transform.”
He’s no mere elder statesman, though.
“I’m a young emerging artist at 66,” he said. “I need at least another 25 years to do all the things I want to do. It’s always in process.”
Representing New York
Six other Whitney Biennial participants with New York ties:
A nook on the museum’s fourth floor has been transformed into a giant “camera obscura,” with a small hole in a window that projects a ghostly image of the skyline onto the walls of a darkened room.
This artist’s hyperkinetic video work makes use of computer animation that, the catalog says, can teach a viewer “to be elsewhere and present at the same time.”
A tangle of thread by Sheila Hicks. Agaton Strom for The Wall Street Journal
A colorful tangle of thread stretches from floor to ceiling in a sculptural work by Sheila Hicks, who splits her time between Paris and New York and draws on studies of ancient textile design.
The traditions of painting and pawing at touch screens come together in this artist’s work, which focuses on moments when creative methods and states of media begin to smear.
This publisher of philosophy and critical theory, now based in Los Angeles but long stationed in New York, is represented by an installation and readable works by Jean Baudrillard, Eileen Myles, Chris Kraus, Sylvère Lotringer and more.
A Dan Walsh painting. Agaton Strom for The Wall Street Journal
Geometric paintings by Dan Walsh are striking in their simplicity, with shapes that align grid-like patterns with Tibetan mandalas.
THE NEW YORK TIMES
Art Matters | The Whitney Biennial’s Last Upper East Side Hurrah
From left: Robert Wedemeyer; Devin Farrand.From left: Sterling Ruby’s “Basin Theology/Butterfly Wreck,” 2013; Shio Kusaka, “(dinosaur 2),” 2013.
After almost a week of previews and vernissages, today 945 Madison Avenue opened its doors for the public to descend upon the last Whitney Biennial to take place on the Upper East Side. Two years from now, the Whitney Museum of American Art will have settled into its new building beside the High Line, and the days of several hundred people in “festive attire” snaking all the way down to Park Avenue as they wait to ooh, aah and roll their eyes at the latest and greatest in ostensibly American art will be a thing of the past. In the future when the museum is at capacity, all the excess people will be pushed into the Hudson River.
Tuesday was the premiere opening, and as the witching hour struck, shrapnel of artists, collectors and socialites blasted out of the building to umpteen dinners hosted around town. A party for the publishing collective Triple Canopy, which participated in the biennial as an artist, was held stumbling distance from the Breuer Building in the restaurant of the Carlyle Hotel. Gilded frames, venerable bartenders and bloody hamburgers set a fitting scene for New York’s now thoroughly multiborough contemporary art world to make a ceremonial goodbye to its ancestral home off Central Park.
Keith Mayerson’s “My Family,” 2013.
This year’s exhibition is a bit schizophrenic by design. Instead of inviting curators from disparate fields and institutions to collaborate on producing one sprawling survey show, three curators — Stuart Comer, chief curator of the department of media and performance art at the Museum of Modern Art; Anthony Elms, associate curator at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia; and Michelle Grabner, professor and chair of the painting and drawing department at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago — each organized their own exhibition on a single floor of the building. It is a parfait that has been met with mixed reviews, thus far. As the punctuation mark closing the museum’s nearly 50-year tenure on Madison Avenue, the show resonates as an ellipsis . . . not going out with a bang, nor confusion, nor definitiveness, but with fluidity and as a bridge to the future. There are new artists, new genres, new demographics and new regions emphasized here, all of which have long since been integral components of America art, but which have not necessarily been given adequate recognition as such.
945 Madison Avenue, 75th Street, New York, NY 10021
March 7, 2014 1:00 PM – 9:00 PM
In Conversation: First Impressions of the 2014 Whitney Biennial
by ArtSlant Team
ArtSlant editors Natalie Hegert, Joel Kuennen, and Charlie Schultz met up at Agra, an Indian restaurant on Lexington Avenue, to discuss the opening of the 2014 Whitney Biennial, its surprises, best in show, and disappointments. They touch on trends and themes of scale, archives, lists, dongs, and objectness—parsing the line between artwork and artifact.
Charlie Schultz: I guess I’ll start by saying I found this year’s iteration of the [Whitney] Biennial to be far less crowded than in past Biennials, which struck me as a surprise because I thought I read that there were more artists in this Biennial than in previous years.
[Indian music plays in the background…]
Natalie Hegert: I felt like the last edition was very spacious as well…This year I was very struck by this tendency for the curators to go from very large objects to these tiny details you had to study – little notebooks and small archival photographs and things like that – so my attention was constantly being drawn from these sort of monumental sculptures and large, abstract paintings to tiny little details.
Joel Kuennen: Yeah, on [Michelle] Grabner’s floor there are large abject works like Molly Zuckerman-Hartung and Sterling Ruby, and then going into these archive pieces which are presented in tables and behind glass draw an interesting parallel between fulfilling a cult of personality while working against a cult of personality by humanizing figures like David Foster Wallace, breaking away from the idea that these are sacred objects.
Molly Zuckerman-Hartung, Notley, 2013, Latex housepaint, enamel, and spray paint on dropcloth (hinged, in two attached parts), 96 x 132 inches; Courtesy of the artist and Corbett vs. Dempsey, Chicago / Photography by Tom Van Eynde
[Someone clanks a glass, drops a fork, papadums arrive, the waitstaff says something…]
N: Thank you.
C: Yeah, the shifts in scale are definitely prominent. There’s a lot of really small stuff! [everyone laughs]
N: A lot of things to read…
C: A lot of things in vitrines, which is a pretty standard way to display paraphernalia. There was a lot of paraphernalia on account of the various archives that were curated into the show.
C: I thought the archives were a really interesting aspect of this Biennial. I enjoyed all of them, and the way they played off one another. The rooms for Semiotext(e) and Triple Canopy bookended Stuart Comer’s floor. I spent a long time hovering over Joseph Grigely’s vitrines, and listening to the experimental recordings in Malachi Ritscher’s room.
N: Joseph Grigely’s piece was the one that surprised me most, because I didn’t know what I was getting into until I started exploring around, and then that reveal, coming later, is what I found pretty interesting.
C and J: Mmmhmm.
J: Yeah, I found it interesting that a lot of the archive pieces were kind of rock star stuff, David Foster Wallace and Allan Sekula. They were paraphernalia that literati would be really tuned into. It’s kind of an odd mix in this show but signifies at least a concurrency of research and criticism within contemporary practice.
N: I was surprised at the selection of Allan Sekula’s work—the notebooks—I did not expect that.
J: But they’re funny, they’re like [laughing] sketches on an airplane. It’s a weird gesture.
They’ve got the in memoriam thing going on.
C: Very much in memoriam, which is in line with the idea of the archive. Both David Foster Wallace and Alan Sekula are deceased. They both have literary archives. You know a notebook is just a notebook until the writer is dead, then it becomes an artifact. And it was interesting to see so many artifacts intermixing with artwork, and where the line gets blurry between the two. Between DFW and Sekula, I’d say Sekula’s notebooks have much more of an artistic flair.
N: They did, they were very graphic.
C: I was really not sure how the curatorial conceit was going to work out. With three curators and each one doing their own floor I imagined it would have been more disjointed. It didn’t really feel that way. [both agree, mmhmm] I wonder how much of a role Jay Sanders and Elizabeth Sussman, the curatorial advisors, helped unify the visions of the three curators.
Jacolby Satterwhite, “Transit,” Video Still from Reifying Desire 6, 2014. HD digital video, color, 3-D animation; Courtesy of OHWOW, Los Angeles, and Mallorca Landings Gallery.
J: The conceit, I think, was to produce like-sentiments, to allow contemporary cultural themes expressed in American art to come out for themselves. But you also had this really interesting sense that each curator built their own Biennial. And I guess you get that feeling with [Stuart] Comer’s floor, like it is meant to be an all-inclusive floor to showcase a real variety of works, despite him specializing in performance and media work, he definitely brought in a lot of interesting painting.
N: There were some surprises on that floor, for sure.
[twangy Eastern music persists]
C: One thing I noticed on the fourth floor that seemed somewhat thematic, and I noticed it elsewhere on the other floors, was this predilection for inventories, these lists that people were making. There was a lot of visual repetition which is a consequence of listing anything, [N laughs] and I have actually have a list here of artists who made list-type pieces: David Foster Wallace’s notebooks showed lists of names, Ben Kinmont’s Shhh Archive was list oriented, Ken Lum’s Midway Shopping Plaza and Gretchen Bender’s melted vinyl piece both incorporated lists of names.
N: Weren’t the names in Bender’s piece movie titles?
J and C: Yeah, they were all movie titles.
C: Next on my list is Shio Kusaka’s stoneware piece that was made up of so many types of pottery. Stephen Berns, who was next to Kusaka, was showing photographs that had been exposed multiple times, sequentially, and those sequences were shown as a list.
J: And the Channa Horowitz, which what was that, like sonakinatography, it was her own time-marking system. Yeah, there was definitely a lot of play with systems.
C: That was another. But yeah, archives and lists are of course related to systems and structures. An archive is a system and a list is a structure.
J: There was this theme of reiterating systems; attacking those systems, changing those systems and then, finally, a process of creating new systems. The best example of this was our collective favorite, the chess conference. [everyone laughs]
C: Best in show goes to Andrew Bujalski’s Computer Chess.
N: I don’t think I stayed and watched that long enough.
J: [laughing] it was like a forty-five minute piece.
N: I liked it, but I didn’t stay for very long.
J: I mean it was a great period piece that totally fulfilled its role of being a little bit jocular in its portrayal of a past moment that is still relevant. It interrogates the work of man to make a machine to beat man, all within a chess conference. It’s weird, like gender identities, human identities, computer identities, it’s all there.
J: And everything sort of just comes into collision. [everyone laughs]
N: We’ll have to compare…the portion of the film I saw was when they were doing a press conference or something. Were there other parts? [laughs]
C: Yeah, that’s what we watched. We saw the press conference. There was more, they go from the press conference to an actual convention.
N: Oh, okay.
J: And they joke that they have one female participant this year and “she’s welcome.”
C: She’s welcome.
N: I kind of wanted to see the computers battle it out. [all giggling]
C: Yeah, I mean whoever the protagonist was provided comic relief in so far as he would say what I was thinking, at least, which is that this is as boring as I can imagine, and I find the work of all my peers trite and boring, and all his peers look over and scowl.
J: He had a great fake name too, I forget what it was.
C: Papa George.
J: Papa George [all laugh]
J: And then there was the semiotext(e) archive, which was amazing.
C: Yeah, I liked that a lot.
J: It made me really want to be in that concert in 1996. [laughing]
C: Yeah! Made me want to sit in the semiotext(e) archives.
J: And then an amazing archive done by Triple Canopy, which was really cool, working with the idea of how artwork survives in the archive, and can exit in personal archives, deaccessions and beyond through reproduction. My favorite part were the three washbasin table stands, one from the period of the original artwork that stood as the fulcrum of the exhibition, and then they had a 3-D printed copy of it, and then they had the son of the family that owned the original work make a copy of it.
N: What did you guys think about the stairwell piece [by Charlemagne Palestine]? That really set the tone for the whole experience.
C: I liked that, for one I liked the playfulness of the puppets and the droning sound in the stairwell. It functioned really well in that space because there was a lot of acoustic resonance.
N: Well that is where it derives from; that was the artist recording himself walking up and down the stairs, making these sounds.
C: I didn’t realize that. So it’s very site-specific.
N: It made me want to join in, like “WOHHHHHH,” but I held back. I probably should have just gone for it.
J: It’s kind of nice being in the Whitney and being as loud and laughy as you want to be. It seemed like there was a different kind of respect for everything, more celebratory.
N: Well at the last Biennial I was struck by this tension between works that were meant to be interactive, and works that weren’t, but looked like they were, and how much strain that puts on museum personnel. I had another moment like that in, I think the second floor, where there’s just a record player in the middle of the room with a sign on it that says, “To start, do this…” But the cover was on, so I looked over to the museum guard and said, “May I?” and he’s like, “No, no. Don’t touch.” Rather dissatisfying really.
J: Later people were fucking with it.
N: I’m always curious about that disconnect.
J: There was another moment, the artist that did the Pussy Riot mannequins.
N: Lisa Anne Auerbach…
J: Yeah, she had this giant book.
C: The Megazine
N: I loved that.
J: And she was there, fussing with things, and the security guard in the corner was watching her very intently, and she’s like, “I’m going to flip the page.” Thirty people in the room stand back as she flips the page very slowly.
C: Probably what I found to be the most visceral and abrasive installation in the show was…
N: Bjarne Melgaard [all laughing]
C: He took that cake, again.
J: It’s his cake.
C: That to me was really stepping into another person’s world.
N: Well, especially when the first thing you encounter is a giant dong, just hanging there.
J: They are all dongs. The entire installation is dongs.
N: I really loved those carpets though. I kind of want one. It gave the room a very interesting feel. Sort of cozy but abject at the same time.
C: Sexualized mannequins.
N: I think those are real sex dolls.
J: Also the projections of the cult members on the wall. David Koresh talking to one of the members. And then the reaction shots of the cult members with these vacant looks.
N: And then the mass wedding…
J: People listening with insane looks on their faces. It develops a really weird mirror between you viewing in the room with the screens making up the walls. And then, of course, the chimpanzees eating and having sex.
N: It reminds me of a George Costanza moment, where he’s in bed with his girlfriend and simultaneously leaning over and taking a bite of hoagie.
J: Classic moment. And what was behind [the chimpanzees] again?
N: Was it a gay porn?
C: Mmmhmm. Power porn. Abrasive stuff.
N: But I didn’t see any explicit moments; I just saw the banter, the forced acting…
C: There were explicit moments.
N: The dialogue was so banal, like, “We just called you over here because we heard you were a slut.” [all laughs]
Picking back up on the topic of the presence of penises in the Whitney; I thought it was actually quite pronounced. There were a lot.
J: Plethora of Dong.
C: I can only think of two dongs.
N: There was the Gary Indiana…
C: There’s probably twelve in that piece alone.
Keith Mayerson, My Family, 2013, Oil on linen, 56 x 70 in.; Copyright Keith Mayerson / Courtesy the artist and Derek Eller Gallery, NY / Photographer Tom Powel Imaging
N: That painter, Keith Myerson, with the salon-style paintings that looked rather traditional, but then very prominently placed there in the middle was a guy in a tree with a unmistakably erect penis.
J: I thought it was a tree limb.
N: There were others, too. Also there were many works that were thinking about shifting sexual identities, most representative of course is the Zachary Drucker and Rhys Ernst project. There was a lot of art centered on queer subjectivity, especially in that room. Was that Anthony Elms’ [floor]? Or Stuart Comer? Those two floors blended together for me. I felt like Michelle Grabner was the most distinct.
J: I feel like Elms got pulled into the others; it wasn’t as distinct as the Comer and Grabner.
N: Anthony had Elijah Burgher. There were some dongs in there too.
J: Dong, dong, dong, dong, dong, dong.
J: I feel like his [Elms] references are a little older too, pulling in contemporary art from the last ten, twenty years. Just overall, the work seemed to represent a bit more background and lead-up than just the cutting edge.
C: I know one of the keystone works on his floor was actually not on his floor. Zoe Leonard’s camera obscura.
N: I loved that. I thought that was a really fitting tribute to the building.
J: Just titled with the address.
C: It was sleek, it was simple and it was always changing and site-specific. On a cloudy day you’re not going to see much in there.
J: There’s another over-optical reference too on Grabner’s floor, the photographer, what’s her name?
N: Sarah Charlesworth.
C: I didn’t know she died last year. That was a sad thing to learn today. Those were beautiful prints. Very simple, and I like how she referenced Alfred Stieglitz’s great magazine with her title, Camera Work. It was a sly way to bring up an archive without including another artifact.
J: It really feels like visuality and the study of the visual is embedded in the contemporary art canon now. The camera obscura was a surprise, a pleasant one.
There was a lack of critical race art aside from Pedro Velez’ work stashed in the basement by the elevators.
Dawoud Bey,Maxine Adams and Amelia Maxwell (from The Birmingham Project), 2012, Archival pigment prints mounted on dibond, 40 x 64 in.; Copyright Dawoud Bey / Courtesy of the artist
C: Dawoud Bey…
J: It was subtle though; the three diptychs from his Birmingham Project, they are layered, beautiful pieces, forcing collisions of identity through time and place. Race was present, but you didn’t see an interrogation.
N: What do you think of the inclusion of Donelle Woolford?
J: It raises my ire.
N: I’m never sure what to think about that.
J: I think the idea is ill-conceived. He certainly took many steps to make it as verifiable as possible, and it’s a long-ass project, and three different actresses play the black female artist, Donelle Woolford.
And it’s a dick joke.
N: More dongs.
J: Is this work saying that this work is what a black female artist makes? Dick jokes? Is that the joke?
N: It’s hard too, because most people will pass by that and not know anything about it, if you don’t take the time to read the wall text through. Only at the end does it say, oh by the way, Donnelle Woolford is a fictional character created by Joe Scanlan! But that is the trouble in presenting an artist’s work in a Biennial. You only get a glimpse at their practice, and it’s more about how things play off of each other.
J: She was also paired next to David Robbins, an artist that specifically deals with humor. He had his nice cattywampus bookshelf with a few copies of his Concrete Comedy book on it.
C: It was right across from the really hilarious and cartoony Laura Owens painting.
J: I don’t think that was the right spot for Donelle Woolford.
N: Is she doing a performance too? Just like 2012, they say you can’t experience all of the Biennial unless you see all of the performances. [laughs] We didn’t see “My Barbarian,” did we?
J: We have to check out Tony Tasset (400,000 Artists).
N: I’m curious about that.
C: Are they in alphabetical order?
N: They are in alphabetical order.
C: Or order of importance. [laughs]
J: And that goes back to lists.
N: That’s true.
C: One of the other interesting things Anthony said was that he wanted the work to say “hello” to the building. I liked that idea of communion with the building, especially since the Whitney is leaving the building this year. Zoe Leonard’s camera obscura was perhaps the most blatant.
N: And Charlemagne Palestine…
J: And Radamés “Juni” Figueroa in the courtyard.
C: Sheila Hick’s piece with the colored threads that looked like they were being disgorged from the ceiling, that was a successful installation.
N: There was a lot of interesting textiles too. I thought there were a lot of ceramics. Because I never think of ceramics.
Sterling Ruby, Basin Theology/Butterfly Wreck, 2013, Ceramic, 28 1/8 x 39 3/8 x 41 inches 71.4 x 100 x 104.1 cm; Copyright Sterling Ruby / Photographer: Robert Wedemeyer.
C: There were some good Sterling Ruby ceramics.
J: It took me a minute, but then I was like, okay. Again with the abject, they were holding discarded, broken shards. They were refired, reglazed, over and over, melted together. One of those pieces where the process becomes the work. That might be the key to abject work, to appreciate it for more than its horrible physical appearance.
C: And there were three of them, so again with this repetition, listing idea.
N: What did you think was undeserving, or did you find something boring?
C: What did you think about that room of Tony Greene paintings? That took me by surprise.
J: That was very strange. It was like they had a prior installation in there, and they forgot it.
N: That one just took me back to the Forrest Bess mini show, artist curating artist thing, but I felt that this presentation felt like kind of a knockoff. I wasn’t sure it was adding to [the Biennial].
C: That piece was technically curated by Richard Hawkins and Catherine Opie. It seemed like a strange room to me.
J: The work was strange in the context of the Biennial too. It came from a decorative background. It definitely wasn’t as ostentatious as the rest of the work. I wonder if that’s a pretty reliable characteristic of the Biennial, a lot of audacious work. A lot of work that shouts. I imagine subtle work doesn’t work well here.
C: You just miss it.
N: Yeah. I thought the most subtle work that I encountered was portraits by Paul P.
J: The blue watercolors. They were pretty but I don’t know why they were there.
N: Next to the Paul P works though, the Michel Auder voyeuristic video installation, I loved that piece. It came right after the Joseph Grigely collection of ephemera around Gregory Battcock, so I thought that was perfect, because you were first offered this glimpse into this man’s life, then you walk into another room and you’re looking into these windows at other peoples’ lives. I thought that was a really poetic arrangement.
C: That was good curating.
N: Last thoughts.
C: There were a lot of types of craft, which I think is very poignant. In our current reality where so much is virtual and everything seems digitized or ready to be digitized, the tangibility of these artifacts and archives and artworks seemed like it was a real concern.
Photo-spotting at the museum turns up photo-sculpture, photo-performance, and a view of Madison Avenue like you’ve never seen it
It’s been a long time since photography was considered a separate medium made by people who called themselves photographers—the medium has been thoroughly absorbed and blended with painting and sculpture, video and installation for several decades at least. But it can be fun to check in on photography in a show like the Whitney Biennial, which offers a broad look at rising trends and new directions in art. These seven artists from this year’s show, which spans three floors and was curated by three different people, prove that photography is hardly over—it’s just changed shape in one way or another, and lives on as a tool or a reference or a lens.
As a resident at the American Academy in Rome, Berens made multiple exposures of the same views of the city over the course of a summer, making pictures at different times of day for a project called 40 Views of Rome, 2005. For the series here, he combined the images into dark pictures where only slivers of ruins and silhouettes of the city’s ubiquitous stone pines are visible, making pictures as layered as Rome itself.
Top: Stephen Berens, August 4, 2005, Night, July 28, 2005, Night (Lightning), 2013, dye-based inkjet print. Bottom: Stephen Berens, August 4, 2005, Night, July 28, 2005, Night (Lightning), July 28, 2005, Night, August 7, 2005, Night, July 29, 2005, Middle of the Night, 2013, dye-based inkjet print.
