6.7.17 — White Privilege

As a follow-up to last time on the Whitney Biennial, how could I not turn to this? It has become the occasion for reflection on both racism and the possibilities of political art.

Dana Schutz's Open Casket (courtesy of the artist/Petzel gallery, 2016)What a difference a day makes. One day Emmett Till was just a poor child from Chicago, a polio survivor, visiting relatives in the South. He counted white children as his friends. The next he was the victim of bigotry and a brutal murder. The fourteen-year-old became an emblem of injustice and a spur to the budding movement for civil rights.

Dana Schutz, critics note, has had only privilege—the privilege of a white artist from a comfortable Detroit suburb making it in the art world. Yet she, too, has become a symbol. At just forty, she was among the stars of the most widely celebrated Whitney Biennial in memory. Horrified by police shootings of blacks in the present, she looked back to Till’s death in 1955 and painted him in Open Casket. Reviews singled it out in a singularly political and diverse biennial. For the city’s most influential critic, Roberta Smith in The Times, it “doesn’t picture his wounds so much as the pain of looking at them.”

And then in a day her fortunes, too, had changed. A black artist called for her boycott on Facebook. A black writer called for the work’s removal and destruction. They accused Schutz of appropriating the African American experience for the benefit of a white woman. The controversy erupted into the press and consumed social media—and I have waded more deeply into the controversy in a longer review and my latest upload. What does it say about the role of art in a racist and divided America?

How dare she? The question recalls the furor over The Confessions of Nat Turner by William Styron, but it is all the more pressing now—for blacks and women alike have little to gain and so much to lose in Donald Trump’s America. The week of the debacle, a white man traveled to New York City with the sole aim of killing African Americans, and women barely escaped a repeal of Obamacare and its provisions for women’s health. It is pressing, too, because has art its own divisions, and many feel excluded. Surely many of the protestors do, and they were acting out that feeling of exclusion in decrying a white woman’s success at their expense. They were demanding attention, and for better or worse they got it.

The question is also pressing, though, because it is so puzzling. No one complained when whites joined in the civil rights marches and when white journalists brought those marches alive—although Dana Schutz herself worked from a photograph in Jet, a weekly founded by an African American. No one complained when protest singers added their voices, including Bob Dylan with “The Death of Emmett Till,” or earlier when Billie Holiday sent chills down the nation’s spine with “Strange Fruit,” by a Jewish songwriter and about a lynching. Rather than telling whites to shut up, blacks are wondering why Trump will not speak up to denounce that murderer in New York. The women’s march after Trump’s inauguration welcomed men, and Jews still decry white indifference that turned refugees back to their death in the Holocaust. What makes painting or, more generally, fiction more open to criticism?

Why should a white artist lose her voice? I hear two reasons. First, Schutz is appropriating black experience for personal profit. Second, she cannot speak for what she cannot experience. I want to argue with them both, although African American artists do indeed have experiences apart that they can communicate, too. I shall have to skip over them here, but the longer article looks at criticism of the painting at hand and dives into those questions about profiteering and empathy, with all their implications for political art.

That seems to leave things where they started, with the enigma of what makes art so different from other ways of communicating. How can people even be arguing about this? Why are they not celebrating Schutz or simply dismissing her? It comes down to two things. First, art is powerful. The protests diminish art as a mere luxury compared to writing, marching, or music, but it sure has them worked up.

Second, art is ambiguous as other protests are not, because it bridges public and private matters. Artists work for themselves and for others, and one person’s expression of grief is another person’s grievance. They are shaped by their art, by their imaginings, by their joys, by their sorrows, by their histories, by race, by class, by gender, and by others as well. Together, though, those factors empower art, political or not. Art alone cannot ensure justice or empathy, but it can awaken both. Schutz can speak to concerns beyond herself, just as African American art can speak to me.

Read more, now in a feature-length article on this site.

6.5.17 — All Those People

Half an hour into the 2017 Whitney Biennial, I had had my fill of people. No, not the crowds, for the first biennial ever in the Whitney’s new home, with enough room for them and an often dazzling display. No, I mean the people in the art, only I grew almost to love them—and it is the subject of a longer review in my latest upload.

