There was a time when the Whitney Biennial was the much-anticipated barometer of the state of American art…
Whether praised or reviled, everyone could be counted on to have an opinion. This year, as has been the case for some time, the Biennial is just another blur in the bombardment of art as excess that is the current art world. Even the term “art world” can bring on nausea and panic. The 2014 Whitney Biennial opened hard on the heels of the Armory Art Fair (over on the piers), The Art Show (at the Armory), the Independent Art Fair, Scope, and Pulse, etc. You get the picture: serious art overload. Who can absorb, much less digest, the onslaught?
But let’s focus for a moment. The Whitney Biennial is, after all, a non-commercial group show, meant to deliver some kind of reckoning. And this year’s show is, to me at least, pretty damn interesting. That is, there is always enough provocative work to keep me looking, even pondering.
Seemed to me there was a lot of complex, visually amped up work, more crafted work than usual, but unfortunately very little significant photography, very little overtly political work and plenty of the usual pedantically overloaded stuff where you need to reference the wall labels. However should the Whitney Biennial find better ways to distinguish itself from the plethora of art fairs that surround it? Maybe so.
This will be the last show at the Whitney’s iconic Marcel Breuer Madison Avenue building before they reopen in the Meat Packing district. What was novel this year was the division of labor. Three curators, Stuart Comer, Anthony Elms and Michelle Grabner were each given a floor. So perhaps understandably, this year’s installation seemed a bit more packed than the excellent Biennial two years ago. (Can anyone really remember much further back? The more the present is overloaded the more it crowds out the past.)
The fourth floor, Michelle Grabner’s, was the most packed of all. The consensus was with starting there and working down. The most painting, the most color, the most stuff, some of it sculpture, much of it craft intensive, was on this floor, and it was a pleasure, even if you felt a bit compressed and overwhelmed by so much cramped stimulus.
As you enter the fourth floor what immediately impresses is a large wall piece by Gretchen Bender and Ken Lum’s Vietnam war montage of commercial signage called “Midway Shopping Plaza”.
Strong women painters dominated and impressed…Jacqueline Humphries, Dona Nelson, Louise Fishman, Molly Zuckerman-Hartung and Susan McClelland were all shown to strong effect.
It is reassuring to see such confident visceral and distinctive abstractions on these large walls. All of them collude and collide in the single most convulsive gallery in the show where Sterling Ruby added gaudy giant ceramic ashtray-like containers. I was a little less impressed with Amy Sillman’s contribution here although she is someone I’ve admired over the years.
On the Floor curated by Anthony Elms, Charlene Von Heyl showed a striking wall size spread of grisaille collage pieces in a taught grid. Raw photo collage and paint in strong black and whites.
From the vast to the microscopic then: I had recently heard Susan Howe read at the Drawing Center on the occasion of the remarkable Emily Dickenson show “The Gorgeous Nothings”. So it was a pleasure to see her minute letterpress works again on display here. Poetic texts fractured and reassembled. Deliciously slow thwarted reading.
Nearby but many miles away, Bjarne Melgaard provided the predictable prerequisite sex gross out room. Fun for teenagers I suppose, but otherwise incapable of shocking, arousing or engaging much of anything. OK maybe a little arousing. Colorful though I’ll say, and couches for the weary! Very popular!
Zoe Leonard contributed what should be the tour de force of the exhibition using the building itself and one of Breuer’s iconic windows to make a huge camera obscura. Unfortunately the evening opening yielded only a dark room and a subsequent daytime visit was equally disappointing. Maybe there just wasn’t sufficient light that day or the late afternoon angles were unfavorable. I’ll be back to see it again in hopefully more accommodating circumstances.
Elsewhere the great surprise of the show for me was a film called “Leviathan” (click link to view) by Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel of the Sensory Ethnography Lab at Harvard University. This stunning footage evokes humanity’s obsession with the sea while probing a visceral view into the world of industrial fishing. With no voice over or other narrative direction the film shows a murky underwater of colorful detritus and distorted sound blips. Mesmerizing! The camera seems to have a life of its own as if freed from a self-conscious hand. The documentary medium is undergoing seismic shifts these days as the lines blur between the filmmaker and subject.
I’ll get back to the ocean obsession shortly but first It’s always interesting to see who the curators choose to showcase posthumously as this is meant to indicate some marker of redemptive relevance to the current zeitgeist.
Two years ago Robert Gober curated a Forrest Bess room to great effect. This year several deceased artists were honored for renewed consideration among them David Foster Wallace, Sarah Charlesworth and the aforementioned Gretchen Bender who was represented by a 1980 piece called “People in Pain”, once destroyed, here now “remade” lovingly by Phillip Vanderhyden.
In this vein I was startled to come across an archive of manuscripts and photographs of Gregory Battcock salvaged from an abandoned factory by Joseph Grigely. Battcock was a critic and prominent art world figure in the 60’s and 70’s having edited the very influential “Minimal Art: a Critical Anthology”. It was a book that we devoured front to back in art school. He was also a prominent gay activist. Grigely reconstitutes the archive in a series of vitrines as a form of story telling. A life recast, the installation includes memorabilia and a lone painting, perhaps Battcock’s only such effort.
I met Battcock on a transatlantic crossing in 1974 having just won a traveling Fellowship from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. A friend had instructed me to don a used tuxedo and head for the first class lounge like I owned it in spite of being booked in steerage. Having dubiously pulled off that feat, I met Battcock, who was a devoted ocean liner enthusiast, (more than 60 voyages!) took me under his wing for the remainder of the crossing. We wined and dined in high style and he introduced me to everyone on board he could lure out for a meal or cocktail. On disembarking he sent me on my way with some letters of introduction for my European art travels. Foolishly I did not remain in touch with him. Later, at the time of my first newspaper review for a solo show in Seattle in 1980 I was shocked and saddened to see his obituary opposite my review. He had been murdered in San Juan, Puerto Rico. I left the opening a little shaken, pondering the memory.
Art comes at you in many ways, mostly unpredictable.
There are many ways you might bump into a fragment of your own history at this Whitney Biennial.
All photographs (not including Leviathan poster & photograph of Whitney Museum) by Boulevardier, Jeffrey Bishop.