Bey’s portraits from “The Birmingham Project” and his picture of Barack Obama might be the most straightforward photographs in the Biennial. Clear and sober, Bey uses the camera to record the solid surfaces of his subjects, and to hint at what is solid beneath that surface.
Dawoud Bey, Barack Obama, 2008, pigmented inkjet print.
Photography itself is the subject of Charlesworth’s inverted and reversed diptych of a view camera with its bellows extended. The negative and positive images mimic the effects of the lens and the negative, making a self-referential picture that questions the act of looking, a longtime concern for the artist, who passed away unexpectedly last year.
Sarah Charlesworth, Camera Work, 2009, two chromogenic prints, each mounted and laminated with lacquer frames.
Zackary Drucker and Rhys Ernst
Two rows of color photographs make up Drucker and Ernst’s glamorous Relationship, 2008-13. In the top row, a figure with long bleached-blond hair poses in heels or in a dark apartment; below, a person with short dark hair lounges in bed or wades in the ocean. The series documents the couple’s gender transitions, artist Drucker from male to female and filmmaker Ernst from female to male, in images that, like gender, walk the line between documentary and performance.
Installation view of Zackary Druckers and Rhys Ernst’s, Relationship, 2008-13.
COURTESY THE ARTISTS AND LUIS DE JESUS LOS ANGELES.
Miljohn Ruperto and Ulrik Heltoft
The whimsical shapes in these rich silver gelatin prints by these artist collaborators call to mind Karl Blossfeldt’s early botanical photos, but there is something unconvincing about them, despite being printed on lush fiber paper. Based on sketches and descriptions of unidentified plants from a mysterious 16th-century text, the Voynich Botanical Studies look like plants imagined by children—they have leaves like little hands and tiny pineapples for flowers but were made using 3D software.
COLLECTION OF THE ARTISTS AND KOENIG & CLINTON, NEW YORK. COURTESY THE ARTISTS AND KOENIG & CLINTON, NEW YORK. PHOTOGRAPHY BY ULRIK HELTOLFT.
Carol Jackson Jackson’s photo-sculpture hybrids are ornate, crust-covered shapes that are sliced open to reveal a glossy photo center. Pandemonium, 2013, is a complex shape with a skin of what looks like ash-colored mud. Where the form has been bisected, an image of burning trees is revealed, suggesting a hot core to the cool piece.
Carol Jackson, Youthful Beast, 2013, wood, papier-mâché, acrylic, and inkjet print.
COLLECTION OF THE ARTIST. COURTESY THE ARTIST. PHOTO: CLARE BRITT.
Zoe Leonard Leonard’s room-size camera obscura makes the case that photography is a relevant tool for looking at the Biennial. Through a palm-sized lens set in the building’s front window, Madison Avenue is projected upside down on the gallery walls, turning the museum itself into a camera.
Zoe Leonard, 945 Madison Avenue (installation view), 2014, lens and darkened room.
COLLECTION OF THE ARTIST. COURTESY MURRAY GUY, NEW YORK AND GALERIE GISELA CAPITAIN, COLOGNE. PHOTO: BILL ORCUTT.
Copyright 2014, ARTnews LLC, 48 West 38th Street, New York, N.Y. 10018. All rights reserved.
Thirty years in the art world and I had never been to a Whitney Biennial. That was actually something worth bragging about and especially after having been to one I can unabashedly lament that I will never be able to say it again.
The Whitney Biennial carries immense weight in the art world. There is almost nothing in visual art that exists as a gauge, a standard, a benchmark or just a simple “this is more advanced than that.” No matter what artwork you are looking at, accomplished or ridiculous, there is always a nattering nabob who will remind you that any discussion of the work in terms of it being “good” or “bad” is taboo. One of the scant retorts available at all these days is to point out that the artist one is examining had been in a Whitney Biennial. To say “so what” to that is to risk a charge of philistinism. The fear of being asked, “Are you the biggest idiot ever?” is too great — nobody can dismiss inclusion in the Whitney Biennial as anything but an accomplishment. In the land of the jaded snob, extending one’s palm open near an artwork and saying “This artist was in the Whitney Biennial,” is as close as it gets to being a bearded wizard uttering “Behold!”
And yet trudging through a Biennial is a time-honored pulling back of the curtain hiding the Wizard of Oz. The art world respects the Whitney Biennial artists and the market-gain they receive from inclusion, but badmouthing each Biennial is as predictable a ritual as champagne on New Year’s Eve; nobody can resist using critical pontification to masquerade their envy over not being included or not having their allies represented in a Whitney Biennial.
The 2014 Whitney Biennial is a pile of unadulterated shit. There is supposed to be a celebration because a lot of Los Angeles artists have been included, and indeed the show is less New York-centric than ever before. But it is not a show that represents the Los Angeles art scene as much as it represents Los Angeles art school insiders (art schools in Los Angeles ARE the establishment, the bubble that protects what status quo there even is connecting L.A. to the internationalist “big art” conformity machine). But that is no surprise — the Biennial is the ultimate art world insider exhibit. It is just that this exhibit sees so many insiders pretending to be outsiders. The language of outsider art is present in about half of the artworks (the other 50 percent are my two least favorite branches of conceptualism: dry conceptualism and conceptualism masquerading as rotten formalism). One could call it an outsider art show except that it is the ultimate insiders navigating the art world ladder of success with outsider visual strategies.
The trick to being an “insider outsider” is to make it look more obvious than a thrift store. There is macrame, knit sweaters, bric-a-brac chandeliers, sloppy ceramic and lots of wood scattered about the Whitney Biennial. There is an insidiousness lurking in the simpleton charm of this work. “Oh hey that looks funky…” is what the impulse thought of a viewer is when one encounters this work, but sadly, IT’S A TRAP! Most of this work has a tsk-tsk tongue-clicking pretension to being about something other than it is — you see, if the work were about interesting-looking art that incorporated an outsider aesthetic (or heaven forbid were made by an actual art outsider), then it would be accessible and engaging — something that is not taken kindly in the cold art world climate of rarifying the shit out of every human experience into academic-objective “re-presentations” of phenomena. So this is never outsider-informed art; it is outsider-embellished stances, analyses and deconstructions. The Mike Kelley impulse to soul-killingly crush any joy out of the visual language of the non-elites was the most insidious twist to the worship of irony in the late 20th century. It stands victorious (and resiliently unattacked) as the mainstream default approach to art-making practiced by the insiders atop the shit heap called contemporary art at 15 years and counting into the 21st century.
And speaking of Mike Kelley, the Laura Owens painting in this exhibit is so derivative of Mike that it reveals a new level of curatorial naiveté that has to be singled out. Owens is long out of ideas so you cannot shame the washed-up, but a curator’s first job is to spot a cheat. Just nasty.
The stark message about conceptual art in the 2014 Whitney Biennial is that the anything goes as long as it has an art history referent. Every time you turn around there is some terrible speck of nothing teetering on a curatorial insistence that it is art and justifying it by having some tepid construct about other art, artists, art criticism, art history or another construct unnamed by the academy as of yet but definitely involving the word art. The great Semiotext series is given a vast gallery for its archives and the curatorial impulse is to make its legacy as unappealing as a library trashcan — a feeble attempt at “artifying” the installation with silver wallpaper on one wall is a cowardly curatorial act of “Warholizing” an institution with no allegiance to something as presently mainstream as “The Factory.” Even when they dumb it down, the Biennial makes sure to do it obtusely — the silver wall of Semiotext pages is not half the embarrassment as is the including of David Foster Wallace journals as “artworks” by the late author — most of them are exhibited closed or open to indecipherable pages, totally uninteresting after the connection with the author. Celebrity stands in here as a substitute for curatorial rigor, hiding behind the glamor of their names and nothing else.
A BLOODLESS MAINSTREAM
Amidst the hubbub there are plenty of forgettable paintings, installations, videos that would be elevated if they were simply relegated to YouTube and too much sculpture that vacillates between appearing to be a mainstream object performing an art function or an art object performing a functional function. The aesthetic of the day is either proto-minimalism with some clever twist to make it commentary or outsider integrity as an alias for downright sloppiness. And of course, no major art exhibit these days is incomplete with out the myriad twaddle taking place “outside the institution’s walls”. The Whitney brochure for the show was chock full of detritus that will be screening on inconvenient dates and times, almost as a reflex to ensure the Biennial can never really be experienced completely, and thus, can never be ripped apart in its entirety. Well fuck it, I cannot wait. This is a gargantuan turd that, if the art world need to be re-plumbed in its entirety to flush, so be it, call the goddamned plumber immediately or just give up, set the whole institutional art world on fire and at least we can get some nice marshmallows out of the deal.
DEATH AS CAREER STRATEGY
There were four artworks in the show that made me think. Artworks that stayed with me… that made me take to google for all of 20 minutes to ponder.
All four of these artworks had death, in one form or another, as their central theme. Some were weirdly, perhaps unintentionally, poetic but the curators made sure to kill as much of that potential as possible. The four pieces were:
•The “art group” Public Collectors present a synopses of Malachi Ritscher, a musician and music-compiler who took his own life via self-immolation in Chicago in 2006 to protest the U.S. war in Iraq.
•The late Gretchen Bender had a 1988 artwork “People In Pain” completely refabricated as an artwork by Phillip Vanderhyden. The original artwork, exhibited in the 1989 museum show “A Forest of Signs” had totally disintegrated.
•Joseph Grigely discovered a caché of personal effects from art critic Gregory Battock, hidden in a studio space for decades. Battock was murdered, stabbed to death on Christmas Day in 1980 while vacationing in Puerto Rico in a crime that was never solved. Battock had an interesting life and a career in the art world that intersected with many art world luminaries.
•A “sub-curated” gallery presented a few paintings by the late Tony Greene. Richard Hawkins and Catherine Opie had been classmates of the artist in the early 1990s at graduate school. Greene passed away from AIDS complications years ago.
Each of these has an unavoidably serious topic as the pretext for the art installation. Grigley and Public Collectors have scraps from their subjects arranged in vitrines. Whether by curatorial choice or necessity, the overall effect here is about as far from maudlin and sentimental as one gets when the subject is the dearly departed. Perhaps there are among us those who would like to be remembered through unsentimental museum wall text, but both of these subjects were screaming for a documentary film or even a coffee table book to better tell the story, to acquaint us, to celebrate a random human life with whom we might connect. Nope, the Whitney made sure to freeze dry all the passion and let didactic assumptions reign free.
The Bender/Vanderhyden artwork was more complex. In her curatorial walk-thru on March 7, curator Michelle Grabner explained that the Whitney was resistant to crediting Vanderhyden; the institution houses its own restoration department and they never get credited as being artists. Grabner apparently fought the good fight and in doing so she has sent the message loud and clear to aspiring artists: be the foot-servants of those who showed in the museums a quarter century ago to cut in line on your way up the carer ladder. And on top of that, Bender’s “People In Pain” is a snide, elitist thumping of popular culture and one of the ugliest large works of art ever executed.
The paintings of Tony Greene, also almost a quarter-century old, were included by curator Stuart Comer. On his March 7 curators walk-thru he poignantly expressed that a generation of artists died and that their voices would never be heard and that it was important to include one from then who, absent that terrible plague, would conceivably be making art and engaged in the art community alongside all of the Biennial participants today. The amount of space devoted here is generous and the delicate paintings show a range, discipline and sensitivity way beyond almost any other artist in the entire show. The second greatest tragedy of Tony Greene’s passing after his death itself is that had he lived he would certainly be omitted from a Biennial (and an art world) that privileges the smarmy over the poetic, the academic over the delicate and critical distance over beauty.
So those are the choices — die or sell-out. Whether you’re a painter or whether you’re a sculptor, if you’re staying alive with an earnestness, buddy you’re nowhere by the look of the 2014 Whitney Biennial.
The most streamlined mythology of the past two decades of the Whitney Biennial goes something like this: 1993 represented the Big Bang of art and identity politics, and since then, the curve has bobbed up and down like a sine wave, going above and below the axis of overthought mediocrity towards an ever more platitudinous parody of itself. It is, after all, the biennial that everyone… loves to hate. Shoot me now. Framing it this way can be as mind numbing as discussing the weather, and yet, it is nearly as inescapable.
Perhaps drawing from its upper Manhattan terroir, the Whitney Biennial is an inimitable, enduringly anachronistic, and extremely self-referential institution. Each edition rehashes the questions “What is contemporary?” and “What is American?”—often to post-rational ends. Convoluted curatorial conceit is the most dangerous pitfall threatening state-of-the-art-world survey shows today. The best biennial I’ve seen in the past couple of years was Luiz Pérez-Oramas, André Severo, and Tobi Maier’s 2012 30th São Paulo Biennial about, simply, “poetics”—a theme so loose and extensible that the exhibition wore it as a heartening halo rather than a pretentious noose. In this respect, the 2014 Whitney Biennial does not fail. Well, actually, it does, but only in execution; the conception of its structure and thematics do not doom or significantly distract from the works contained therein. Assembled by three outside curators—Stuart Comer of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, Anthony Elms of the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia, and Michelle Grabner of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago—it is not rhetorically proposed as three discrete shows; it is actually (actuality is always refreshing!) three discrete shows spread across three levels of the Whitney Museum’s 945 Madison Avenue building.
The second floor, curated by Elms, is exhaustingly under-stimulating. On first glance, Valerie Snobeck and Catherine Sullivan’s Image of Limited Good (2014), a sculptural tableau of suitcases filled with a resin-like substance and purple tracings of retro airline logos pinned to the wall, looks promising, but—pardon the pun—unpacking the piece is a joyless pursuit. It would work better at an art fair, as would Charline von Heyl’s Folk Tales (2013), a grid of black-and-white collages, which is not awkward like some of the other works on this floor, but by no means as absorbing as her work usually is. Transgressive hero Gary Indiana’s untitled contribution seems dated and confused. It’s comprised of a diptych pairing a collection of headshots and nude candid photographs of incarcerated men of color with a large, inelegantly installed, semi-circular LED curtain looping footage of jellyfish, which, according to the text, are anatomically symbolic of… the panopticon. The effect of the piece is incomprehensible (in this room it might not actually be possible to get far enough away from the curtain to view its moving images as such, instead of as a crumpled field of large diodes); it superficially juxtaposes cultural issues from the 1980s with presentation technologies that are modern, but look terrible. Rebecca Morris’s paintings, Untitled (#14-13) (2013) and Untitled (#15-13) (2013), given the company, stand out, and respite can also be found in the two cinemas made to house films by Michel Auder, Steve Reinke with Jessie Mott, and the Los Angeles-based collective My Barbarian, but in terms of this chapter of the Biennial having a compelling story or discernable position, there is none.
Moving up one level and several notches in quality, Comer’s third floor contains the highest concentration of expected names. This is by no means a dig: why not represent the most consistent and influential American artists in the Whitney Biennial, particularly if they haven’t been invited before? At the pinnacle of buzzy and undeniably good is the singular and prolific force that is Bjarne Melgaard. His room recalls the Korova Milk Bar (from A Clockwork Orange), populated by silicon sex mannequins with blond weaves and raccoon eyes, posed alternately on haute, club kid furniture you might find in a fancy, edgy French person’s apartment and on the wholesome braided carpets you might find in a Maine farmhouse. The Gesamkunstwerk,entitled Think I’m Gonna Have A Baby (2014), includes projections of found clips depicting interchangeable violence between animals and people respectively, and a monitor with a staged, raunchy confessional dialogue between two gay lovers who seem to hate one another. The wall text identifies the dissolution of humanity into a circus of cruelty as its subject, but this declaration is, frankly, not even necessary, because the work is writ so large, scary, and engrossing.
Shaped like the islands of Manhattan, Hawaii, and Kauai, Ei Arakawa’s hats for two and three people, are, by contrast, totally benign, but much crazier. Arakawa’s mutable and often inscrutable practice has been hitting for a while now—another New York-based artist, like Melgaard, whose industrious imagination has flourished during the past years in a corporatized city that has been sapped of its creative life force. It’s not immediately clear if Ken Okiishi’s vertical, wall-mounted flatscreens, each titled gesture/data (2013), partially painted over with impressionistic brushstrokes are important, but they look fresh; and the floor-to-ceiling salon hanging of Keith Mayerson paintings, casting autobiographical moments alongside renditions of iconic American people and symbols, gives the underappreciated painter his due. On a different register, a room near the back of floor three—Afterlife: a constellation (2014), organized as a work of art, at Comer’s invitation, by Group Material cofounder Julie Ault—interweaves intergenerational referents and inspirations into a tautology unbound by the unities of time and place. To name but a few, filmmaker Matt Wolf’s slideshow, which includes a narration that touches on his adolescent discovery of the late David Wojnarowicz, is placed next to Wojnarowicz’s own Calendar (1989). To its left is Closed (1984–85), a painting by late Lower East Side artist Martin Wong, who is an ongoing subject of inquiry for Danh Vo. And in turn, Vo’s piece, snowfall/northern Sierras 1847 (2013), which echoes Alfred A. Hart’s photograph Stumps cut by Donner Party (c. 1868), is placed on the other side of the room near a text by Ault about Wong and Wojnarowicz. But the most transcendent inclusion on this floor has got to be Lebanese-born Etel Adnan, the eighty-nine-year-old writer, poet, and here, painter, whose canvases depict emotional landscapes told in simple compositions of four or five hard-edged hues, and whose two epic poems outstretched in accordion books go from earth to space to death to life and back in an unbroken, linear circle.
None of the three shows are sparse, but Grabner’s fourth floor jams the most works in of all. Even more so than in Comer’s exhibition, the two most captivating works are made by popular, market-anointed artists. Sterling Ruby, working in his best medium—ceramics— puts forth three Vulcan maws from his “Basin Theology” series (2013–14), full of glossy, broken archaeologies. Behind those is one big painting, As-yet-untitled (2014) by Laura Owens, which both eschews verbal description and has a lot of fun with words; the text “When you come to the end of your rope, make a knot, and hang on” accompanies a 1980s children’s illustration of a boy and his dog swinging by rope across a teal void, within and beneath a meticulously layered vortex of painting posing as digital effects, posing as painting. Many other big, colorful, abstract paintings by women fill this main room: Jacqueline Humphries, Louise Fishman, Molly Zuckerman-Hartung, Dona Nelson, and Amy Sillman. The largest canvas, Gaylen Gerber’s undated Backdrop/Untitled, is flat grey and inconspicuously stretched around the entire wall outside the elevator. It is itself a surface for other works to be hung on; presently it’s Trevor Shimizu’s untitled ritualistic figurative compositions but on April 15, as the wall label tells us, it will be replaced by Sherrie Levine’s Thin Stripe: 10 (1986) and David Hammons’s Untitled (2010). Placed at the end of the most natural path through the fourth floor, Zoe Leonard’s 945 Madison Avenue (2014) is all about depriving the viewer of light. It’s a huge camera obscura refracting the quotidian windows of Madison Avenue onto its walls. As an elegy to the building on the occasion of its last biennial, it’s a much too obvious, precious note to end on—something that could have been devised by a PR assistant as readily as by a great photographer like Leonard. Overall, there is a bit too much going on here for Grabner’s show to coalesce a striking identity, but there’s a harmonious enough fluidity to how it all intermingles, probably owing to the personal and pedagogical connections among the artists and to the curator, who is an artist herself.
Something about that lends itself to the overarching Biennial’s greatest success, whose most contemporary experiment deals with framing a curator as a locus of collaborations and conversations, rather than the steward of conceptual frameworks that enslave art. Grabner’s show is not about the Midwest, but there is a preponderance of artists from Chicago and the surrounding region (even a Dawoud Bey photographic portrait of the Chicagoan American president, Barack Obama (2008), is hung above her curatorial statement). Comer’s exhibition doesn’t stake itself as a queer show, and by no means exclusively contains queer artists, but he and most of the ones that I was struck by and mentioned above publicly identify as queer (as do I). Perhaps Elms’s show suffers because it lacks an expansive, lived impetus. But ultimately, at the risk of being boring, I must conclude the same as usual… the Biennial essentially falls flat. Though multifaceted, it’s hard to imagine a truly textured object with only three sides. That the three exhibitions fully commit to their autonomy is a good thing, but unfortunately, the aggregate effect that arises from their congress feels jumbled and piecemeal. The experiment as a whole fails, and while it shouldn’t go in the vault as our recollection of 2014, it is a step forward because, suspended in the loftiest, Sisyphean heights of democratized irreality, testing its own form is exactly what the Whitney Biennial should always endeavor to do.
Kevin McGarry is a writer and curator based in Los Angeles and New York.
1Bjarne Melgaard, Think I’m Gonna Have A Baby, 2014.
2Valerie Snobeck and Catherine Sullivan, Image of Limited Good, 2014.
1Bjarne Melgaard, Think I’m Gonna Have A Baby, 2014. Mixed media with video and holographic projections, dimensions variable. Photo by Kevin McGarry.
2Valerie Snobeck and Catherine Sullivan, Image of Limited Good, 2014. Campaign tables, hectograph duplicators, carbon ink, suitcases and briefcase, depression glass, gold-plated swizzle sticks, disassembled greeting card rack, hectograph prints on interleaving tissue, hinges, and blueprint rack. Photo by Kevin McGarry.
3Charline von Heyl, Folk Tales, 2013. Acrylic, ink, wax, charcoal, and collage on paper, 36 parts, 24 x 19 inches each. Photo by Kevin McGarry.