Dana Schutz's Fight in an Elevator (Whitney Museum, 2015)They fill painting after painting and video after video—dancing, working, dying, or just hanging out, at the Whitney through June 11. They descend from the ceiling and ascend a rope in the stairwell. They take over less palpable museums by networks and financing schemes. They are also relentlessly politically correct. So I sought relief in some elements of landscape that had somehow found their way indoors. Only they, too, are human interventions, and they illuminate the tensions that make the biennial interesting almost despite itself.

The landscaping begins in the lobby, as it happens, before the people get started. Two paintings in a uniform dark brown hang over the front desk, by Park McArthur, like guides to the museum with their text effaced. With their pronounced frames and rounded corners, they could also be billboards along the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway—right where the BQE cuts off neighborhoods from the waterfront, mass transit, or one another. The lobby gallery has more landscaping, in a cylindrical fortification like Castle Williams on Governor’s Island or Castle Clinton in Battery Park. What looks like piled stone, however, is clay mixed with hay, horse dung, and Los Angeles River water. Rafa Esparza and others think of themselves as reversing the process of colonization by transporting native American materials to New York.

They cannot help evoking the dark side of that process all the same. Faces in large photos stand out most of all for their anonymity. A page from eBay and a “certificate of authenticity” for their “reconstructed southwest artifact” attest that anything and everything these days is for sale. Upstairs McArthur has more brown billboards, while photographs by An-My Lê present Louisiana as contested territory—flooded by storms, bearing a monument to a Confederate general, and serving as the set for a film about a Confederate Army deserter. On video, Sky Hopinka captures an island in the Bering Sea as home to the world’s largest Aleut population, seabirds, and seals. In its very starkness, though, it no longer speaks a native language.

Each artist dares visitors to enter an empty landscape, and each urges them not to forget those that have left it deserted. That sounds depressing, but the artists are just finding their way around along with you and celebrating those others. Landscape paintings in bright colors, by Shara Hughes, are downright cheerful—while a video by Anicka Yi, about a “flavor chemist” along the Amazon, is downright sappy. Either way, though, the Biennial is all about people, even when they are nowhere to be seen. For the Whitney, it is about “the formation of self and the individual’s place in a turbulent society.” It sounds political, not to mention jargon ridden, and it is, but also urgent.

As for the people, they have roots as far away as Iran and Vietnam, and they run to artist collectives with names like post-punk bands. To get to know them, you must first meet the curators, Christopher Y. Lew and Mia Locks, both Chinese Americans in their mid-thirties. These are people who can start a catalog essay with Bob the Drag Queen rather than art. You know right away that the Whitney is hoping to reinvent the ritual of a biennial for today. You know, too, that it will place the accent on identity and diversity, much like its rehanging of the collection upstairs as “Where We Are.” This is art as a dance marathon—only starting with Tala Madani, who opens one floor with Shitty Disco.

Should a biennial be competing for the youth vote with a New Museum triennial or “Greater New York“? Could that actually make it less representative of the present moment in art, despite tough-minded virtual reality by Jordan Wolfson and terrific painting by Carrie Moyer, Jo Baer, Dana Schutz and Henry Taylor (and my longer review covers them all)? Larry Bell may not fit well here out on the terrace, but someone else from another genre or generation might. Still, for once a distinct point of view comes across—and it comes across as a genuine diversity. You might want to fill it out with a stop at MoMA or the Met for their contemporary selections, or you might want to wait another two years, when the Whitney truly gets the hang of the building. It is already drawing a crowd.

Read more, now in a feature-length article on this site.

2.1.17 — Dream On

Do people still go to the movies? Do you?