4Gary Indiana, Untitled (detail), 2014. Video projection, four text panels, grid of 25 digital C-prints on archival hot press matte paper, and LED curtain, dimensions variable. Image courtesy of the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. Photo by Bill Orcutt.
8View of the Whitney Biennial 2014 with works by Keith Mayerson, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 2014. Photo by Kevin McGarry.
9View of Julie Ault, Afterlife: a constellation at the Whitney Biennial 2014, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 2014.
10Etel Adnan, Five Senses for One Death, 1969. Ink and watercolor on paper, 11 x 255 inches. Image courtesy of the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, and Callicoon Fine Arts, New York. Photo by Chris Austen.
11View of the Whitney Biennial 2014, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 2014. Photo by Kevin McGarry.
12View of the Whitney Biennial 2014, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 2014. Image courtesy of the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.
13Zoe Leonard, 945 Madison Avenue, 2014. Lens and darkened room, 210 x 300 x 632 inches. Image courtesy of the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Murray Guy, New York; and Galerie Gisela Capitain, Cologne.
The Biennial tries something new, but winds up being the same old thing
TIME OUT NEW YORK
By Howard Halle Thu Mar 6 2014
Time Out Ratings
Right off the bat, the 2014 Whitney Biennial raises a question: Is it an exercise in out-of-the box thinking? Or does it represent a tacit admission that the Whitney is no longer institutionally capable of mounting its signature show? The answer is probably both. Read on for our full review of this year’s museum-wide exhibition with our own slideshow gallery of highlights, then scroll down for a sneak peak of the gallery itself.
Instead of the usual buildingwide bacchanalia of zeitgeisty goodness we’ve come to know and love (or love to hate), the proceedings are broken into three more or less discrete exhibitions. Each is mostly confined to its own floor, and organized by a different outside curator. Handling the duties are Stuart Comer, chief curator of media and performance art at MoMA; Anthony Elms, associate curator at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia; and Michelle Grabner, who is an artist and professor in the painting and drawing department at the School of the Art Institute, Chicago. Asking why they got the job as opposed to other people is a bit like wondering why certain Ping-Pong balls pop up during Lotto drawings.In some cases, one curator’s selection winds up on the floor of another (or in a Whitney common area, such as its lobby or moat), but each floor remains distinctly the expression of a single point of view.Somehow it works, or at least it does so enough of the time to make this Biennial seem better than most. I know: faint praise! Still, this edition should be remembered for its inclusion of paintings in pretty decent numbers, as well as its emphasis on semiforgotten careers and artists from outside New York.This separate-floor arrangement, of course, makes it easier to heap praise or to assign blame, depending on your tastes. For me, the Westminster trophy for Best in Show indubitably goes to fourth floor, helmed by Grabner. Apparently the first practicing artist involved in shaping a Biennial, she brings an artistic eye to installing art, a talent that curators were routinely expected to apply before the practice became professionalized. In her own work, she’s something of a formalist—a dirty word in certain quarters—but the attention she pays to the relationships between forms turns out to be a virtue.Many of her selections are worth a shout-out, but those off the top of my head includes Gretchen Bender’s black crumpled cenotaph, listing backlighted movie titles form the ’80s; Joel Otterson’s psychedelic harem tent; Amy Sillman’s prismatic abstractions; and Joshua Mosley’s charming Claymation video of an early-20th-century tennis match. The last is hung within a stretch of rooms putting an emphasis on quietude, both visually and conceptually. It starts with one of Anthony Elms’s picks: Zoe Leonard’s spooky and sublime camera obscura installation. Set within a spacious portion of the floor, the piece consists of a large lens board covering one of the Whitney’s “eyebrow” windows overlooking Madison Avenue. On the opposite wall, the lens throws an upside-down projection of the buildings across the street, with the dimmed, blurry image being pretty much the same scale as its subject. From there you proceed into the gallery containing the aforementioned video, along with Stephen Berens’s layered photos of Rome, and a long shelf filled with Shio Kusaka’s exquisite pottery. This part of the exhibit is best summed up by the title of Ben Kinmont’s text-driven tableau in the next room: Shh. Down the corridor you’ll also find Jennifer Bornstein’s video of naked women performing modern dance routines, and Peter Schuyff’s case full of corkscrewing pencils.
“Nobody calls the Biennial the Oscars of the art world anymore, but in some ways, the comparison is more apt than ever.”
I wish I could say the rest of Biennial was as strong as the fourth floor, but it isn’t. I liked Ken Okiishi’s painted flatscreens on floor three, along with Bjarne Melgaard’s crazy, hypersexualized whorehouse of horrors off to the left of Okiishi’s wall. Melgaard is precisely the sort of art star who’s benefited from the market’s premium on sensationalism, but give the man his due: He’s good at what he does.
Ultimately, the 2014 Biennial is somewhat square, even provincial, and that may be okay for now. Because truthfully, the formula is impervious to change. You could scour the planet and probably find enough artists to mount a truly mind-blowing survey every other year. But that supposes the Biennial is just a show when it’s really not. It’s a brand, and like any brand, genuine risk makes its shareholders nervous. The Whitney’s forthcoming MePa home will only raise the stakes in this sense, making a ground-up rethink less likely.
Nobody calls the Biennial the Oscars of the art world anymore, but in some ways, the comparison is more apt than ever. Like the Oscars, the Biennial is an exercise in self-love, demanding attention it doesn’t quite deserve, but you pay it heed anyway. On that score, 2014 is the Ellen DeGeneres edition: safe, genial, with just enough jokes that land to distract you from the ones that fall flat.
For its 2014 Biennial, the last before taking the plunge downtown, the Whitney went a little wild with the recipe. It picked three curators from outside the museum and outside New York. (One just recently arrived.) It gave each of them free rein on a floor in the museum’s Breuer building to work solo, with no cross talk required, though, of course, there was some, and some space sharing, too.
The result is a large, three-tiered cake of a show, mostly vanilla, but laced with threads of darker, sharper flavor, and with a lot of frosting on top.
For a long time, almost any biennial concoction the Whitney came up with was critically squashed. That tradition seems to have ended with the 2002 show, when the attacks were so ferocious that a lot of people began to back off.
And the shape of the art world was starting to change. It was growing hugely bigger. There was just more of everything: more artists, more galleries, more things. Postmodern pluralism, which for two decades had made conservatives crazy, was turning out to be their best friend. It diluted political thinking and encouraged easy-on-the-eye luxe. Much of this year’s Biennial fits without resistance into the city’s concurrent art fair week. That’s the way things are.
Within this anodyne context, the show’s organizers — Stuart Comer, chief curator of media and performance art at the Museum of Modern Art; Anthony Elms, an artist and associate curator at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia; and Michelle Grabner, also an artist and professor of painting and drawing at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago — have made some interesting choices, pulled in some new faces and shaped three quite different shows.
If you want to go straight for frosting, head to Ms. Grabner’s installation on the fourth floor, which has by far the most artists — about half the show’s total count of just over 100 — along with the biggest objects and the brightest colors. In an interview, Ms. Grabner said forthrightly that she did not take her primary mission to be the tracking down of young talent. She mostly chose artists in mid- or mid-late career, many of them women. Good idea.
Several are painters — Louise Fishman, Jacqueline Humphries, Dona Nelson, Amy Sillman, Molly Zuckerman-Hartung — who work in variations on gestural abstraction. Their work is hung together in one gallery, which may not have been the best move. In the enclosed space, so many energy-generating pictures short-circuit one another a bit.
Still, it’s an impressive display of formal chops, though I come to it with a handicap. I find Abstract Expressionism, a historical style referenced here, overrated and pretentious, a bore. Why would anyone want to bother with it, except maybe to do some constructive damage, which is the option that Ms. Nelson and Ms. Zuckerman-Hartung, in interestingly unalike ways, seem to take: Ms. Zuckerman-Hartung slices up the canvas (or, in her case, a dropcloth); Ms. Nelson messes up the surface with applications of ratty-looking, driplike skeins of paint-soaked cheesecloth.
In general, Modernism — recycled, retooled, whatever — hangs like a mist over the fourth floor, particularly over ceramics that might as easily date from 70 years ago as from today. So it’s tonic to encounter an inky storm cloud of a vinyl-and-neon wall piece called “People in Pain,” made in 1988 by Gretchen Bender (1951-2004) and restored (“remade” is the term on the wall label) by Philip Vanderhyden this year.
A cheerful Pop sign sculpture by Ken Lum embedded with references to the Vietnam War is half obscured by overcrowding. But three smallish paintings by the Chicagoan Philip Hanson, quoting Blake and Dickinson, are lovingly displayed. They’re directly across from a case of handwritten notes made by the novelist David Foster Wallace for a book left unfinished at the time of his 2008 suicide.
Their presence seems to come out of nowhere, but it’s smart, a wake-up injection of not-art (or maybe-art) into an installation heavy with art with a capital A. Dawoud Bey’s studio portrait of Barack Obama placed, with perfectly inscrutable intent, right up front serves a similar purpose.
Painting and language are also basic ingredients of Mr. Comer’s smaller, sparer third-floor show. And right off the bat, he introduces us to a virtuoso of both: the Lebanese-American writer and painter Etel Adnan, now 89, whose accordion-fold notebooks, dating to the 1960s, combine diarylike accounts of violence and near-abstract poetry with horizontally extendable watercolor landscapes.
Mr. Comer also gives us a chance to revisit the California artist Channa Horwitz (1932-2013), who made a memorable impression at the recent Venice Biennale with ultrarefined geometric drawings that suggest stitch work and genetic coding, and functioned as a form of dance or performance notation.
A lot of what Mr. Comer’s installation is about is the phenomenon of mixing, how everyone’s doing everything. Morgan Fisher makes film, paintings and sculptures that are also architecture. Kevin Beasley’s sculptures are products of his performance. The irrepressible Jacolby Satterwhite combines vogueing, martial arts and contemporary dance in video animations in which he is the main performer.
Within Mr. Comer’s installation, as in the Biennial as a whole, artists are curators. At his invitation, the painter Richard Hawkins and the photographer Catherine Opie have organized a mini-retrospective of paintings-on-photographs by an art school classmate, Tony Greene, who died of AIDS in 1990 at 35. Tributes to the dead — there are several in this Biennial, including, by default, one to Terry Adkins, who died just weeks ago — have a ripple effect: Most of Greene’s lavish, petite paintings are, in essence, valentines and prayers sent out to friends disappeared.
They are also, of course, inherently political statements, and in a Biennial damningly mum about politics, it is bracing to find work that isn’t. Photographs of, and by, Zackary Drucker and Rhys Ernst, a transgender couple, put queer consciousness on the front burner, and work by the California photographer Fred Lonidier stands as a beacon of dedicated activism. Starting in the 1970s, Mr. Lonidier documented the lives of immigrant laborers on both sides of the United States/Mexican border. Rather than exhibit his pictures in galleries, he showed them in shopping malls, union halls and tractor-trailers. He got in trouble, got censored, but kept keeping on. God bless him.
The bottommost layer of the biennial cake, Mr. Elms’s installation on the second floor, is the thinnest in numbers and, at first bite, the least sweet. But it has some of the work I liked best. A piece at the entrance by Jimmie Durham — Native American by descent, in self-exile from the United States since 1987 — was a good omen. His abstract but roughly humanoid sculpture called “Choose Any Three” is made of stacked wood chips inscribed with names: Vanzetti, E. Zapata; Crazy Horse; Ho Chi Minh, Cristóbal Colón, Johnny Colón, Kay Starr, Malcolm X, etc. Mix and match and create your own political meaning for the piece.
This is also sort of the general method underlying Mr. Elms’s show, which reveals itself slowly. You spot an LP playing on a turntable, but there’s no sound. You listen closer, and maybe there is: a kind of audible vacuum, moving air. The recording was made on Sept. 11 and 12, 2001, by Matt Hanner, a member of the collective Academy Records. He lived under a flight path near a Chicago airport. When planes were grounded after the news of the Sept. 11 attacks, he taped the extraordinary silence.
An installation by Public Collectors, a Chicago group founded by Marc Fischer in 2007, is also about preserving sounds: hundreds of live experimental music performances taped over many years by Malachi Ritscher, a Chicago jazz fanatic and political activist who publicly immolated himself in 2006 as a protest against the war in Iraq. Thanks to Public Collectors, which functions as a custodian of cultural materials that no one, including museums, wants, Ritscher’s life’s work survives, including the briefcases in which he carried equipment, which are here.
The Biennial contribution from Joseph Grigely is a similar act of salvage. Some 20 years ago, in an abandoned factory in Jersey City, he found a cache of manuscripts and photographs that had once belonged to Gregory Battcock, the art critic and artist. Battcock, a ubiquitous and influential figure in the New York art world during the 1960s and ’70s, was murdered in Puerto Rico in 1980. After years of research, Mr. Grigely has pieced together an archive of this complex and personable writer’s life. The selection in the show is riveting.
And the archive isn’t all reading; there are plenty of visuals, as there are throughout Mr. Elms’s low-fat exhibition. You have to return to the fourth floor, to a space he borrowed from Ms. Grabner, to see Zoe Leonard’s crepuscular camera obscura view of the street outside the Whitney.
But back down on 2, he’s offering a dreamboat of a video called “The Beautiful One Has Come,” by Dave McKenzie; a suite of tiny collage-poems by Susan Howe; Elijah Burgher’s colored pencil drawing of three nude males, posed in front of Antonio del Pollaiuolo’s 15th-century treatment of the same theme; and a handful of pocket-size notebooks with cartoonlike watercolors by the Conceptualist Allan Sekula.
The notebooks were a surprise to me, and they are certainly of interest. But their inclusion points to a major flaw in this biennial. Sekula, who died last year, was one of the most incisive, persistent and underrated political artists America produced after World War II. For some four decades, through texts and photographs, he critically documented the everyday realities of American classism and economic inequality. He worked within the art world: He was a revered teacher but stayed clear of its fads and foolishness. His major life’s work is fundamentally un-art-fair art.
But his notebook drawings have relatively little to do with his major work, and everything to do, at least in the distorting context of this show, with the present market taste for cash-and-carry neatness, craftsiness-as-quality and political content as a kind of sweet-and-sour flavor enhancer. Despite some good work assembled for this Biennial by three bright curators, I left feeling pretty much the way I do when I leave an art fair, full but empty, tired of dessert, hungry for a sustained and sustaining meal.
The 2014 Whitney Biennial continues through May 25 at the Whitney Museum of American Art; 212-570-3600, whitney.org.
A version of this review appears in print on March 7, 2014, on page C25 of the New York edition with the headline: One Last Dance in the Old Place. Order Reprints|Today’s Paper|Subscribe
NEW YORK MAGAZINE
3/5/2014 at 9:00 AM
Seeing Out Loud: There’s a Smart Show Struggling to Get Out of This Big, Bland Whitney Biennial
Sterling Ruby’s ceramic sculptures are the best thing in the show.
If you want to get the most out of the 2014 Whitney Biennial, start on the fourth floor and spend most of your time there. This portion of the exhibition — there are three, each with its own curator — was organized by the Chicago artist-gallerist Michelle Grabner, and includes the show’s visual and material high point: a central gallery crammed with colorful painting, sculpture, and handmade objects as well as ceramics and textiles. It’s wildly overfilled, radiating heat and energy. The prehistoric-like wrecked giant ceramic ashtray-objects of Sterling Ruby are maybe my favorite objects in the show; I love the chaotically woven two-sided paintings of Dona Nelson, the glimmering chain-metal beaded-curtain adorned with antique tools by Joel Otterson, the material-poetry of the collaboration between Amy Sillman and Pam Lins. There are more than a few duds, and the usual buddy-buddy inclusions of friends and former students — everyone does that, not just Grabner — but if you wander through the rest of this floor, you’ll find other artists well worth looking at.
And, apart from scattered pockets in the rest of the show, it’s the last blast of visual and material juice that you’ll get in this optically starved, aesthetically buttoned-up, pedantic biennial.
Much of the rest of the show is a nebulous tasting-menu mess that exudes an inert elegiac air. I kept hearing myself think, I see dead art: Work that looks and behaves like it is supposed to look and behave but that doesn’t make us see differently, that doesn’t rethink form, reimage structure, or explore material, color, or new orders. You’ll spend way too much time here reading long wall labels that explain what the work is supposed to be about. Never mind that Oscar Wilde said something like, “The moment that you think you know a work of art, it is dead to you.” This reading-to-see is an extension of our highly educated class of artists and curators, an urge to ape the look of art, play by the rules, and be accepted by institutions. The result is a generic, noncommittal, straitlaced show.
There’s something else. About 40 percent of the individual artists in this show are older or deceased. The average age of the artists in Grabner’s salon-gallery is around 55. On the second floor (organized by Anthony Elms), the average age is around 50. Now, let me stipulate that newness, nowness, and nextness have nothing to do with age, or with the age at which an artist emerges. I wouldn’t have a job if the art world weren’t intensely cross-generational and layered. (An artist can catch fire for the first time at age 90.) Yet such emphasis on older practitioners makes this biennial come off as a dodge, as if the curators were scared of making a wrong call. Or they haven’t spent enough time in the trenches (as opposed to flying around the world participating in symposiums with like-minded curators), and have lost touch with what might be going on beyond what they already know. Right off the second-floor elevator entrance is a sculpture by Jimmie Durham, who was born in 1940. It was made in 1989! I’ve been told that it is the last work he exhibited in New York before he decamped to Europe. I like Durham’s work enough but there’s no reason he should be taking up this biennial slot — let alone with this work. Ditto the lovely notebooks by the late filmmaker Allan Sekula.
Careful correctness abounds. Hot young artists and market favorites and spectacles have been shunned. The show is peppered with collectives and collaborations. It isn’t New York–centric, and it loves artists who’ve been in other biennials or who’ve already had museum surveys. Success is okay as long as it’s not too financial or big. Rudolf Stingel created a mind-blowing installation in Venice last summer, but he’d never be included in a show like this. Nor would more unpredictable excellent younger talents like Andra Ursuta, Josh Kline, or Lucy Dodd. The show cries out for one of William Powhida’s gigantic art-world-Babylon murals, maybe downstairs in the restaurant. The curators are so determined to stay pure, to avoid acknowledging the machinations of commerce, that the show is completely disconnected from the entire world.
Stuart Comer, who curates media and performance art at MoMA, opens his third-floor show with Dash Manley’s trailer-scale walk-in wood and metal frame with large prints or something inside. Nearby is a large ridiculous video of the artist reenacting some scene from an early American film. The work is here because it checks all the boxes: It takes up a lot of space, is momentarily engaging, has video, references film, and comes with elaborate explanatory wall text. Whole Lower East Side galleries could fit in the space this washout takes up. Nearby is a very large gallery devoted to Semiotext(e), the publishers who introduced French poststructuralist theory to the U.S. I’ll just say that I saw ten artists in galleries last month who would’ve been better and more relevant. Grrrrrr. Sigh.
The curators are also infatuated with the current institutional tic of display-mania: artists who act as curators, anthropologists, and archivists, mining eccentric informational territories. I adore this sort of idiosyncratic exploration. Yet so much of that art begins with fabulous raw information and then does barely anything to transform it. Here, Valerie Snobeck and Catherine Sullivan have “appropriated” the extraordinary collection of anthropologist George M. Foster, who in the 1960s gathered and annotated airline menus. Magical material! You just want to look at it! And then Snobeck and Sullivan turn it into a dead display of suitcases and prints supposedly about “disseminating subversive information” and how “immutable social systems might be re-engineered.” Ben Kinmont falls just as flat by asking museum visitors to send him a note with the time and date of a conversation they have at home. He will then make annotated records of the time and date of the first 100 notes. Absolutely by-the-book bland informational-conceptualism. These artists are unwilling or incapable of presenting information whole to yield its inherent power, or they fuss it up, turning everything into artsy little displays.
Though not everything. There’s a very good small show trapped in the body of this very big, bad Biennial. Exemplary in this regard, Zoe Leonard has turned one of the largest single galleries in the museum into a beautiful empty camera obscura, using the Whitney’s distinctive prismatic window as a lens. Here we see the world projected upside-down into the darkened space; traffic runs on the ceiling; building façades reach to the floor. In this reverberating quiet, one of the Whitney’s final uses of its unusual architecture before it moves downtown, we see the place where the real meets the power of the abstract.
*This article appears in the March 10, 2014 issue of New York Magazine.
Guests entering the Whitney Biennial 2014 press preview
(Courtesy Ben Gabbe/Getty Images)
The wall text for the 2014 edition of the Whitney Biennial opens with a defensive admonition: “The field of contemporary art is far too vast for one exhibition to encompass,” it reads, disclaiming the idea that the the biennial is actually a comprehensive survey of current practice, as most people seem to think it is. In that same spirit, let’s admit that the Whitney Biennial itself is far too vast for one so-called review to encompass—lest it become nothing more than a list of names and dates, an archive of the stuff that’s been crammed into and across three floors, a courtyard, and a lobby gallery.
This biennial is the brainchild of three curators, from three different places—Anthony Elms (Philadelphia, and formerly Chicago), Stuart Comer (New York by way of London), and Michelle Grabner (Chicago and Wisconsin)—and the floors have roughly been divvied up among them, with a few exceptions. One might expect this to give the Biennial a schizophrenic character, but it more or less holds together, with some nice call-outs and resonances from floor to floor.
Let’s start with the weird backbone of the exhibition, and the reason why you should avoid the elevator in favor of the stairs: A 12-channel sound installation by Charlemagne Palestine, emitting from a series of speakers that have been decorated, a la Mike Kelley, with an array of abject stuffed bears and elephants and strands of bedraggled scarves. The piece (which was recorded by the artist in the museum space itself) is a mantra of unease, a bed of haunted synth-like sounds humming and dying and punctuated with the occasional affected human voice. Palestine’s inclusion here (he was Elms’s choice) colors much of what you see on other floors. It’s not mood music, per se, since this Biennial’s flavor isn’t exactly Nightmarish Doom, but it does have an outsized influence on the way you experience the show.
For instance: Head up to the fourth floor, Michelle Grabner‘s domain, where the introductory wall text is paired with a straightforward, albeit intense, portrait of Barack Obama taken by Dawoud Bey. The Commander-in-Chief’s gaze is complicated by the fact that, while you’re looking at him, you’re also awash in the stairwell’s audio, and that droning miasma of sound suddenly makes Barack look like the sort of hard-assed Machievelli who could, well, order a fleet of drones to hit a country we’re not technically at war with.
But let’s start back downstairs, or at least try to make some necessarily reductive, broad-stroke characterizations about what this biennial means and how it reflects the temperaments of its respective curators. What do they care about, and why does it matter? Elms is a bibliophile, a lover of the archival and collectable, and all of that is clear from the second floor—which, and we can argue about this, is probably the smartest one here. I’d venture that everything on this level, including the sculptures and paintings, has to do with language in various forms: language that communicates, or fails to; language that is bent or broken or impotent.
The link is sometimes obvious, as in Susan Howe‘s Tom Tit Tot, 22 letterpress prints that take found writing and twist it into concrete poetics. These prints, arrayed in a vitrine, share a room with Elijah Burgher‘s excellent colored pencil drawings incorporating written spells (sigils) and a hanging acrylic-on-fabric piece that also reads like imaginary hieroglyphics. Even Charline von Heyl‘s grid of 36 drawings—incorporating appropriated images of Russian and Polish folk art, spray paint, graphite, and other media—takes on the appearance of a typographical chart, itemizing letters from a distant past or an unknown future. And the Carol Jackson sculptures spread throughout the space—some on pedestals, some hanging from the walls—are like graffiti forms pouncing into three dimensions: a bit cheesy in a Frank-Stella-in-the-’80s way, but boldly confident in their alien funkiness.
Other rooms in this floor-covering expansion of Elms’s brain feature archives a bit like masoleums, extolling the underappreciated dead. One corner nook organized by the collective Public Collectors is dedicated to Malachi Ritscher, a Chicago audiophile known for obsessively recording live concerts, jazz and otherwise, and also for protesting the Iraq War until 2006, when he committed suicide by lighting himself on fire in a very public place while carrying an anti-war placard. I didn’t know any of this; did you know any of this? Part of the point is that you probably didn’t, and that an American man can self-immolate without becoming any sort of folk hero. But here he is in the Whitney Museum, his posters and suitcases and recording devices and Butthole Surfers’ set lists arrayed like holy objects, which is certainly a beautiful homage, but also a bit sad.
In an adjacent room, Joseph Grigelypresents a dissection of the life of a deceased painter-cum-critic, The Gregory Battcock Archive. It brings together printed matter, photographs, postcards, and other materials in vitrines, as well as some posters on the wall. There’s an art review from the New York Free Press, circa 1969, the prose all bebop beatnik bounce. On the wall there’s an actual abstract painting—supposedly the only remaining work by Battcock—that is pretty bad in its generic mushiness. Is this the archive as homage, celebration, or simple oddity?
Stuart Comer’s third floor is the most self-consciously hip in this biennial, and the one most interested in tapping into new media. There’s a room-sized installation by Bjarne Melgaard—now best known for making a chair sculpture that Dasha Zhukova pissed everyone off by sitting on—featuring female mannequins, digitally-printed penis pillows, and videos of animals. (It’s colorful and energetic but somehow flat and subdued, like a Ryan Trecartin environment that’s had all the kinetic life sucked out of it.) There’s a piece by Ken Okiishi: five Samsung televisions playing generic programs, turned on their side, their screens daubed with oil paint. A Fred Lonidier work—a 1976 piece that could have been made yesterday—is a wall hung with t-shirts, their fronts custom-printed with images and news announcements related to the GAF Corporation. (The shirts get larger as it goes, from child-size to a Men’s Large, perhaps a nod to the way in which we grow up with companies, our lives colonized by their narratives.)
And an entire room is given over to ephemera from the publishing house semiotext(e)—including a fancy, silvery wallpaper that collages images, posters, announcements, and the like. Several semiotext(e) titles are propped on little shelves, as if we’re in a highbrow gift shop. (Semiotext(e) is trending right now! Fun fact: Head over to Zach Feuer right now and you can see sculptures by Brad Troemel that vacuum-seal the imprint’s monochromatically-covered mini-volumes into color field arrangements augmented by faux-dredlocks.)
Elsewhere on the floor Comer’s focus becomes a bit more diffuse. There’s a whole area that seems weirdly nostalgic for the mid-’80s—David Wojnarowicz, Martin Wong, a book by Martin Beck focused on the playlist for a party held in 1984. Which is fine, the Biennial isn’t a survey of our contemporary moment, and these throwbacks are paired with work by Danh Vo and others, but: Why? Meanwhile, Zachary Drucker and Rhys Ernst‘s photographic series Relationship, 2008-13, is one of the biennial’s true stand-outs—it tracks the pair’s criss-crossing gender transformations (male to female, female to male), and is beautifully composed, funny (some Sarah Lucas-y humor, wherein eggs stand for balls and bratwursts become penises), and unabashadedly sweet and sentimental. The only misstep is in hanging the series in the same room as A.L. Steiner‘s playfully subversive documentary images, which are close enough in style and attitude that the nearby hanging creates a sort of ghetto of photographic queerness.
Comer does include a fair amount of painting as well. Keith Mayerson‘s dozens of canvases, hung chockablock, are notable for having absolutely no defining signature style whatsoever. There are paintings of shipwrecks; of Elvis; of Tin Tin; of Times Square; of James Dean hanging out in a tree, masturbating. Individually, they’re not much; together, they’re a statement about taste (bad and good) and an obsessive work ethic.
Up to the fourth floor, which is helmed by Michelle Grabner, who touts her mission as being about “curriculum building.” That reeks of school, but Grabner’s true M.O. is to focus craft: ceramics, textile, and enough color to stun an elephant. The focus here is more on things: Ricky Swallow‘s patinated bronze sculptures, which resemble delicate little folded-cardboard constructions; Sheila Hicks‘s drooping masses of rainbow materials; Sterling Ruby‘s Lucio Fontana-aping ceramics, like oversized horrorshow ashtrays. Everything is pretty bright and immediate and there’s a mini-focus on women abstract painters: Amy Sillman,Jacqueline Humphreys, Laura Owens, Molly Zuckerman-Hartung,Suzanne McClelland (plusRebecca Morris downstairs). Philip Hanson‘s paintings turn quotations from William Blake or Emily Dickinson into hippy spirals that are pretty unbearable, but they’re notable as a reminder of Elijah Burgher’s New Age vibe on the second floor, minus whatever ironic distance that younger practitioner might have. As a curator, Grabner wants to grab you by the shoulders and say: Handmade still matters—like Karl Haendel‘s intricate, realistic graphite drawings, hung in a very Baldessarian arrangement, or Shio Kusaka‘s stoneware and porcelain vessels, decorated with tear patterns or dinosaurs.
What does the 2014 Whitney Biennial mean? Who knows, really. If we had the time or inclination we could offer some conjectures about the ever-expanding field of painting (Dashiell Manley, Dona Nelson); Americans’ obsessions with early-20th century European experimental theater (Shana Lutker, My Barbarian); self-portraiture recast as space-age camp (Jacolby Satterwhite); video-as-voyeurism (Michel Auder filming people through apartment windows, Dave McKenzie filming an unaware Henry Kissinger); or the ironic importation of the tropics into bone-cold New York City (Radames “Juni” Figueroa‘s cozy, heated hut out in the Whitney’s courtyard).
But trying to draw too many cross-connections in an exhibition of 103 artists seems just plain silly, and arbitrary. So why not end in an arbitrary place? If there’s one weird object in the entire biennial to dwell on, perhaps it can be a notebook in a vitrine of effects from David Foster Wallace, who hung himself in 2008. Its cover features two blue-eyed kittens rolling around on a bed of roses, beneath the heading Cuddly Cuties. Heartbreaking in its simplicity and aura of posthumous awfulness, it’s a fitting place to stop—before you descend that staircase of dread and rejoin the wider world.
Lisa Anne Auerbach, “American Megazine #2″ (2014), inkjet prints and staples, 24 pages (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic unless otherwise noted)
The 2014 Whitney Biennial has many things: oversized ceramics, big abstract and figurative paintings, experimental jazz, videos of people having sex, and bead curtains. What it doesn’t have all that much of is politics. For the most part, the art in this year’s biennial faces inward, reflecting on itself and sometimes the larger world in safe and comfortable ways. You won’t be too put out, turned off, or riled up. You’ll probably just have a good time.
Charlemagne Palestine’s 12-channel sound installation “hauntteddd!! n huntteddd!! n daunttlesss!! n shuntteddd!!” (2014) fills the Whitney’s stairwell. (click to enlarge)
There is some excellent work in the show. Sterling Ruby’s large, ritualistic ceramic bowls are fabulous. Zoe Leonard’s room-size camera obscura is delightful. Sculptors Alma Allen and Carol Jackson offer brain-bending formal innovations, and I felt as though I could have sat and listened to Charlemagne Palestine’s droning, mesmerizing staircase sound installation for an hour. Paintings by an under-appreciated Chicago Imagist (Philip Hanson), a sound piece made from field recordings of Chicago on September 11 and 12, 2001, when air travel was suspended (Academy Records/Matt Hanner), a gigantic magazine with text culled entirely from psychic consultations (Lisa Anne Auerbach) — there’s plenty to like. But that’s just the issue: the biennial is overly neat and likeable, scarcely messy or funny or challenging.
Carol Jackson, “Pandemonium” (2013), wood, acrylic, papier mâché, and inkjet print
Is that a disastrous thing? No. Is it a shortcoming? Absolutely. All art need not be political, but a show that disregards politics in the United States in 2014 is a delusion — not simply because of the state of the country and the world, but also because of the state of art itself. Social practice is experiencing a moment of profound attention and criticality. Artists of color are being included more than ever in the mainstream, yet often still in a segregated way, which many of them question. Within the art world itself, certain practitioners have taken up residence at the border between institutional acceptance and an outsider stance, carving out space for satire and critique. By and large, none of that is in the 2014 Whitney Biennial.
I’m inclined to think that this omission stems at least in part from the exhibition’s lack of diversity. It’s telling that one of the strongest, most openly political showings comes from Dawoud Bey, whose two diptychs were curated by Michelle Grabner on the fourth floor. (Bey’s photograph of President Obama also hangs, lonely, at the entrance to the floor.) Bey recently spent seven years visiting Birmingham, Alabama, where, in 1963, white supremacists bombed an African-American church, killing four girls, and shot two African-American boys to death. His research led to The Birmingham Project, a series of black-and-white photo diptychs that pair portraits of African-American youths the same ages as the victims with those of African-American adults the ages the victims would have been in 2012. The gazes of the subjects are both inviting and unsettling.
Dawoud Bey’s prints from “The Birmingham Project” (2012) hanging behind Peter Schuyff’s carved pencils
Probably the only other artist as explicitly political as Bey is Fred Lonidier, an artist and longtime union activist who focuses on labor issues in his work. Lonidier’s contribution, curated by Stuart Comer on the third floor, consists of a 1976 piece called “GAF Snapshirts” — T-shirts obtained by the artist from a manufacturer called GAF and then custom printed with notes and images from his research into the company — and a 2003 work titled “‘NAFTA…’ Returns to Tijuana/‘TLC…’ Regresa a Tijuana,” two photos relating to a project that Lonidier undertook exploring the conditions at a light assembly plant in Tijuana, Mexico. The works (especially the T-shirts) are eye-catching, but even with their accompanying wall text seem to suffer from a lack of context.
Fred Lonidier, “GAF Snapshirts” (1976), 32 photo- and text-printed T-shirts (photo by Hrag Vartanian)
Also on Comer’s floor is the much-discussed 2012 documentary film Leviathan, made by Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel of the Sensory Ethnography Lab at Harvard University. Shot on tiny waterproof cameras, some attached to nets and people, others thrown into the sea, the 87-minute-long film explores industrial fishing in an unprecedented way, through dark, disorienting images and almost entirely without words. Although its origins at the Harvard lab explicitly position the work as “ethnographic,” critics have pointed out its almost de facto politics. At the Whitney, plunging underwater with Leviathan feels like bursting through the museum’s walls to let in the world outside.
Ken Lum, “Midway Shopping Plaza” (2014), powder-coated aluminum and enameled plexiglass (click to enlarge)
Other artists in the show come to politics, as many of us do, by way of identity. Ken Lum’s towering “Midway Shopping Plaza” (2014, fourth floor/Grabner) is a witty amalgam of tacky signs for Vietnamese-owned shops, except all of the names relate to the Vietnam War. Zackary Drucker and Rhys Ernst’s Relationship series (2008–13, third floor/Comer) consists of photographs of the two transgender artists in the process of transitioning in opposite directions, a fascinating subject, although the pictures are a bit generic. A.L. Steiner (also third floor/Comer) exhibits her film “More Real Than Reality Itself” (2014) within an all-over installation of photos, “Cost-benefit analysis” (2014), both of which attempt to use the artist’s body and autobiography as a starting point for mining questions of radicalness and activism. It’s one of the few pieces in the biennial that pulls you in with a seductive complexity.
A.L. Steiner, “Cost-benefit analysis” (2014), pigmented inkjet prints, photocopies, and paint; “More Real Than Reality Itself” (2014), multichannel video installation, color, sound, 54 min
Part of the problem of politically minded art in a setting like the Whitney Biennial is that its surroundings are unfavorable. In a show of such scale, viewers often gravitate to larger, flashier works and don’t have the energy or time to do the reading required to understand projects such as Lonidiers’. (Why linger on wall text when you could walk fewer than 10 feet to the Bjarne Melgaard room, which the artist has tricked out with plush, trippy furniture and oversexed female mannequins?) In this biennial, too, a fair amount of the political work is from the past, making it feel less relevant to the present day. (Catherine Opie and Richard Hawkins have curated a room of appealingly strange paintings by Tony Greene, who died of complications from AIDS in 1990 and whom Hawkins calls “the first one out of all of us making work specifically about HIV.”) On top of that, some of the older work is presented in a pristine archival format, which makes it seem even more sealed-off and distant. (A room by Public Collectors on the Anthony Elms-curated second floor presents the archive of Malachi Ritscher, a Chicago experimental jazz enthusiast and activist. It contains mostly music recordings and memorabilia arrayed neatly in glass cases, above which one well-composed photograph of Ritscher protesting hangs on the wall.)
Public Collectors’ Malachi Ritscher archive
There is much more to come in the 2014 Whitney Biennial, as the performances, videos, and other time-based works are unveiled. Who knows what political ideas may yet unfold. But right now the exhibition’s three floors offer a kind of cozy art cocoon — a sentiment not nearly as distanced from the art fairs as some observers would like to think.
The 2014 Whitney Biennial opens to the public on Friday, March 7, and continues at the Whitney Museum of American Art (945 Madison Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through May 25.
Your Guide To The Artists Of The 2014 Whitney Biennial
Posted: 03/06/2014 8:43 am EST Updated: 03/06/2014 8:59 am EST
The 77th Whitney Biennial opens Friday, transforming the Madison Avenue museum into a dizzying and somewhat overwhelming sketch of the contemporary art world, as well as a prediction of its future. This year’s crop of 103 participants features artists and collectives ranging from age 28 to 89, hailing from everywhere from Kingston, Jamaica to Berlin, Germany.
Offering everything from sound installations to arts and crafts, this year’s Biennial promises to be “one of the broadest and most diverse takes on art in the United States that the Whitney has offered in many years,” according to chief curator Donna De Salvo. This year’s art fest is divided into three separate floors, each designated by a different curator — MoMA’s Stuart Comer, ICA Philadelphia curator Anthony Elms, and Chicago-based artist and professor Michelle Grabner. While each curator brings a different perspective to the mix, all are focused on including artistic perspectives not grounded in New York.
How are you ever going to navigate 103 of the most exciting artists of today (and tomorrow)? We’ve picked out ten artist’s we’re particularly excited for to give you a taste of what’s out there. For the other 93, you’ll have to make your way to the Whitney. Behold, 10 Whitney Biennial artists we can’t wait to see.
1. Pedro Vélez.Born 1973 in Bayamón, Puerto Rico. Lives and works in Chicago, IL, and Milwaukee, WI.
White Privilege in Art CriticismWhat was the first artwork you remember really shaking you up?
Apocalypse Now. Watched with my dad when I was a kid and it fucked me up.
Briefly describe your work at this year’s Biennial.
Handmade posters and banners about white privilege in art criticism and American (USA!) society in general. 2. Victoria Fu. Born 1978 in Santa Monica, CA. Lives and works in San Diego, CA, and Los Angeles, CA.
Belle CaptiveWhat was the first artwork you remember really shaking you up?
Pamela M. Lee took our “Feminist Legacies in Contemporary Art” class to a space that is now CCA Wattis Center. It was all very new to me, and when I encountered Adrian Piper’s “Cornered,” a video monitor pinned by an overturned table, it was like her video image could see right through me. Piper, looking directly at the camera, was addressing me — a feeling both alienating and intimate — collapsing her present with mine. I obviously haven’t soon forgotten the power of her words, her gaze, her moment.
Briefly describe your work at this year’s Biennial.
My roots lie in narrative cinema, and I feel very much wedged between the experimental analog films that were heavy influences on me as a student, and more recently the rabbit hole we have all fallen through — namely, the internet, virtuality and the digital touchscreen. At its very base, my work is an expression of these elements, combining both original 16mm film and appropriated, lo-res clips from the internet. I’ll be installing a moving image installation in the Lobby Gallery in early May. The multi-projection piece from the Belle Captive series plays with our actual space, cinematic projected space and computer screen space. 3. Louise Fishman. Born 1939 in Philadelphia, PA. Lives and works in New York, NY.
Crossing the RubiconWhat was the first artwork you remember really shaking you up?
On a personal level, a painting by my paternal aunt, Razel Kapustin, of starving children. I was nine or 10 years old at the time. Secondly, paintings in the Philadelphia Museum and at the Barnes Foundation by Chaim Soutine.
Briefly describe your work at this year’s Biennial.
There are two of my paintings in the Whitney Biennial: “Crossing the Rubicon” and “Ristretto.” Both were inspired by residencies in Venice, courtesy of the Emily Harvey Foundation in 2011 and in 2013. The paintings reflect the transformative power of water, light, and the formidable Titians, Tintorettos, Veroneses, etc., as well as the exquisite Murano glass of the early to mid-20th century.
Who else’s work are you most excited for at the Biennial?
Without question, the paintings of Dona Nelson. 4. A.L. Steiner. Born 1967 in Miami, FL. Lives and works in Los Angeles, CA.
More Real Than Reality Itself, 2014, digital videoBriefly describe your work at this year’s Biennial.
What is your biggest distraction from working?
Clocks. 5&6. Zackary Drucker and Rhys Ernst. Drucker: Born 1983 in Syracuse, NY. Ernst: Born 1982 in Pomona, CA. Live and work in Los Angeles, CA.
Relationship, #____What was the first artwork you remember really shaking you up?
ZD: Arian Piper’s Cornered – one of my all-time favorites.
RE: Superstar by Todd Haynes
Briefly describe your work at this year’s Biennial.
ZD & RE: “Relationship” is a photographic series we created that documents our five plus years together. It’s 46 images on view on the 3rd floor and the work shows our evolution as people, as a couple, and throughout our gender transitions. “She Gone Rogue” is a 22-minute fantastical narrative film starring Flawless Sabrina, Holly Woodlawn and Vaginal Davis. It will play in the lobby gallery from March 26 to April 13.
Flawless Sabrina will be doing tarot readings at her apartment across the street from the museum as an auxiliary event connected to the Biennial and also to “She Gone Rogue.” Additionally, we are staging a live TV Talk show in the museum lower lobby on April 4 for the public programming portion of the Biennial. 7. Alma Allen. Born 1970 in Heber City, UT. Lives and works in Joshua Tree, CA
What was the first artwork you remember really shaking you up?
The Clyfford Still paintings at SFMOMA.
What is your biggest distraction from working?
My best distraction from working is my daughter Frieda. 8. Lisa Anne Auerbach. Born 1967 in Ann Arbor, MI. Lives and works in Los Angeles, CA.
Let the Dream Write ItselfWhat was the first artwork you remember really shaking you up?
The majesty of King Tut’s first visit to the U.S. in 1977, followed soon after by Steve Martin’s song abut the ancient ruler demonstrated that humor could be both a celebration and a critique. As a child, I was also quite mystified by John McCracken’s red plank at the Art Institute of Chicago and delighted by the grotesqueness of Ivan Albright.
Briefly describe your work at this year’s Biennial.
A large knitted banner, three knitted outfits, and Issue #2 of an oversized zine called American Megazine.
What is your biggest distraction from working?
Distraction is part of work.
Who else’s work are you most excited for at the Biennial?
Keith Mayerson. We’ve known one another for 25 years and we’re both thrilled to be showing in the same room together. 9. Keith Mayerson. Born 1966 in Cincinnati, OH. Lives and works in New York, NY.
Abraham LincolnWhat was the first artwork you remember really shaking you up?
When I was first out of college and living in New York in the early ’90s I saw one of the first Mike Kelley shows with the stuffed animals on the blankets, and it was a revelation, a post post modernism. Duchamp-like-readymades, but with warmth, narrative, and emotion, that addressed their context within art history, but also left room for transcendence and the ineffable. After seeing the show I wanted, in the hubris of my youth, to start an art movement called NeoIntegrity, and went to grad school in Southern California to be an artist.
Briefly describe your work at this year’s Biennial.
“My American Dream” is a salon-style installation of 42 paintings created primarily over the last 10 years (although a few others from the beginning decade of my career also slipped in), that is an open-ended, non-linear narrative of my own life with my husband and family, embedded in a comic-like arrangement of images from cultural and political histories of civil rights and personal agency that helped make our country great and gave me inspiration.
What is your biggest distraction from working?
I love teaching, but perhaps this isn’t a distraction as much as its an extension of my own work as an artist — art is about teaching, and in the still rarefied world of fine art, its incredibly edifying to help others help themselves in finding their voice in their work, hopefully also bringing their work to the world to make it a better place.
Who else’s work are you most excited for at the Biennial?
Lisa Anne Auerbach, who serendipitously is my Biennial roommate, is an old friend — she was going out with my best friend Dan Knapp, and we all worked in his mother’s house in Colorado on our art together to go to grad school in Southern California, and although we went to different schools, would all hang out together in LA in the early ’90s, and its an incredible wonder that we are now sharing the same room. Her work and sensibility is fantastic, and we are fellow travelers in our art in many respects. 10. Miguel Gutierrez. Born 1971 in Flushing, NY. Lives and works in Brooklyn, NY.
Photo by Eric McNattWhat was the first artwork you remember really shaking you up?
It was probably seeing “West Side Story” on television. Or maybe it was seeing the nearly naked dancers at the Folies Bergere in Paris when I was 12. I can’t remember.
Briefly describe your work at this year’s Biennial.
“Age & Beauty Part 1: Mid-Career Artist/Suicide Note or &:-/” is a duet for dancer Mickey Mahar and myself. It’s the first of a three part series of queer pieces looking at artist burnout, mid career artist status dramas, how to queer the present and the future, and the labor of dancing.
What is your biggest distraction from working?
Answering emails like these. Endless insecurity. Facebook. Porn.
The Whitney Biennial runs from March 7 until May 25, 2014 at the Whitney Museum in New York.
‘Threshold’ (2013) by Walsh. (Photo by Steven Probert, courtesy Paula Cooper Gallery)
From the moment that the Whitney Museum revealed that the 2014 biennial would have three curators, each organizing a show on a separate floor, I’ve been worrying. The decision sounded like an abdication of responsibility, a downgrading of the museum’s trademark show, and a recipe for a colossal disaster.
I was wrong. This year’s biennial is not a disaster, but neither is it anything close to a success. It is deeply dissatisfying—a wunderkammer-like, all-over-the-place show that offers some remarkable pleasures and far too many enervating frustrations. It pulls you in not three, but dozens of different directions, plenty of which are dead ends. The quality of the art is dramatically uneven, the tone uncertain. Some work agilely somersaults forward. Too much is frighteningly adrift. There are baffling omissions.
The thrill of the biennial has always been its attempt to capture the moment, presenting the public a view on art today. This three-part approach amounts to a dodge, an attempt to please too many constituencies that will instead please no one. With 103 participants—twice the number in 2012’s excellent, poetic edition, which was organized by Jay Sanders and Elisabeth Sussman, Whitney curators who advised this year’s triumvirate—the overstuffed biennial is back, shortchanging artists.
‘Maxine Adams and Amelia Maxwell (from The Birmingham Project)’ (2012) by Bey. (Courtesy the artist)
In a sense, though, it feels like an honest description of today’s art world, which is deeply riven, between money and the museum, pop culture and the underground, and marked by competing visions. The biennial captures—or is perhaps just caught up in—this fraught, tense moment, but is unable to make anything fruitful out of it.
You sense that tension from the moment you enter the show and hear Sergei Tcherepnin’s clever sound piece, made with transducers attached to the lights in the lobby of the Breuer building. It crackles and clicks and squeals—discomfiting noise made by the creaks and vibrations of the institution itself.
Climb the stairwell and you find speaker after speaker letting out harsh, buzzy drones, occasionally interrupted by frightful chanting. It’s the work of experimental music doyen Charlemagne Palestine, who spent time in the stairwell recording it (his customary glass of cognac in hand, a placard notes), evoking the artistic ghosts who haunt it, and the backdrop of history against which artists must now act.
Keep climbing. I recommend, while your eyes are still fresh, starting on the action-packed fourth floor, which belongs to the painter and professor Michelle Grabner, who is based in Chicago, runs alternative spaces in Oak Park, Ill., and Little Wolf, Wisc., and is responsible for about half the show’s participants. It’s a barnburner of an expressionist painting display, rich with women artists, and an inclusive, rollicking celebration of craft.
‘Untitled’ (2013) by Allen. (Courtesy the artist)
It’s mayhem up there! Thick streams of fabric in pungent colors spill down from the ceiling, the work of artist Sheila Hicks, who is 80 this year, not far from three large, brash ceramic urns, oozing with lava, by Sterling Ruby. The excellent New Yorker Dona Nelson has two large paintings that she’s dyed wildly and stitched with rambling string. They jut from the wall, so you can savor both sides of them. They dazzle, as do two precise geometric abstractions by Dan Walsh.
Ms. Grabner comes dangerously close to overcrowding her show. These works are breathing, but barely. With 36 artists on the floor (more are elsewhere), there’s only room for a single, superb painting by Laura Owens, an Angeleno who is easily one of today’s most exciting painters, making magic out of a spliced cartoon, grids and marks, which she subtly tangles Photoshop-style on her canvases. With two or three more (at least), you could get a sense of her range (ditto for the strong, sparkling Jacqueline Humphries), but instead they have to share the floor with a bevy of weak abstractions, by Molly Zuckerman-Hartung, Suzanne McClelland and Tony Lewis.
Potentially daring moments always feel close at hand, if only they could have been fleshed out. There are a few beautiful portraits that address the legacy of racial violence by Dawoud Bey (plus, speaking of tension, one of President Obama), two elegant works by the late, great Pictures Generation artist Sarah Charlesworth, a lone Gretchen Bender (lovingly remade by Phillip Vanderhyden). The stop-motion animation of an two men playing a form of proto-tennis, by Joshua Mosley, is a gem, but it’s only three minutes long. Again and again you will yearn for more.
Those who regularly mourn the lack of ravishment in biennials will at least be heartened by Ms. Grabner’s celebration of the hard-won and handmade, in a long shelf of some 70 humble ceramics by Shio Kusaka that ooze dedication, plus Ken Price-worthy walnut and marble forms by Alma Allen and slow-burn ceramics from veteran John Mason.
‘Five Senses for One Death’ (1969) by Adnan. (Photo by Chris Austen, courtesy the artist and Callicoon Fine Arts)
The visual punch decreases with each floor, reaching a kind of steady state on floor three, in the hands of Stuart Comer, a former Tate curator who recently became head of performance and media art at the Museum of Modern Art. He delivers the strongest section, with 23 artists, gamely mixing media and championing multi-taskers, beginning with a decisive palate cleanser in the form of 89-year-old Lebanese-born polymath Etel Adnan, whose ingenious scrolls (admixtures of painting and text) and spare canvases of the view from her Bay Area window set the tone, radiating a warmth that is intimate and personal.
Secrets are being shared on floor three; bodies are morphing, writhing and posing. Keith Mayerson has hung, salon-style, a sublime and idiosyncratic vision of Americana, with Abraham Lincoln, Superman, James Dean (masturbating in a tree) and more. Jacolby Satterwhite, who is among the youngest artists here, has a bewitching video in which he hurtles in costume through interstellar space, time and identities. Zackary Drucker and Rhys Ernst document, in heartrending photos, their sex changes, male to female and female to male. Bjarne Melgaard steals the show with a madcap, hellish lounge-lair filled with lugubrious sofas, absurd projections, vacuums, sex dolls, penis dolls and a holographic monitor of monkeys mating. It all apparently has to do with our overheating, out-of-control age—the anthropocene—and it does not suggest things are going to turn out so well.
‘Transit,’ video still from ‘Reifying Desire 6′ (2014) by Satterwhite. (Courtesy OHWOW, Los Angeles, and Mallorca Landings Gallery)
Mr. Melgaard is one of the few real New York stars here. Even if biennials are no longer as much about who’s in and who’s out in any given year, it’s shocking that not one artist from the exciting, fast-emerging gangs who have been featured in recentshows at MoMA PS1—and even the 2013 Lyon Biennale—is here.
Bland conceptual-architectural works, the bane of curatorial-intensive biennials, put a drag on things in Mr. Comer’s section, particularly from Morgan Fisher and Yve Laris Cohen, who parrot institutional critiques that we’ve heard about for decades. Meanwhile, bland paintings by Dashiell Manley, which are displayed in an inconceivably large faux storage space, figure in an equally bland stop-motion video (it’s time to kill off the painting-as-prop trope).
Thankfully, these whiffs are balanced out by Mr. Comer’s thoughtful, elegiac attention to history. He has intricate geometric drawings by the late Channa Horwitz, open-ended scores for other mediums, and gives a room to Richard Hawkins and Catherine Opie to organize a show of the deliriously camp but seriously refined paintings of Tony Greene, who died in of AIDS in 1990, and another to curator Julie Ault, who features works and ephemera from her friends and collaborators, like the late Martin Wong and Matt Wolf, who recalls in an audio slide show how, as a teen in the 1990s, he typed “gay” and “art” into a search engine, and discovered David Wojnarowciz, another AIDS casualty, who was a redoubtable artist and activist. What more can we hope for from artists? (Not to mention our search engines?)
‘Folk Tales’ (2013) by von Heyl. (Photo by Jason Mandella, courtesy the artist and Petzel)
Anthony Elms, a curator at Philadelphia’s Institute of Contemporary Art, is asking something like that on the second floor, where visual delectation plummets almost to zero, saved only by two exuberant paintings by Rebecca Morris. (Even Charline von Heyl, typically a showstopper, delivers underwhelming black-and-white collages.)
A mournful tone prevails. There are stretches of white wall, empty spaces on the floor. Poet Susan Howe’s texts, lining one vitrine, are bare fragments, wasting away. Joseph Grigely includes archival materials from the late, murdered art critic Gregory Battock—iconoclastic articles and accounts of his sexual escapades (the remarkable backstory is worth reading in the biennial’s treasure-filled, if overstuffed, catalogue, to which—full disclosure—I contributed an interview). Marc Fischer, who runs a Chicago group called Public Collectors, stages a miniature memorial to Chicagoan Malachi Ritscher with iPods stocked with experimental music concerts that Ritscher taped in the Windy City from the 1980s until his 2006 death by self-immolation, protesting the Iraq War.
There are some fine moments—Michel Auder’s hypnotic, noir-filled video room (nighttime cityscapes, peeks through windows), Paul P.’s handsome desk and quiet drawings, truly odd, alluring sculptures by Carol Jackson and works by the late Terry Adkins, rods lined with cymbals that map the structure of birdcalls, all the while recalling medieval devices for violence—but they’re undercut by dry or slight works by Dave McKenzie, Gary Indiana and Allan Sekula.
Mr. Elms has vital ideas to share, like his positing an expansive definition of the artist that embraces anyone whose activities (collecting, archiving, cruising) take on aesthetic and ethical import through their care and devotion, but I kept wishing I could just read about it in a book.
‘Untitled (#01-13)’ (2013) by Morris. (Photo by Lee Thompson, courtesy the artist Galerie Barbara Weiss)
More of the biennial will be unveiled in the coming weeks, with what looks like a potentially strong (and commendably manageable) video and performance program, including dance from Taisha Paggett, music from Pauline Oliveros and a new opera from the severely under-rated Robert Ashley, who passed away just days ago.
In the meantime, you can head downtown to find a monumental sculpture by Tony Tasset (part of Ms. Grabner’s section) along the Hudson on West 17th Street. It’s tiled with colored panels, engraved with almost 400,000 alphabetized names of artists from the 20th and 21st centuries. Mr. Tasset has discussed it as a way of removing hierarchy, of celebrating everyone equally. That’s of course diametrically opposed to the idea of a biennial, and so I was pretty much expecting to hate it, as a smug, self-satisfied display of overwrought conceptualism. And yet, searching through it, hunting for the names of artists who have meant a great deal to me, I found it to be a moving exercise, my eyes coasting across thousands of unknown artists and coming across other favorites along the way. It offered some consolation—a reminder that over time artists get sifted out of obscurity, that history gets reimagined. This year’s biennial may be a disappointment, but thousands of artists are hard at work, waiting in the wings. The 2016 biennial is not so far away.
Does anybody actually remember the Whitney Biennial of two or ten or twenty years ago? I doubt many museumgoers remember any of them very clearly, if indeed they remember them at all. You don’t have to take my word for this. In the catalogue of the 2012 Biennial no less an authority than the Whitney’s very own director, Adam D. Weinberg, observes that “memories are relatively short.” So before I even walk into the 2014 Biennial, which is opening to the public this weekend, I thought I would try and refresh my memory about Biennials past, by pulling out of a closet the thirty years worth of Biennial catalogues that I have salted away.
Collection of the artist. Copyright Stephen Lacy
Academy Records’s still from The Bower, 2011-13.
The first thing to be said about the Biennial, which began in 1932, is how astonishing it is that after all these years people still care. Year after year, the critics and sundry cognoscenti conclude that the show is a mess of one kind or another. One year it seems to be a better sort of mess, another year worse, but there is something about the nature of the mess that keeps people coming. As Weinberg observes in the 2012 catalogue, there is a fascination in watching each new set of curators “wipe the slate clean” and “do something that contrasts with the previous one. It’s amazing that even in a short, two-year period, people want to put the prior one behind.” That remark brings us to the enduring electricity of these exhausting events. At least in the last thirty years, it’s become the out-with-the-old-and-in-with-the-new show, which sometimes involves recycling the old things as new things; after all, how much in the world is ever really new? The Biennial is the most purely narcissistic of all New York art world events, an orgy of navel-gazing that can leave a bad feeling—a sense of unease, if not disgust.
There’s a but-enough-about-me-let’s-talk-about-me slant to a great many of the Whitney catalogues. “How can the Whitney Biennial remain relevant?” the curators asked in 2006. And in 2010, the curators explained that “if the curators of the 1993 Biennial were called to curate the 2006 Biennial, they would have shaped a completely different exhibition than the one they curated thirteen years before.” Jump to the 1993 Biennial and you find David A. Ross, the director of the museum at the time, announcing that the museum is “depart[ing] slightly from the organizing principles that have guided these exhibitions in the past two decades.” Four years later, Lisa Phillips, a Whitney curator, is announcing that the museum is “breaking with precedent,” while the Biennial after that is accompanied by a declaration that the six curators from across the country who have been assigned to organize the show will bring “fresh thinking … to a time-honored but ever-contentious exercise.” So is it any wonder that when you open the catalogue of the 2014 Biennial you find that “the museum has taken this process of experimentation a step further?” A step, by the way, that sounds an awful lot like steps taken at one time or another in the past, “with two in-house curators acting in the role of advisors and three external curators asked to organize the exhibition.” The Biennial has been reorganized so many times that it’s a miracle it hasn’t been reorganized out of existence.
Although they nearly always contain work of some consequence, the overwhelming impression is of anxiety and hysteria.
The Whitney Biennials are restless, unwieldy, banal, belligerent, sporadically engaging, and at times just plain batty. Although they nearly always contain work of some consequence, the overwhelming impression is of anxiety and hysteria, a show that no matter how much it reaches beyond Manhattan tends to reflect the very worst of New York, the city’s vanity and one-upmanship and frenzied zeitgeist readings. It’s a show that demands a reaction, that demands to be new every time. The fever begins with the catalogues themselves, which for at least the past thirty years have been engineered for obsessive distinctiveness. No two are the same size or shape or color, and hardly any one of them can be said to be well designed. 2006 is thick and chunky, “designed and bound so that it can be pulled apart to create ninety-nine posters designed by the Biennial artists.” 2004, big and square and bound in grey velour, is accompanied by a box full of bumper stickers, decals, and assorted pamphlets and goodies by the artists in the show. 2002 sports a bright red CD on its cover, which suggests a high-tech bellybutton.
Courtesy of the artist and Petzel, New York. Photo by Jason Mandella
Charline von Heyl’s Folk Tales, 2013. Acrylic, ink, wax, and charcoal and collage on paper.
Back in 1995, when Klaus Kertess organized the Biennial, he titled his introductory essay “Postcards from Babel,” and that will do very nicely as a title for any Biennial of the past twenty years. Kertess, a man of refined sensibilities, thought to include an old-timer, the Abstract Expressionist painter Milton Resnick, in a lineup that emphasized recent stars such as Matthew Barney, Stan Douglas, Carroll Dunham, and Cindy Sherman. Something-old-something-new is a reliable Biennial trope, with this year’s sentimental favorite probably being the eighty-year-old fabric artist Sheila Hicks, whose finest work is very fine indeed. Kertess hoped that there was some kind of mysterious metaphoric language—a language that emphasized “visual plasticity, ambiguity, and multivalence”—that might knit together the Babel of the Biennial. But my exceedingly vague memories of Kertess’s Biennial—refreshed with a look at “War Stories,” an essay I wrote at the time and included in my book Eyewitness—suggests that finally Kertess didn’t do much better than any other curator before or since. I will, though, take Kertess’s hipster aestheticism in 1995 over the emphasis on “the geopolitical, the psychosocial, and the body’s politic” of the 1993 Biennial.
Courtesy of the artist
Alma Allen’s Untitled, 2013. Marble sculpture on an oak pedestal.
As for the 2014 Biennial, isn’t it a fact that everybody is approaching the show with the expectation that it’s going to be Babel all over again? Perhaps a somewhat different brand of Babel, but Babel nevertheless. Because this is the last Biennial to be held in the Whitney building designed by Marcel Breuer on Madison Avenue—the museum moves to new quarters in the Meatpacking District in 2015—there may even be more narcissism and navel-gazing than in some Biennials past. The self-reflexiveness begins with the mottled textures on the cover of the 2014 catalogue. I had no idea that there was some particular significance to these patterns, until I read the catalogue introduction by curators Stuart Comer, Anthony Elms, and Michelle Grabner, in which the patterns are said to “come from rubbings of the surfaces of the Breuer building.” This building, much maligned as an upside-down ziggurat when it first opened in 1966, is now regarded by some as an idiosyncratic architectural masterstroke. The “rubbings” from the building’s uneven surfaces (I am quoting the curators) become “a motif meant to ground the reader of the wide-ranging content in the physical facts of the exhibition experience”—a motif that appears not only on the cover but on decorative pages within the catalogue.
Anybody who has followed the Whitney’s furious battle to remodel or reconfigure or entirely reject the Breuer building will be amused by this sudden burst of sentiment. The building is being treated as if it were an old gravestone in a New England cemetery—an object of veneration. The Whitney gang hasn’t even left Madison Avenue and they’re repackaging the building for nostalgia value. That’s certainly in line with the Biennial mentality, which holds that only when you are safely speeding into the future can you afford to look back. As for the curators who are in charge this year, they’re stuck in exactly the same place as every Biennial curator has been for the past thirty years, excited to be “rethink[ing] how American art is understood, articulated, and debated.” One of these eons, the curators might try thinking instead of rethinking.
An Opinionated Guide To The 2014 Whitney Biennial
Matt Hammer’s Tomorrow is Still Above You (Marc Yearsley / Gothamist)
Didn’t Gothamist already post about this?
Yes, we did, in fact! The excellent preview by Ben Miller would be a strong introduction if you stopped reading now. But you already clicked and the money is in the bank, so read on for a fuller picture of the show.
Fine. What is the Whitney Biennial? The Whitney Biennial is a once-every-two-years (“biennial”) exhibition presented by the Whitney Museum of American Art (“Whitney”) of mostly new and emerging contemporary American artists. The Whitney has been putting on large group exhibitions for nearly 100 years, but the biennial format only began in 1973. It is first and foremost an exercise in curation, and this year the Whitney invited outside curators to put together the show, culminating in its distinct format and (sometimes) unique results.
Is it fascist?
Well, that depends on how you feel about museums. (At the Frick they force you to WEAR your overcoat if you decide not to check it!) But seriously, though the Biennial is mostly uncontroversial in a larger, more general sense, it is routinely the target of familiar and valid criticisms from within and without the art world. As recently as 2012 a parody Biennial website mocked the exhibition’s corporate ties.
The most notable (and sustained) criticisms were made by the Guerrilla Girls, an anonymous feminist art collective formed in 1985 in New York City, active through the late 1990s, and still working today, who in 1987 protested the Biennial to draw attention to the dearth of female and minority artists in the showcase. “The Guerrilla Girls Review The Whitney” was held at the non-profit Clocktower gallery, where the group denounced the systemic disenfranchisement of women in the history of the Biennial up until that point (for the seven exhibitions from 1973-1987, the number of women of color in the Biennial was a “statistically insignificant 0.3%”). In 1987, women were a mere 27% of artists in the Biennial.
2014’s Biennial is still not immune to these criticisms: by one early estimate, roughly 30% are women and 7% are black. Is it a coincidence that this year’s only female curator assembled the most diverse collection? Should I disclose that I am a white male now or later?
So? What’s the big deal?
However you slice it, it’s just one of the biggest art-world events in one of the biggest centers of the art-world in one of the most famous museums in one of the biggest cities in the United States. The Whitney Biennial exists, and you most certainly will be hearing about it.
This year’s Biennial is taking on a slightly different format: three curators from outside the Whitney were invited to organize their own show on one of the museum’s three main floors. Anthony Elms, Stuart Comer, and Michelle Grabner took over the second, third, and fourth floors respectively. Elms is an associate curator at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia (read a nice Q&A with him here), Comer is the Media and Performance Art Curator at the MoMa, and Grabner is an artist and professor at the Art Institute of Chicago.
Let’s get to it, then!
There is a lot to get through: 103 artists and groups make up the 3.5-ish floor exhibition, so this will mostly highlight the pieces I liked the most and try to provide a sense of the three distinct floors. Am I qualified to do so? No, but neither are art historians, because art history is saturated with hired bullshit.
The Second Floor
Each level opens with a curator’s statement summarizing their approach to their exhibition floor. Elm’s guiding question for the second floor was the same one Marcel Breuer posed to himself when designing the Whitney—”What should a museum look like, a museum in Manhattan?”
Walking out of the elevators your are confronted with your first piece, Jimmy Durham’s Choose Any Three, a wooden totem with names of famous persons in groups of three, made during his time in Cuernavaca, Mexico. He has been living and working all over Europe since the mid-90s, and his presence foreshadows one of the floors more interesting themes: Patriotism. What is an ex-pat American artist’s relationship to American contemporary art? Is he even American? Does it matter? (Yes.)
Jimmy Durham’s Choose Any Three (Marc Yearsley / Gothamist)
High points elsewhere on the second floor: intermittent screenings of last year’s stellar film Computer Chess by Andrew Bujalski, shot entirely on some ancient Sony AVC 3260 VHS cameras…
Andrew Bujalski’s Computer Chess (Marc Yearsley / Gothamist)
…Paul P.’s beautiful abstract portraiture…
Paul P., Untitled (Marc Yearsley / Gothamist)
…and Gary Indiana’s LED curtain installation, looping footage shot inside the now-closed Presido Modelo prison in Cuba modeled after Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon design. Next to the curtain is an artist’s statement set on top of still photographs of mostly naked young men.
Gary Indiana’s LED Curtain (Marc Yearsley / Gothamist)
The second floor is rounded out with two curated personal collections, one of art critic Gregory Battock, who was stabbed to death in Puerto Rico in a still unsolved murder, and the other of Malachi Ritscher, an underground music scholar who set himself on fire during rush hour on the Chicago expressway in protest of the Iraq War.
There are three video installations centered around looking and being watched, often without consent—feeding into an implicit dialogue on post-PRISM America—completing a second floor that, as I said above, is a question of patriotism.
The Third Floor
Stuart Comer wrote that the artists he brought to the Whitney had work that’s “as hybrid as the significant global, environmental, and technological shifts reshaping the United States.” The third floor has an apocalyptic 22nd century feel to it, with invited artists extrapolating reflections on contemporary problems with a futuristic pessimism. That’s right, it’s got it all: Place, Movement, Violence, Philosophy, Technology, Capitalism, Nature, Industry, Globalization.
But the third floor is the standout, for me at least. Channa Horwitz’s formalized graph paper illustrations that are like complex, colorful, and highly regulated DNA read-outs (my favorite of the more traditional artwork); the trippy experimental documentary Leviathan on the fishing industry in New Bedford, Massachusetts, produced by a group from the Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab; a really cool photo series from Zachary Drucker and Rhys Ernst, Relationships, of a transgender couple undergoing a gender transition in opposite directions; and a mixed media installation of feminist video and photo prints from A.L. Steiner.
(Zachary Drucker and Rhys Ernst’s Relationships, Marc Yearsley / Gothamist)
There’s also a whole room for Semiotext(e), including an entire new series of texts commissioned for the Biennial, an excerpt of an interview with Gilles Deleuze, and some artifacts from the influential publishing house’s 40 year history.
Still from Semiotext(e)’s Deleuze A to Z with Claire Parnet (Marc Yearsley / Gothamist)
Finally, let’s not forget the Bjarne Melgaard’s *NSFW*Real Doll room. The creepy dolls are propped up on ugly, handmade, yet equally as artificial couches. The photo is a little blurry, but it’s a keeper, accounting for the disorienting video screens looping footage of animals, humans, fighting, and fucking in a truly distopic future pleasure house. Melgaard’s room is definitely a make-or-break moment; you’re gonna love it or hate it, most likely, though there is plenty to be ambivalent about.
(Bjarne Melgaard’s untitled installation, Marc Yearsley / Gothamist)
The Fourth Floor
Grabner’s aim for the fourth and final floor was to assemble a collection that was not framed to be a “purely subjective take on contemporary American art” but rather a “curriculum that presents identifiable themes, generalities even, that are currently established in the textures of contemporary aesthetic, political, and economic realities.” The result is the Big-A Art floor, packed with massive sculptures and installations, that Grabner identifies with “three overlapping priorities: contemporary abstract painting by women; materiality and affect theory; and art as strategy.”
The Whitney’s 4th Floor (Marc Yearsley / Gothamist)
A very classic spread results in what is arguably the least subject-diverse floor, but the most formally and technically interesting, in a strictly artistic sense. It is also home to a small display of David Foster Wallace’s notebooks on The Pale King, including a list of 52 “Good Names” scrawled on the back of a Rugrats notebook (the best of the names, #2 on that list, is “Nugent Brian Nugent”) and some notes from his interview with Roger Federer. Even though DFW is a household name, it is a curious, but welcome, inclusion nevertheless,
(David Foster Wallace’s Cuddly Cuties Notebook, Marc Yearsley / Gothamist)
Towards the back is a short, shifty stop-motion animation video of some clay figures playing an early version of tennis called jeu de paume by Joshua Mosley. Sports culture is gargantuan and interesting, so probing an original artifact of play is an interesting and fruitful area.
(Joshua Mosley Je de Paume, Marc Yearsley / Gothamist)
Out of the big pieces, Gretchen Bender’s People in Pain, repaired by Philip Vanderhyden, is most impressive, filling out a large wall with distressed black vinyl, lit by neon blue LED lights illuminating various movie titles. Not getting into specifics about the rest of the pieces is not a knock; I was simply less drawn to, but no less impressed by, the large abstract canvas paintings and a rainbow-colored bunch of hundreds of thick streams of yarn pouring down from the ceiling (very cool).
(Gretchen Bender’s People in Pain, Marc Yearsley / Gothamist)
The third floor is the most interesting, the fourth floor has the best Art, and the second floor definitely exists. It’s hard to not feel underwhelmed, always conscious that this is simply another museum, despite the prestige and buzz that surrounds the Biennial, but that may be just a common feeling with art in general. There is a lot of talk about the Whitney’s “signature windows,” and the commissioned pieces that dialogue with them, which is mildly annoying.
Wow, modern art is the worst! I could do that shit.
Nope, that attitude is the worst. That generally blasé dismissal of art is a toxic and lazy defense mechanism. Furthermore, it’s one of those dangerous statements that nearly means nothing at all; a void collapsing in on itself as it barely escapes your face.
Even being extremely conservative with the estimate, humans have been artists since, well, we started being human, so a lot has been done before—it should be no surprise that the conceptual underpinnings of a piece of art (and the non-vacuum art resides in—namely, our increasingly mediated visual culture) take on a more privileged position as time goes on. Also, people don’t have to spend 35 years learning to paint anymore, so go make some art or something.
Fair enough, but did anything suck?
Definitely! For what it’s worth, every museum has its duds and the Biennial is no exception. I offer one in particular—Morgan Fisher’s Ro(Ro(Room)om)om, a Russian egg type installation modeled after three rooms in the Whitney’s new and under construction home in the Meatpacking District. Fisher sets each one inside of the other at different scales, finishing the largest (and most useless, Museum-wise) room, a closet, at full scale.
Morgan Fisher’s Ro(Ro(Room)om)om, (Marc Yearsley / Gothamist)
It’s just drywall and nails adorned with the unavoidable (read: not intentional) scrapes and scratches that arise during assembly and movement. It is basic, uninspired, lazy, and offensive; unimaginative, no matter how verbose you get about it. There are other misfires, of course, but I’d offer the unfortunately titled Ro(Ro(Room)om)om as the poster child of What Sucks About Art Sometimes. Other flops include oil paint on LED video screens and the stairwell installation of speakers decked with stuffed animals emitting an ambient droning sound. For the most part, though, it is usually advisable to not focus on the shitty stuff.
Well, should I go?
I don’t know. A benefit analysis is never useful for these types of things. Either someone is going to go to this thing or they are not, arguing its worth is completely subjective. How much do you need that $20? But if you like art, are interested in something that comes around once every two years, and have some disposable income set aside for recreation and edification, an afternoon at the Whitney barely costs more than a ticket to a movie, and you won’t ever be able to Netflix it. Honestly, I’d recommend it on the strength of the third floor alone. This year’s Biennial has highs and lows, everyone is going to have different tastes, you like what you like, and, as always, time is a flat circle.
The October Painting 1 and 2, Los Angeles, California by Vincent Johnson
The October Paintings – numbers 3 and 4 – The October Paintings (a new paintings project by Los Angeles based artist Vincent Johnson) – the paintings are at the underpainting stage. They will be allowed to dry in my studio and then a layer of white glaze will be added. That will dry. Then I will work on each work, layer by layer, allowing each layer to dry, or be worked or added to as I desire. Our car Roxy is in the background, her back arched as she defies a mushroom to move.
The October Paintings (a new paintings project by Los Angeles based artist Vincent Johnson) – paintings 3 and 4. Taking advantage of the fabulous weather in LA.
The October Paintings – paintings 1 and 2 (a new paintings project by Los Angeles based artist Vincent Johnson) – with our cat Roxy playing in the back yard.
October Paintings 5 and 6, underpainting – layer one – October 31, 2013. Van Nuys, CA
The October Paintings, 2013, paintings one and two, under painting layers, Los Angeles, California, by Vincent Johnson
The October Paintings – paintings one and two (a new paintings project by Los Angeles based artist Vincent Johnson)
The October Paintings are comprised of nine 4×4 foot oil on canvas paintings. These are the largest canvases I’ve worked on since my return to painting after two decades of working with photography. I was trained as a representational painter at Pratt Institute and at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. My graduate degree is in critical theory and painting from Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. The works are a continuation of my exploration of the history of art materials, combined with using the layering techniques of representation to create singular new abstractions. This is my first time working on several large-scale canvases at once. What I’ve noticed over the years is that every significant work I’ve made eventually finds its way into the world, often through unanticipated opportunity. The works are visceral, visually rich, emotively engaging. They follow the six large-scale paintings in the COSMOS SUITE that is also ongoing and was started in 2012, and the NINE GRAYSCALE PAINTINGS in LOS ANGELES that I completed in 2011. In my work I have always sought to reach for and produce imagery that lends itself to a serious consideration of the ideas that come to the mind when approaching the image. For me these works seek to substantiate themselves in the world, to be both evocative and provocative, beautiful and remarkable in both concept and realization. As these works are fully developed I will continue to record the journey am taken on with them, until they are complete.
OCTOBER PAINTING – Scumble glazing, second phase of the paintings.
October Paintings – scumble glazed and drying in studio.
During the scumble glazing layer of the painting, where I knock down the underpainting colors so that the next layers can deliver a fabulous punch, I thought about the magnificient, enormous paintings I saw this summer at the Menil Collection in Houston, by Cy Twombly and Mark Rothko. The high seriousness of Rothko’s chapel paintings was amazing. Yet on that day it would be my discovery of the excellence of Cy Twombly as a painter of the primordial and playful sublime that captivated my attention in his purpose built stand alone large gallery space that showcased his work far beyond the circular swirls I know but care nothing for at all. It seems that when Twombly switched to specific subject matter – whether it be abstract landscape paintings, where he had simply marvelous deep rich green works, or his overall giant abstractions, filled with playful and powerful singular and exciting moments, both satisfied in wonderful ways. I was fortunate to make two trips to Houston this summer. The Late Byzantine to Today was a marvel to behold; I also had no idea that the Menil is a world class repository of Surrealist art. I was also privileged to see the James Turrell retrospective at the MFA Houston, which itself will be expanding soon with a major new building devoted to modern and contemporary art. The Menil Collection itself will be adding seven new individual artist showcase galleries, which combined with their traveling shows will make Houston as important a center for seeing art as anywhere in the US outside of New York. I am looking at the nine 4×4 foot October paintings in my studio. Its the largest body of work I have ever produced as a painter. I can see so many possibilities in this new direction. It gives me reason to continue to push to get my work into the world, despite all of the difficulties I have experienced. Painting makes me see beyond my own being.
Los Angeles, CA
Vincent Galen Johnson – The October Paintings – outdoor studio Los Angeles
Just added this final layer of paint to this painting. Now its ready. by Vincent Johnson 2014
The October Paintings in Los Angeles, 2014, painted and written by Los Angeles based painter and writer Vincent Galen Johnson.
My journey into painting has never ended, only paused during the many years my primary artistic practice moved from painting to writing, then to photography and writing. I’ve never stopped looking at painting. I went to London over the Thanksgiving holiday in 2011 to see the Gerhard Richter retrospective. It was strange to see a photorealist painter realize the power of paint being managed through sheer process and to create astonishing images of such subtle yet shocking beauty. While in London I took in a full day visit to the National Gallery, where I was swept away by such a superb landscape painting by Constable. I felt as if I were seeing an apparition as the leafy structure that represented part of a tree seemed to extend from the canvas into the gallery space. I also recall seeing Sigmar Polke, Anselm Kiefer, Eric Fischl and David Salle ‘s paintings from the 1980′s from those magnificent shows on West Broadway in Soho. Of late I’ve become a fan of Beatriz Milhaze, Nicole Eisenman, Henry Taylor, and have for years followed the work of Kerry James Marshall. Now I feel I need to feed my mind on as many superior painted pictures as I can devour.
Anselm Kiefer painting show in Antwerp
Gerhart Richter painting
This is the third year since I began painting again after two decades of making photographic works and writing in Los Angeles. Paint is a remarkable material in which to work. It offers seemingly an infinite number of ways of working the canvas, from application to scraping off even week old paint, to rubbing and applying several more layers with brushes, rags, and painting knives. It took me a while to allow myself to work abstractly. I still have about five unfinished paintings that I started in 2005 based on architectural vistas from my imagination, and they remain in my art storage, and one is in my studio, still unfinished. So its not totally true that I first started painting again in 2011; it was actually in 2005, but I gave up after a couple of months and put those canvases away for a future time. Its the sheer malleability of paint that drives me to work with it today, and its film-like capacity to be overlaid and yet see what’s underneath that enthralls. So far each of my paintings is abstract yet I continue to study the history of materials of artists as well as making my own multiple experiments on each new canvas. Some of my works have as many as a dozen layers and overlays of paint. Each one seems to inform the other as to the next possible direction to start in and then to build up to in terms of sheer quality of paint handling, image power, and fulfillment of the mind through the eyes. Its a richly rewarding feeling to be making this new work after so many years, and to see where I had left off as a painter two decades ago. And then to see where I’ve come along since that time, using all of the tools and skills learned in Brooklyn and Chicago many years ago in school.
A painting by Nicole Eisenman
A painting by LA painter Henry Taylor.
A suite of paintings by Sigmar Polke
Painting outdoors in the California sun has been a revelation. I can allow my paintings to dry in the sun. Then store them at night in my art storage. Then bring them out again to look at in the proud light of the morning, and sit and walk among them, and think about what is the next step for each of those that are yet to be complete. Having the sky as my ceiling has been amazing, and having so much space in which to operate has unleashed so many great ideas about the direction to take my work, as I can sit the paintings in my outdoor studio and relish them in the warmth of a February day in Southern California. Next I’ll be working on a few dozen much smaller canvases, then returning to the larger 4 by 4 foot canvases. This post has been my afternoon break to record where I am with my new work.
It makes me happy to be painting again, in California.
Vincent Galen Johnson
The October Paintings by Vincent Galen Johnson in Los Angeles, March 2014
This painting was layered with paint over several days, then scraped out with the excess paint allowed to dangle from the area of the canvas where it had been cut away. The painting now has a sculptural element of pure paint hanging from its several lawyers beneath.
The painting on the far right was transformed with gold, blue and grey paint this evening. See the final above.
This canvas was handled completely differently from most of the others and has a final overlay of paint that creates the image of a colorful chalk board.
A thick impasto of dazzling color was spread with a painting knife across the canvas. in waves, in this painting.
The painting to the left reminds me of photos of sunbursts.
My outdoor painting studio.
My painting studio set up.
Vincent Johnson: CV
Vincent Johnson received his MFA in Fine Art Painting from Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California 1997 and his BFA in Painting from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1986. He is a 2005 Creative Capital Grantee, and was selected for the New Museum of Contemporary Arts Aldrich Art Award in 2007 and for the Art Matters grant in 2008, and in 2009 for the Foundation for Contemporary Art Fellowship, Los Angeles. In 2010 he was named a United States Artists project artist. His work has been reviewed in ArtForum, The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, Art in America and Art Slant, and in over fifty different publications in total. His works were shown in the inaugural Pulse Fair Los Angeles. He has shown recently at Soho House (curated by ForYourArt, Los Angeles) and at Palihouse (curated by Los Angeles Nomadic Division), West Hollywood, and most recently at Another Year in LA gallery, West Hollywood. Johnson’s work has appeared in numerous venues, including The Studio Museum in Harlem (Freestyle (2001, The Philosophy of Time Travel, 2007, and The Bearden Project, 2011-2012); PS1 Museum, New York; the SK Stiftung, Cologne; Santa Monica Museum of Art, LAXART; Las Cienegas Projects, Los Angeles; Boston University Art Museum; Kellogg Museum, Cal Poly Pomona; Adamski gallery of Contemporary Art, Aachen; Lemonsky Projects, Miami. Johnson’s work has been published in a dozen exhibition catalogs. His work was exhibited in the inaugural Open Project exhibition at the Palace of the Inquisition, Evora, Portugal, July – October, 2013 and at Another Year in LA gallery, West Hollywood.
Vincent Johnson lives and works in Los Angeles, California. He is a work member of THEWINTEROFFICE, Copenhagen. THEWINTEROFFICE upholds a creative strategy concerned with defining an intersection between art, architecture and design.
Here are three new paintings are added to my Cosmos Suite of paintings 2.24.2013. These are the 7th, 8th and 9th paintings created in the Cosmos Suite. They are also the 4th, 5th and 6th large scale paintings in this body of work.
These Cosmos Suite paintings are created using various experiments in media and paint application. Johnson has done substantial research into the area of the history of painting materials and there use, and employs this knowledge in the production of his work.
There are now a total of nine paintings in the Cosmos Suite. Six of the nine paintings are thirty by forty inches in size. Three of the paintings – the originals in the suite, are twenty by twenty four inches in size. Each painting takes about a month to create as there is a three week drying time between the first and second layers of the painting. As the suite grows there will be additional sizes including larger works.
Cosmos Suite: A Meeting Between Two Figures in Space
30×40 inches, oil on canvas by Vincent Johnson in Los Angeles (2013)
Poured Liquin in center of painting, added stripes of pure paint color to canvas, mixed with paint rags, dabbed till thick paint areas are leveled out.
Large areas of vertical yellow in painting. Layered canvas in thick paint in certain areas. Reminds me of seeing Gerhard Richter’s painting retrospective in London in the fall of 2011.
Cosmos Suite: State and Grace
30×40 inches, oil on canvas by Vincent Johnson in Los Angeles
Used sponges on face of painting. Layered canvas in thick paint.
Poured Liquin in center of painting, added stripes of pure paint color to canvas, mixed with paint rags, dabbed till thick paint areas are leveled out.
Reminds me of Florida’s mysterious beauty
Shape is of Florida in part
Cosmos Suite: State and Grace – final – complete 2.25.2013
30×40 inches, oil on canvas by Vincent Johnson in Los Angeles (2013)
Cosmos Suite: State and Grace – final – complete 2.25.2013
30×40 inches, oil on canvas by Vincent Johnson in Los Angeles (2013)
Cosmos Suite: Astral Melodies
30×40 inches, oil on canvas by Vincent Johnson in Los Angeles (2013)
used sponges on side and surface of the painting. used large brushwork. Layered canvas in paint.
Poured Liquin in between stripes of pure paint color to canvas, mixed with paint rags, dabbed till thick paint areas are leveled out. Started out with thick brush in corner to mix, abandoned this quickly.
Sensing jazz standards here – floating fields of opulent pure romantic color
Vincent Johnson received his MFA in Fine Art Painting from Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California 1997 and his BFA in Painting from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He is a 2005 Creative Capital Grantee, and was selected for the Baum: An Emerging American Photographer’s Award in 2004 and for the New Museum of Contemporary Arts Aldrich Art Award in 2007 and for the Art Matters grant in 2008, and in 2009 for the Foundation for Contemporary Art Fellowship, Los Angeles. In 2010 he was named a United States Artists project artist. His work has been reviewed in ArtForum, The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, Art in America, Art Slant and many other publications. His photographic works were most recently shown in the inaugural Pulse Fair Los Angeles. His most recent paintings were shown at the Beacon Arts Center in Los Angeles. His 2010 photo project – California Toilet, Filthy Light Switch, is in exhibition at Another Year in LA gallery in West Hollywood through early March 2013. His work has appeared in several venues, including The Studio Museum in Harlem (Freestyle (2001, The Philosophy of Time Travel, 2007, and The Bearden Project, 2011-2012), PS1 Museum, Queens, NY, SK Stiftung, Cologne, Germany, Santa Monica Museum of Art, LAXART, Las Cienegas Projects, Boston University Art Museum, Kellogg Museum, Cal Poly Pomona.
Below are some of the other paintings I have completed since returning to painting in the summer of 2011.
Vincent Johnson is an artist and writer in Los Angeles
New Abstract Paintings: The Cosmos suite (2012)
Golden Dream (2012), part of the Cosmos Suite of paintings
California Toilet, Filthy Light Switch (2010) by Vincent Johnson. Archival Epson print (Private Collection, Miami, Florida). I provided this image as I realized its clear similarity to Golden Dream, which I completed a week ago in my studio in Los Angeles.
Two at Night (2012) from the Cosmos suite of paintings, Oil on canvas, 30×40 inches
Cosmos. Oil on canvas 2012 by Vincent Johnson
Cosmos Red Yellow Green. Oil on canvas 2012 by Vincent Johnson
Green God. Oil on canvas 2012 by Vincent Johnson
This new painting series is part of my ongoing exploration of painting materials and techniques from the history of painting. The works combine knowledge of painting practices of both abstract and representation paintings. The works concern themselves purely with the visual power that paintings can do through the manipulation of paint. Some of the underpaintings are allowed to dry for months; some of those are built dark to light, others light to dark. None are made in a single setting. Most are worked and reworked using studio materials. Each new series takes a different approach to the painted surface from how the paint is applied, to varying the painting mediums. This suite concerns itself with the layering of paint by building up the surface and altering and reworking the wet paint with studio tools.
Two larger paintings will be completed and photographed on Sunday, July 15, 2012 and posted here.
Vincent Johnson, Grayscale painting: The Storm (2012). Oil on canvas, 30×40 inches, created in studio in Los Angeles, California
Vincent Johnson, Grayscale painting, Snow White/White Snow (2012). Oil on canvas, 30×40 inches, created in studio in Los Angeles
Vincent Johnson is an artist and writer in Los Angeles
Vincent Johnson, Nine Grayscale Paintings, Beacon Arts Center, Los Angeles, (2001). Oil on canvas. Each panel is 20×24 inches.
photograph of silver paint on my hands in studio, Los Angeles, during the creation of Nine Grayscale paintings.
Vincent Johnson – in Los Angeles studio working on Nine Grayscale Paintings, 2011
WHITNEY Biennials can be daunting, confounding, exhausting and sometimes even outrageous. No matter how the curators organize this sprawling survey of what’s happening in American contemporary art right now, trying to navigate the museumwide exhibition and make sense of it all is a challenge, even for the pros.
This year’s edition, its 77th, which opens next Friday, is the last in the Whitney Museum’s Madison Avenue home before it decamps to its new building in Manhattan’s meatpacking district in 2015. It is also perhaps the most highly anticipated contemporary art event in a week jam-packed with gallery openings and art fairs.
For the Biennial’s finale in the Marcel Breuer building, the Whitney invited three outside curators to organize the show: Stuart Comer, chief curator of media and performance at the Museum of Modern Art; Anthony Elms, associate curator at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia; and Michelle Grabner, an artist and a professor in the painting and drawing department at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. In a break from years past, the three have each taken a floor and will present distinct visions, rather than one buildingwide narrative. Although they have coordinated in some of the public spaces, the second, third and fourth floors can be seen as independent shows and visited either in bite-size pieces — one floor at a time — or swallowed in one gulp.
“It’s as if you’re on your laptop and have three windows open,” Mr. Comer explained. “It’s not a collaboration but a conversation, a dialogue.” To drive home the point that this is “a show with three chapters,” as he calls it, the catalog gives each curator a distinct section, printed on differently textured papers.
This year’s biennial is especially dense, featuring the works of 103 participants (a word carefully chosen to include both individual artists and artist collectives), more than twice the number in 2012. Art is everywhere — in the stairwells, the sculpture court, the elevators, the lobby (where the composer and artist Sergei Tcherepnin has created a sound installation emanating from the ceiling).
Performances will be sprinkled throughout the museum, changing during the run of the show, which ends on May 25. (The schedule will be posted on the museum’s website.)
It’s not the first time the Biennial will spill out of its home, this time into Hudson River Park, at 17th Street, with a monumental multimedia work by Tony Tasset, composed of colored acrylic panels etched with the names of 400,000 artists, from Picasso and Warhol to little-known emerging artists.
For visual omnivores, the week also offers a panoply of commercial art fairs. There are the Art Dealers Association of America Art Show, at the Park Avenue Armory (at 67th Street), which opens on Wednesday, and the sprawling Armory Show, at Piers 92 and 94 (12th Avenue and 55th Street in Clinton) and the Independent Art Fair, (548 West 22nd Street in Chelsea), which both open on Thursday.
But it is the Biennial that aims to capture what’s happening in American art. Themes inevitably emerge, delivered in different ways, in different mediums, by different curators. Here are a few to look out for during your visit.
Words and More Words
PAPER is a star of this Biennial, with dozens of books and printed material. “Now that we have access to more archival material, we are all preoccupied with how we can reanimate it and create living histories,” Mr. Comer said. The independent publisher Semiotext(e) is presenting a series of books; an artist duo, Valerie Snobeck and Catherine Sullivan, have created an installation whose imagery and objects are based on a lifetime of airline menus collected by a Chicago anthropologist.
The 89-year-old Beirut-born cultural editor and artist Etel Adnan, whose accordion-folded paper books and diaries depict street scenes of New York, suggest the relationship between writing and painting. Also on view are the spiral notebooks with sketches that the writer David Foster Wallace kept while researching “The Pale King,” his last novel. (His biographer, D. T. Max, called them “an improvised bulletin board.”)
In addition to printed matter, look for literary accouterments, such as a writing table created for Nancy Mitford, the British novelist, by the Canadian-born artist Paul P.
Arts and Crafts
The first Arts and Crafts movement, in England, challenged the taste of the Victorian era. Now the handmade aesthetic is flourishing again, Ms. Grabner said. “As so much moves to the digital world, there is a movement of slowing art and life down.”
Sheila Hicks, an artist whose career has involved melding art, design, craft and architecture, has created a monumental fiber sculpture from ceiling to floor in a spectrum of colors. Lisa Anne Auerbach, based on the West Coast, has knitted sweaters with political messages in the trim.
There is also ceramic art by Shio Kusaka, John Mason and Sterling Ruby, as well as a delicately tooled leather wall piece created by Carol Jackson. The Los Angeles artist Joel Otterson created a 14-foot-tall curtain wall of colored beads that seems straight from a hippie apartment.
Looks That Deceive
Things are not always as they appear. Genders are switched. Artists known for working in one discipline are presenting work in another. There are writers who paint; painters who write poetry; filmmakers who create sculptures; photographers who draw.
What appear to be abstract canvases by Ken Okiishi are actually oil paintings on flat-screen televisions, with a mash-up of footage from old VHS tapes and new digital images in subjects ranging from newscasts to commercials in an installation that is neither a painting nor a video.
An especially provocative photographic diary compiled by Zackary Drucker and Rhys Ernst in Mr. Comer’s installation chronicles the couple’s five-and-a-half-year relationship, in which one transitioned from female to male, and the other from male to female. Until now, this had been a private journal.
Toward the end of March, look for a 22-minute video by the duo called “She Gone Rogue,” described as an odyssey through a world of transgender-themed magical realism when it was shown at the Hammer Museum’s biennial in 2012.
Women are revitalizing abstract painting, and they are well represented here, with works by artists like Louise Fishman, Jacqueline Humphries, Molly Zuckerman-Hartung, Dona Nelson, Laura Owens and Amy Sillman.
“I am focusing on a handful of women artists who take on the authority of abstract painting — its history, its ambition and its relationship to power and gender,” Ms. Grabner said. “I wanted to put them together to underscore how different the language of abstract painting can be.”
She isn’t alone; Mr. Elms has included two large-scale abstract paintings by Rebecca Morris on the second floor. Long a fan of Marcel Breuer’s Brutalist architecture, Mr. Elms said the works fit perfectly with the space.
In trying to grapple with the future, artists of different generations are looking to the past for inspiration. The Surrealist environment on the fourth floor, created by Shana Lutker, a Los Angeles-based Conceptual artist, is loosely based on a fistfight between André Breton — a founder of Surrealism — and two artists, Joan Miró and Max Ernst, over their sets and costumes for a ballet based on “Romeo and Juliet” in 1926. (Breton considered the production lowbrow, Ms. Grabner explained). Ms. Lutker’s stage, an abstract re-creation of the sets and costumes, from Miró’s drawing, includes hanging stainless-steel figures of dancers, two cast ballerina feet and hundreds of red fliers on a ballet bar, to symbolize those thrown onto the stage in a protest.
On the third floor, a 19th-century-style salon, the work of Keith Mayerson, is hung with images from his own modern family: he and his husband; Elvis Presley; Kermit the Frog; and Marvin Gaye, among them.
“It falls somewhere between comic books, a story board and an old-fashioned painting gallery,” Mr. Comer said. He also enlisted Triple Canopy, a nonprofit group that publishes books and an online magazine, to create an installation that explores the cultural meaning of artworks as they are collected, sold, replicated, photographed and exhibited. It focuses on the Garbisch family (Col. Edgar William and Bernice Chrysler Garbisch) and its vast trove of American primitive paintings and furniture, given to many museums. (The Whitney sold its gift in 1999 to focus on the 20th century.) Objects include a wash basin on loan from the Met and carefully made reproductions.
Perhaps because the Whitney is saying goodbye to the Breuer building — or because more artists today are preoccupied with architecture, both as a form and a discipline — watch for constructed objects and architectural images, and ideas about what a museum should be, to be addressed in myriad ways.
Zoe Leonard has transformed a fourth-floor space into a giant camera obscura. Most of the Breuer’s trapezoidal window is blacked out, with only a small hole left that projects an inverted image of the unfolding streetscape — people rushing, and taxis and buses barreling by — onto the walls, ceiling and floor of the gallery.
Morgan Fisher, a Los Angeles artist, has created a curious portrait of the Whitney’s new Renzo Piano building. His sculpture, on the third floor, is an intentionally scrappy construction fashioned from drywall, in which he has reconfigured spaces in the museum, from the lobby to a boardroom coat closet. “It’s about how we rethink the history of museums and the hierarchy of space,” Mr. Comer said.
Mining Marcel Breuer’s archives, Mr. Elms brought together 24 artists and groups to answer a question by Breuer in his earliest notes on the building, when the architect wrote: “What should a museum look like, a museum in Manhattan?”
Look for the artists’ responses to that question in Mr. Elms’s second-floor installation.
Correction: March 1, 2014
An article on Friday about the Whitney Biennial, which opens next Friday, misstated the age of Etel Adnan, an artist who will have work displayed in the show. She is 89, not 84. The error was repeated in an accompanying picture caption.
A version of this article appears in print on February 28, 2014, on page C21 of the New York edition with the headline: State of Our Art, According to Whitney.
Meet artist Michelle Grabner, Whitney Biennial 2014 curator
A key figure in Chicago’s art world, Michelle Grabner takes on the highest-profile job of her career
March 07, 2014|Christopher Borrelli
NEW YORK CITY — A few months before Michelle Grabner presided over the final details of the prestigious 2014 Whitney Biennial at the Whitney Museum of American Art here, a white Buick LeSabre plowed into the side of her small art gallery in Oak Park. This was back in the fall, on a quiet Sunday just after dawn. She knew the car was coming, and she welcomed the impact. She even invited some friends to come over and watch.
Grabner, an artist, curator, critic and professor at the School of the Art Institute — a figure so deeply influential and ubiquitous in the Chicago art scene and beyond that artist Tony Tasset puts her at “the dead center of the art world right now” — had little to fear. As one of three curators of the 77th edition of the Biennial, arguably the most venerated trendsetting showcase for contemporary art in the world (it opened Friday and runs through May), Grabner stands atop a career apex. Explained Jay Sanders, Whitney curator (as well as co-curator of the 2012 Biennial: “Michelle, as an educator, a curator and an artist herself, defines what it means to curate contemporary art in 2014. And it means facing a hugely expanded field where a curator is expected to occupy more than one space at a time. Michelle champions the overlooked, the emerging, the conceptual, visits artist studios, can read (traditional) painting. So she’s a big voice now.”
Which was exactly why that car drove into the Suburban, the roughly 9-by-9-foot cinder block gallery, comically minuscule, that Grabner and her husband, artist Brad Killam, created 15 years ago.
Depending on whom you ask, Grabner receives one of a few familiar refrains: She’s a community builder; she’s rigorous; she’s fearless.
“But sometimes now, Michelle can also function as a kind of institutional symbol. And her reputation, her rank in the art world, is such that I wanted to let some air in there, puncture that rank, make the Suburban more visible, while providing a critique — I wanted to make an argument that allowed us to see vulnerability again.”
That’s artist Dana DeGiulio. She drove the Buick into the Suburban.
DeGiulio’s also close friends with Grabner, who once served as her SAIC graduate school adviser. But that’s not to say Grabner had no reservations about DeGiulio’s idea. The Suburban sits off Lake Street in Oak Park, a few feet from the back steps of Grabner’s small, cream-colored home. Grabner, 51, is a reasonable person with a 9-year old daughter and two adult sons; the gallery, a labor of love, has an international reputation as a forward-thinking destination for inventive artists.
“Still, I liked Dana’s idea very much,” Grabner said. “It was a jarring gesture. Brad didn’t think he could be there for it. But I liked it metaphorically, because after 15 years you lose sight of things. With the Whitney coming, I wanted to reframe stuff, re-evaluate. I hoped she wouldn’t bring it down, but I knew she had it in her.”
Indeed, DeGiulio proved methodical: To pay for the 1996 Buick, she sold a piece of Grabner’s art, which Grabner herself had given DeGiulio as a present; DeGiulio even sold it to the gallery that represents Grabner, New York’s James Cohan Gallery (leading to the awkwardness of the Cohan’s calling Grabner to inform her a friend had sold back a gift). A week before the crash, DeGiulio — who says this was the most impersonal work she’s ever done, “but I am a person, I have a history with Michelle and I felt trepidation” — removed four small trees from Grabner’s side yard and built a ramp at the curb, to ensure the ramming went off smoothly.
Around 6 a.m. Nov. 17, she angled the Buick across Lake Street, hit the gas and backed into the gallery going about 18 mph.
“She actually caught air,” Grabner remembered. The result unnerved everyone. DeGiulio said she couldn’t make eye contact with anyone all morning. Grabner said her husband became upset (Killam said he wasn’t, “just shocked at the damage”). The car tore a huge hole in one wall and buckled the others. The roof leaks now.
The Suburban’s future is iffy.
“I thought carefully about why Michelle agreed to do it,” DeGiulio said. “I got emails later that said I was a narcissistic terrorist and that I took advantage of the way Michelle will allow an artist to do what they want. But Michelle knows what she’s doing. She let me do it because she is an artist and I’m an artist and, though I had to ask something hard and dangerous of her, Michelle is the kind of person who wants it to get asked.”
The Whitney was closed. It was a Monday, Presidents Day. Light snow fell in Manhattan. Grabner moved cheerfully down Madison Avenue, then reaching the museum, shouldered open the heavy service door on the side, tugged off her winter hat and walked to security to gather her visitor’s sticker. Though the Biennial was weeks away, the lobby hummed with installers, assistants, artists, the sound of crates splitting open, the buzzing of drills. A curatorial assistant, Elisabeth Sherman, appeared at Grabner’s side: “From here, do you want me to tell you each day what artists are coming that day, that way you can prepare for each person?” Grabner smiled a secret smile and nodded: So many personalities involved.
Grabner had arrived a few days earlier to oversee installation, insisting she didn’t have much to do this late in the process. The layout of her part of the Biennial (which is the entire fourth floor of the massive museum, plus pieces spread around the Whitney, plus an off-site sculpture from Tasset in Hudson River Park, 5 miles south) had been a protracted negotiation, settled months ago. But there were still details, and many of the more than 50 artists she’d invited to the show would need something: a second opinion, an advocate, an editor. The day she arrived, Los Angeles artist Karl Haendel wanted a wall color changed; Grabner evaluated the situation, time and taste, and disagreed. “I had to talk him down.”
That Monday, in the lobby, a light and jaunty bossa nova poured from an open elevator: Union art installers were working with artist Jeff Gibson, another artist Grabner invited. His piece was a dreamy video of random consumer goods — combs, meat, sunglasses — shown on a flat-screen TV fixed to the wall of the elevator. Home Shopping Network-like displays faded in and out. Gibson’s point was unmistakable: The Whitney is just a department store, each floor holding gaudy commodities. Grabner walked to Gibson. The installers cleared out. The two watched the video, and Grabner leaned in: “Whatever you’re doing, it works.”
The music went on and on.
From the lobby, Sherman said: “I feel like I’m on hold and I’m going to yell at customer service in a minute.”
“Yes, very irritating,” Gibson said, smiling.
Grabner’s grin filled her face — until Sherman, going over the latest developments, remembered a few things. Another of Grabner’s artists, whose work is a series of postcards pre-reviewing the Biennial, wanted a live model to hand out the postcards (Grabner puffed up her cheeks and blew outward); another was trying to decide in what corner of the museum store he would place his installation (she raised her eyebrows slightly); another wanted a message printed on the museum toilet paper.
“That’s more than we can do at this point,” Sherman said. “We can’t fabricate anything, can’t add pieces and can’t produce stuff.”
“I don’t want a carnival,” Grabner said.
“And I don’t want to be rude, but toilet paper, that’s a non-starter,” Sherman said.
But Grabner was over it, moved on. She arrived at the Biennial as the first artist to curate the Whitney Biennial, and though she repeatedly said her motivation was not to push her own ideas about art but to get her artists looked at, reality intrudes. Grabner may be known for a conceptual, theory-driven taste, but the woman herself is pragmatic, straightforward. She speaks breathlessly, like a heroine in a screwball comedy. Her hair is a helmet of curls, and her outfits veer toward hoodies and Green Bay Packers green (she’s also a football-obsessed Wisconsin native). Said Chicago curator John Corbett: “There’s this sense that Michelle lords over her world. But everything about her says she humbly presents others. It’s funny she’s seen as a power broker. I doubt she likes it.”
Her down-to-earth air, on the other hand, some friends say, can be deceptive. Grabner is often blunt, matter-of-fact-direct enough to disarm you. Tasset, who lives down street from Grabner, said: “She’s in her studio at 4 in the morning, stays terribly connected to everyone, acts as a visiting critic at Yale, heads to the Art Institute, seems to bake bread with one arm and curate the Whitney with the other. In the summer, at the Suburban, it’s hilarious, these European and New York art people dressed in black, standing on her lawn eating brats, Michelle grilling. She’s an uber soccer mom. But also ruthlessly honest, a double-edged sword.”
I asked her at the Whitney if the Biennial would give her additional art-world leverage or if it made her anxious, given how the show often becomes a barometer of contemporary art, thereby prone to intense criticism.
Grabner watched an installer drill holes into a sheet of metal and said, the words coming 100 mph: “It works against me; it leaves a bunch of corpses. And one then feels responsible for the bodies. One can’t do anything right: You invite an artist, you’re excited, they’re excited. Now they don’t want to be placed alongside that artist, they don’t like the catalog, nothing came out of it for them. It’s a thankless duty, but it’s my duty. At the same time, I do get to go back to Oak Park at the end of this, and many of these artists, they’ll feel neglected. One or two will become stars. The rest — it goes downhill from here.”
Just don’t mistake those notions for ambivalence.
Milwaukee-based artist David Robbins, whom Grabner has known for decades (and is included in the Biennial), said: “Most people are ambivalent about what they do. I know good artists who wonder if they should give it up. Most people think of paths not taken. But that’s not Michelle — she is doing what she always wanted, and when no part of you is conflicted over the role you play in the world, there’s so much energy to devote.”
In early February I visited Grabner in the large attic studio that she and Killam built in the garage behind their home and the Suburban. Grabner was hunched over one of her tondos (essentially a Renaissance term for a circular work). Behind her, the walls were plastered with her daughter’s crayon art, a large photo of a football player on television (magnified until the image had became dense and grainy) and a promotional poster featuring Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers. She worked with a hypnotic rhythm, sliding a stylus filled with silver up and down a round canvas, drawing narrow line after narrow line until the artwork resembled an optical illusion.
“I like the repetition,” she said, not stopping. “People call it meditative. It’s radial. The silver is more active than my participation, because the silver will tarnish and make the work dynamic.
“It’s not uniquely inventive, but I’m not interested in invention. Showing one’s hand is not something that floors me. Making something you haven’t seen yet? That’s one definition of art for some people. But I went to art school in the 1980s, the height of postmodern art, and things were undercut, appropriated. Pop culture picked up on it better than art did. Still, I liked that stuff. I guess it makes me more of a conceptualist, because art that circulates in the world, shows in a gallery, gets assigned a price, has never interested me as much. Though that is a reality.”
Grabner grew up in the Fox River Valley, outside Green Bay. Her father painted taxidermy fish, her uncle carved duck decoys; she expected to teach art in a high school some day.
“Really, it was like coming from a socialist state,” she said. “No diversity. It’s humiliating to have too much money and humiliating to not have enough.”
The rest, her path, is so winding, reductiveness is inevitable: Undergraduate years at University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee; graduate school at Northwestern University, where she became friends with painter Ed Paschke, making sexualized drawings of Mr. Ed, photographing stills off TV screens. After college, Grabner married Killam (they met when their work was in the same Chicago show) and moved to Milwaukee.
“Having ambition, with nothing else around, you create the scene you want to see,” Killam said. By the mid-1990s, Grabner’s art was drawing acclaim and gallery interest, her acute criticism was appearing in major art publications. But also, she and Killam were curating shows in major local museums and storefronts alike.
Said Nicholas Frank, a Milwaukee artist: “Michelle and Brad were resolutely set on remaining local and connected to the wider world. That felt new. Milwaukee had a closed-off art scene, and they were can openers, learning to foster a cultural exchange between wherever they were and people they connected with.” Nevertheless, a late ’90s show of Scandinavian artists, curated by Grabner and Killam and held in museums and galleries throughout Chicago and Milwaukee, put them on the map in Chicago. So, to be closer to more opportunity, they moved to Oak Park in 1997; she had joined SAIC in 1996. Flash forward a decade: By 2009, eager to move the school in a more a theory-driven curriculum, she was chair of painting and drawing.
“Really, she revitalized the department,” said Lisa Wainwright, SAIC’s dean of faculty.
In 1999, she and Killam opened the Suburban; in 2008, they bought a 19th-century farm in central Wisconsin, naming it the Poor Farm and creating yet another celebrated destination for contemporary artists. Grabner had perfected the art of keeping one foot inside the mainstream, the other at the periphery.
“You know the thing about having to move to New York to be an artist?” asked John Riepenhoff, owner of Milwaukee’s Green Gallery. “Michelle just invited everyone to her. Which is radical. But to her, it’s normal.”
If you cast a casual eye on the art world now, there are moments when it can seem as if Grabner is everywhere at once. In the past year alone, her work was spotlighted by Chicago’s Shane Campbell Gallery; last fall, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Cleveland devoted a large survey to her work (the curator was a friend); even the small Hyde Park Art Center had a Grabner-curated show about appropriation in Midwest art. That’s just for starters. Concurrent with the Biennial, New York’s Armory Show and James Cohan Gallery will also feature Grabner’s work, which Cohan calls “a combination of intellectual rigor and beautiful objects, a marriage of appropriation and tradition, all with an unusually high curiosity toward the wider world.”
At the Whitney, one moment she was in the lobby greeting conceptual artist Saul Ostrow — she warned he could be cranky, but he exploded in toothy smiles and bear hugs when he saw her — the next she was moving briskly through cluttered, unfinished galleries, asking if a certain painting was already hung. (The assistant’s reply came fast: “Michelle, we would not hang anything without asking you first.”)
A week earlier, she was in Chicago, delivering a My-Biennial-in-40-Minutes primer to the staid board of governors of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
It was a character-revealing performance, a one-woman show delivered in her breakneck rat-a-tat: Grabner, before 50 or so board members — most in dark blue, carrying black bags — launched into a hilariously blunt deconstruction of the Biennial and how she thinks about it, complete with info graphics. Her other two curators, she told her audience, are Stuart Comer of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, and Anthony Elms, a former Chicago curator now at the Institute of Contemporary Art Philadelphia (each of whom get their own floor to curate). There are about 100 artists in the show (typically it presents lesser-known artists). She invited more than 50; the others about 25 each. Her search took her to scores of studios, nearly every corner of the country. And in the end, she personally knows more than half of her Biennial invitees.
Two board members in the back threw each other knowing glances.
As if answering their probable thoughts, Grabner continued: She offers this information upfront because she wanted the process of curating a show as important as the Biennial to be transparent. In other words, she wanted people to know it is not fair: “I was looking for artists who influence art today, and influence me.” Many of the artists she invited are friends, some were students, some teachers, some Art Institute colleagues. Eight of the 17 Chicagoans in the show are her picks, though not because they are from Chicago, she stressed. (Later she said the city’s art scene does not impress her, its “provincial disposition” being a “terrible waste of energy.”)
She is not interested in using the Whitney “as a platform for bringing someone to you that you can market and move through the (traditional art) system.” So, for example, she included elaborately annotated notebooks from writer David Foster Wallace, and another artist will fill a table with discounted catalogs of art shows that once graced the Whitney. Another moved to Amsterdam and whittles pencils into sculptures (more eye rolls from the back). She told of “summerlong” fights with the Whitney to include a piece by artist Gretchen Bender, who died a decade ago; Grabner wanted (and eventually received) permission to invite artist Philip Vanderhyden to re-create a Bender installation. She also told of endless arguments about the work of Donelle Woolford, “who is a fiction, the invention of a white New Jersey artist who hires models to play the role of ‘Donelle,’ a black, up-and-coming artist. Donelle does not exist.” (“Donelle” is also the only African-American woman in Grabner’s part of the show, which concerned the Whitney, she said later.)
The Whitney’s Sanders, instrumental in hiring Grabner, told me a few weeks later he didn’t have a problem with revealing how the sausage gets made. In fact, he sympathized: “Michelle being an artist, making value-judgments of other artists has to be intense. Transparency is how you handle it.”
On the train back to Oak Park after the board meeting, Grabner grew teary.
“They were lovely,” she said, “but they come from an affluence I don’t understand or value. I showed my graphics tongue-in-cheek, and they stayed so straight!” She said she was terrible. Later, Walter Massey, president of SAIC, sent a note: He’s on the committee for the future Barack Obama presidential library, which needs to stay up on contemporary art, and would she do her presentation for them too?
“Of course I said yes.”
Back at the Whitney, the Tuesday after Presidents Day, long into an already long afternoon, Grabner pushed her hands into her coat pockets and surveyed the fourth floor, stepping around workbenches. Her floor, full of grand gestures and physically huge pieces — Shana Lutker, one of the artists there, said the floor plays “like a series of exclamation points” — required endless consideration of electrical cords, painters, sheetrock preparation, union rules, whether the sidewalk outside was too slushy to unload a fragile work.
She showed no exhaustion. Even when an assistant reminded her they had four days to finish installing her part of the Biennial, she looked less worried than delighted by the variety and density of work around her. She seemed as comfortable here, and easygoing, as she does back at the Suburban.
Later, asked if he imagines Grabner and her ambitions staying much longer in Chicago, Robert Storr, a South Side native, influential curator and dean of the Yale University School of Art, lamented: “Chicago, as an art center, has never thrived relative to the coasts, but then it also never used to look to the coasts for validation the way it does now. It needs the synthesizing energy that (Grabner) brings. It needs to hold on to people like her.”
Theaster Gates, one of Chicago’s most celebrated artists (and a 2010 Biennial alum), said: “A moment this big should take pressure off Michelle and lead to more opportunity — Berlin, Venice.”
But Grabner told me that she would move back to Milwaukee eventually and felt no loyalty to Chicago, and though she expected a “career unwinding now,” she showed no sign of pressure or melancholy. We walked to a ledge at the museum holding vases from artist Shio Kusaka. You might assume, for an artist who once let another artist plow into her gallery with a car, Grabner would find a row of fairly conventional vases to be overly pedestrian.
“Elegant,” she said instead.
Then added: “I enjoy them as things. But en masse, it’s compelling: Could be an art installation. Could be a display at Bed Bath & Beyond. High and low. Quite interesting, no?”
The 2014 Whitney Biennial line-up has been kind to Southern California. About 30 percent of the lineup include creatives who live and work in California, which almost entirely means L.A. but also includes San Francisco, Sebastopol, and San Diego. That’s actually pretty good, since the rest, while unsurprisingly New York-heavy, does its best to spread the nods around the map.
There were three curators on the team, all from outside the Museum. Interestingly, for this edition each curator gets their own floor instead of doing the whole thing collectively. Anthony Elms is Associate Curator at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia; he worked at Performa 11 performance-art based fair; and is also the editor of WhiteWalls, an independent publishing imprint. Michelle Grabner is Professor and Chair of the Painting and Drawing Department at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago; a senior critic at Yale in the Department of Painting and Printmaking; and active in the world of artist-run project spaces. Stuart Comer has been Curator of Film at Tate Modern, London, but he just left the Tate to move to new York and set up shop at MOMA.
Per the Whitney brand — and the personal purviews of the curators’ career specialties — you’ll find video, performance, indie publishing, and experimental installation galore — but there’s also a refreshing, almost old-school affection for straight-up photography, painting, and sculpture. For all three curators, it has been about identifying what is influential now, and that might mean a next-big-phenom or a well-established (or even, in a few cases, deceased) artist who is nevertheless on everyone’s mind. While fairly eclectic in mediums, the list is heavily (but not thoroughly) Caucasian, and about 70 percent male. The show doesn’t open until March, but in the meantime for those keeping score at home, here follows a brief overview of the California delegation. Loosely grouped into big-tent genres, and without knowing exactly what will be shown in March, the lineup promises to deliver a balanced and engaging American biennial in which the home team is poised to make a big impression in all the Biennial’s most major categories.
Performance and performance-based video: One of the most interesting artists working in Los Angeles today, Zackary Drucker — along with frequent collaborator, the filmmaker Rhys Ernst — is a writer and performance artist whose smart and sexy work is both transgressive and heartfelt. My Barbarian is a performance collective founded in 2000 by Malik Gaines, Jade Gordon, and Alexandro Segade who mix up media channels and crowd-sourced movement-based installation, and are working in increasingly complex interdisciplinary formats. Catherine Sullivan works with film and live performance, producing quirky, math-based yet emotional vaudeville, upending conservative social taboos. taisha paggett creates danced-based performance art in specific locations, full of DIY urgency and modern archetypes. What Lisa Anne Auerbach does is more of a social practice than a performance practice; but her adaptation of what was once called radical craft has yielded politically-charged textiles, closely examining the cultural aspects and activist potential of all manner of public costume.
Laura Owens 356 Mission
Painting: Laura Owens has become one of the best known figures in the LA art world; as a painter, mentor, and now exhibition space operator, her efforts to create vibrant, salient abstract paintings have never ceased to evolve, and her latest, larger-scale paintings are particularly compelling. The late Channa Horwitz was known for her mathematical drawings and installations, pursuing a rules-based geometric abstraction that communicates like conceptual semaphore on graph paper — and is a bit like seeing the Matrix in technicolor. The late painter Tony Greene (whose presence is curated by his friends and colleagues Richard Hawkins and Catherine Opie) demonstrated influences ranging from Robert Mapplethorpe to Nayland Blake and Derek Jarman. Rebecca Morris has a painting practice that is at once abstract and folksy, with an Outsider-style ritualized mosaic quality; her work is messy but urgent, measured but rough, deliberate but expressive. Karl Haendel makes these impressive realistic figurative drawings, often based on vintage photographs, that have this retro flavor and a masterful specificity that lend them an eerie nostalgia and evocative dematerialization.
Photography and Film: Victoria Fu makes photography and video installations, but her work seems to be after the same goals as abstraction in painting — generating vibrant op-art, crisp and ethereal at the same time. Dashiell Manley‘s videos, objects, and site-specific installations examine the relationship of space to language. The late Allan Sekula has been one of the most influential photographers and thinkers in the overlapping realms of contemporary photography and social theory for the last several decades. Fred Lonidier (San Diego) also approaches photography as a catalyst and function of social change. Stephen Berens works in photography mainly; but his reductivist, pattern-seeking, serial works are both quasi-abstract and grounded in experience and observation. Miljohn Ruperto works simultaneously in several aesthetic modes in his video and photography, creating apparently dissonant bodies of work often shown together in installation form.
Joel Otterson Wall-of-China
Sculpture and Installation: Morgan Fisher’s sculptural, architectural color-blocking, deploy bright and primary colors that look like early video games melded with op-art and then turned into a room you can walk around in. John Mason is a pioneer of ceramic sculpture, whose decades of education and work embodies the history and heyday of progressive ceramics in L.A. Shio Kusaka also makes vessels, with strong influences of this innovative ceramics tradition, employing a multiplicity of techniques, and with her Asian heritage as an aesthetic touchstone. Ricky Swallow makes sculpture that defies, belies, and transcends its own materials — for example ordinary objects rendered as bronzes that look like random cardboard, in a witty Yoko Ono meets Marcel Duchamp kind of way. Joel Otterson and Shana Lutker, each in their own way, also riffs on the ordinary object, transplanting and rendered them into dystopian sculptures that resists specific narrative. Sterling Ruby loves to site serious sculptures in wacky places, and wacky sculptures in serious places, morphing monumental color-driven modernisms with pop humor and industrial scale.
John Herschend Thing Quarterly
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Publishing: There’s a large number of publishers and independent writers represented in the Biennial, including some surprises. A.L. Steiner works in installation, video, and performance, in addition to producing books and zines. Ben Kinmont (Sebastopol), is an artist, publisher, and antiquarian bookseller — consciously blurring the boundaries between projects, events, and publishing. Jonn Herschend (San Francisco) among other things co-curates and publishes THE THING Quarterly, as well as making short films. Semiotext(e) is an acclaimed publisher of artist books of tracts on the philosophies of art-making. Gary Indiana, while known primarily as a writer, also works as a filmmaker and visual artist. David Foster Wallace — that’s a bit of a head-scratcher. They have only said that the author will be “recognized posthumously,” but no one really knows what that will look like.
Check out more works from the California artists here:
Lisa Anne Auerbach
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Top Image: Allan Sekula.
About the Author
Shana Nys Dambrot is an art critic, curator, and author based in Los Angeles. MORE
The Young Guns: 8 Whitney Biennial Artists Born After 1980
“Relationship (Zackary Drucker and Rhys Ernst, 2011)” by Zackary Drucker. Courtesy of the artists and Luis De Jesus Los Angeles.
It is always risky for a critic or curator to lump artists together by some vague theme or age group, for fear of trampling the artists’ intentions in the attempt to proclaim connections. But the cohort of young artists in the currentWhitney Biennial are so independent and energetic in articulating their practices that there is little danger of these voices getting lost.
Seven of this group of eight were selected by Stuart Comer, whose show’s premise argues that we are currently witnessing the dissolution of the old art-historical boundaries between mediums and the birth of new hybrids, a artistic development paralleling the widespread adoption of new and hyphenated personal identities in the broader culture. Touring Comer’s third floor installation at the museum, these young artists provide some of the clearest expressions of that thesis, perhaps because they have spent most of their lives in times that have embraced the composite, the blended, the layered.
If you want to get an idea of what will be talked about not only in this Biennial, but for years to come, check out these artists with long careers ahead of them.
KEVIN BEASLEY (born 1985)
At first glance, the contribution of this New York-based artist may appear to be a pair of assemblages made from the detritus of everyday life in the city: a sneaker, a torn bit of clothing, all clinging to a grey lump of plastic or foam. In fact, these objects are a sort of sculptural recording of one of the performances at the heart of Beasley’s practice. More than merely leaving behind documentation or props, the artist is striving to encapsulate the potential of movement in a static work, aiming to freeze movement from various angles like a cubistic memory. In addition to the objects on the third floor, Beasley will be performing in the second week of May.
ZACKARY DRUCKER (1983) and RHYS ERNST (1982)
Zackary Drucker, “Relationship (Zackary Drucker and Rhys Ernst, 2008).”
Courtesy of the artists and Luis De Jesus Los Angeles.
Offering up the most literal expression of shapeshifting personal identities, Drucker and Ernst both have been undergoing gender reassignment surgery for several years, the former from a man to a woman, the latter vice-versa. A couple in their personal as well as professional lives, the Los Angeles duo have recorded the slow evolution in photos and films of their everyday lives. The means of expression is perhaps the most traditional of any of these artists—when looking at the wall covered with color photos of utterly intimate moments shared between the two lovers and artists, it is hard not to think of Nan Goldin’s photographs of a quarter century ago. Yet where Goldin’s works were praised for their honest expressions of angst and pain and frailty within relationships, the power here comes from the couple’s casual joy and easy confidence. The occasional visual jokes (two eggs held between a pair of thighs, a sausage about to be consumed) refer back to the project’s central theme with a knowing wink and reveal behind the seemingly candid shots a self-awareness that speaks to everyone’s attempts to remake themselves. Films by the pair will be on view a various times during the Biennial’s run.
RADAMÉS “JUNI” FIGUEROA (1982)
Ostensibly, Figueroa tries to offer a little bit of his native San Juan, Puerto Rico, in his humble plywood architectural installation, located in the space the museum euphemistically calls its sculpture court. In fact, the hut—decorated with a few tropical plants and items of clothing—occupies the claustrophobic basement-level pit, over which the full mass of Breuer’s Brutalist building looms. As political metaphor, this relationship of between artwork and host lacks for subtlety. But on further examination the installation reveals layers of rebelliousness and humor. In the plastic photomural of palm trees that serves as the hut’s entry curtain, one senses the artist’s embrace of the outsider’s stereotypes about the tropics, like a reclaiming of words of derision. And at least during the frigid opening week, the neon sign inside that says “breaking the ice” turned the conciliatory phrase into a well-placed jab.
YVE LARIS COHEN (1985)
Brooklyn-based Laris Cohen may win the title of most easily overlooked artwork in the exhibition—and this is a year with quite a few contenders. Only after reading the wall label might the viewer notice a deep cut in the surrounding sheetrock. On five different occasions during the show’s run, that piece of wall will be removed by art handlers and brought to the Whitney’s still-under-construction downtown space, where the artist and a troupe of dancers will incorporate the sheetrock while performing pieces with choreography derived from OSHA regulations. The performers will then take the responsibility for returning and reinstalling the prodigal chunk of plaster. Is the work about the futility of trying to document something that is as time- and location-specific as the movement of people through an ever-changing world? Or will the wall, as it becomes more and more distressed, start to speak of the way that people inevitably leave a mark, however difficult it may be to read the exact intention of the mark-maker?
TONY LEWIS (1986)
Tony Lewis, peoplecol, 2013. Pencil, graphite powder and tape on paper.
Courtesy the artist and Shane Campbell Gallery, Chicago. Photo Robert Chase Heishman.
Lewis is the only artist in this cadre to be selected by curator Michelle Grabner. His two large works on paper are formally austere yet simultaneously touching, since they embody a yearning to reach out and communicate, even as the speaker seems to have come to believe communication is impossible. The white paper is covered in smudges and footprints, the occasional smear of black pigment, and even more rare smatterings of glitterring graphite. Hovering over this gritty ground are a few stray words or individual letters and a meandering line that seems to trace one pathway connecting these signs. The text fragments are lifted from a script that Lewis does not reveal, except to say it grapples with the history and ongoing development of race relations in the United States. We are left to trace our own lines, find our own way through this bleak landscape. Like characters in a Beckett play, the drawings are driven by a need to converse, even if understanding is to be eternally out of reach.
DASHIELL MANLEY (1983) Los Angeles, CA
Dashiell Manley, Scene 3 Version B 2, 2013. Gouache, ink, watercolor, linen, wood,
acrylic sheet, lighting gels, paper, tape, and steel. Image courtesy of the Artist,
Redling Fine Art, and Jessica Silverman Gallery. Photo Jeff Mclane.
Manley’s presentation includes large clear panels that have been painted on or have had colored lighting gels attached, as well as video monitors showing looped footage that seems to incorporate these semi-transparent abstractions with both old films and more recent footage, perhaps from TV advertisements. The wall label tells us that the paintings and videos were derived from the 1903 film The Great Train Robbery, and it would be easy to assume these are homages or second-level appropriations. But as one considers the relative strength of the various pieces, it becomes increasingly hard to tell what was the input and what was the output of Manley’s creative process. One might guess that the panels are byproducts of a cumbersome process of colorizing the film. Or maybe they are Minimalist reductions of the film, movement transposed into color and shape. After further consideration, the whole ensemble becomes a comment on the overlap between the concepts of inspiration and creative expression and the circularity of the artistic process.
JACOLBY SATTERWHITE (1986)
Jacolby Satterwhite, “Transit,” Video Still from Reifying Desire 6, 2014. HD digital video,
color, 3-D animation. Courtesy of Monya Rowe Gallery and Mallorca Landings Gallery.
Satterwhite’s sci-fi video fantasias grouped under in the series Reifying Desire 1-6might be analyzed as a next generation riposte to Matthew Barney’s Cremaster Cycle, though I doubt that was the artist’s intention. Mixing live action and animation and incorporating his own dance performances as well as drawings by his mother, Satterwhite’s videos explode on the screen with never-ending action and indigestible waves of imagery. Where Barney’s films seemed be a desperate attempt to explain the messiness of desire—like the ego and super-ego trying to rein in and order a confusing world—Satterwhite is intent on inventing his own environments to conform to his every whim, conveying the id let loose with a set a video-game development tools.
SERGEI TCHEREPNIN (1981)
Bathing the rigid surfaces of the museum’s lobby in gentle washes of music, Tcherepnin makes music with the architectural structure itself, or at least its light fixtures. Expanding across the ceiling is a field of the concave round metal lamp shades about three feet across. They look a bit like giant cymbals, and now that Tcherepnin has rigged them to play his compositions, they sound a lot like cymbals as well. The artist’s works, or at least the ones I listened to, worked in counterpoint to the rigid grid of the architecture. Rather than following the visual clues to develop aural expression of a repetitive, minimalist bent, Tcherepnin teased from this structure a gentle harmony.