Oh, sure, I know they do. I know show times at the multiplex from the ebb and flow at a neighborhood bar across the street. Speaking for myself, though, I catch up on movies at home, with breaks for raiding the fridge and checking email—and the film plays on during the breaks. I am hardly alone, too, some would say. Even those devoted to the movies may never see film classics on the big screen. Short of the sophisticated audience for film festivals, that experience may already belong to the past. from Bruce Conner's Crossroads (Conner Family Trust/Museum of Modern Art, 1976)

At the Whitney, though, there is still a space for theater. “Dreamlands: Immersive Cinema and Art,” through February 5, argues for the power of the moving image to “influence how we see and experience the world.” Little in it is immersive, and even less is cinema. Yet the entirety very much is—and it is the subject of a longer and fuller review, in my latest upload. One can get lost in its maze of rooms, corridors, and images. One can step in a moment or two from one of the very first moving images, in 1905, to the twenty-first century, without batting an eye. And then one can argue over just how much has been lost in a dream.

The Whitney’s dream dates back to the twentieth century—and, like so much of Modernism, it could present a utopia or a nightmare. The curator, Chrissie Iles, nods to exactly two feature-length films. Both Fantasia, with Mickey as the sorcerer’s apprentice, and Blade Runner think of the movies as the occasion for entertainment, fantasy, and art. And both see things as out of control. They serve as reference points for the show’s contemporary work. Much of the rest amounts to how immersive cinema got there.

Both films turn up twice, among the thirty-eight projections and installations. Oskar Fischinger’s drawings for Fantasia, around 1938, approach abstraction. If Disney rejected them as too arty, his own studio artists are no less impressive, with sketches for the creation of the world. Syd Mead supplies “concept paintings” for Blade Runner starting in 1980, and Terence Broad remembers its dystopia in 2016 in Autoencoded, his imagined neural network for artificial intelligence. If it sounds like the show leans toward sci-fi geeks, it does. And that leaves the question of how much the geeks can say about virtual reality—or, to put it quaintly, the real one.

Actually, “Dreamlands” flirts only briefly with virtual reality. Trisha Baga supplies 3D glasses for Flatlands, a scenic tour of life forms and mirrored surfaces. So does Ben Coonley for Trading Futures, a lecture on the headlong rush toward a global economy set against a panoramic city. The show has only a lover’s quarrel with AI as well. Ian Cheng has his “chat bots” and Lynn Hershman Leeson her alter-ego, with such zingers as “Haven’t we met?” Suddenly Siri sounds a lot smarter.

What the show does best is to break out of any one perspective, however virtual or real. Hito Steyerl marks the way into his theater with a wall and floor grid, as the tools and the site of computer-assisted design. On video, in a virtual living room, a cop, a robot, and workers under duress burst into dance. If Steyerl masks a serious critique, Mathias Poledna looks back to the more idyllic past of hand-drawn animation, where a donkey overcomes its loneliness with a song. It recalls Disney, pop music from the 1930s, and song-and-dance men in blackface, but somehow it also knows better and hits home. Now excuse me while I check email and raid the fridge.

Read more, now in a feature-length article on this site.

1.17.17 — A Different Inaugural Address

For those who think the arts should shut down in protest on Friday, as if arts were not the ultimate assertion of the free expression we need, tough.

But for those who called instead not just for artists to work and museums not just to stay open, but to go free, the Whitney will be “pay what you will” for the day. Love that institution. Hope others follow suit.

Update: the New Museum has made the day “pay what you will,” too, although two floors are closed for installation. The Drawing Center, with three fine new shows, is free.

1.6.17 — Not So Hard to See

Carmen Herrera appeared in the Whitney’s inaugural exhibition in the Meatpacking District, “America Is Hard to See.” Do not feel too bad, though, if you failed to recognize her—or missed her entirely. Herrera really has been hard to see.

Carmen Herrera's Wednesday (courtesy of the artist/Lisson, Museum Pfalzgalerie Kaiserslautern, 1978)The museum had only recently acquired the work, from an artist who at age one hundred had not had exhibited here in almost twenty years. Born in Cuba in 1915, she spent her formative years in Paris, and she was, of course, a woman. She stuck with plain geometry even as all eyes turned to Abstract Expressionism and gesture. Now, in turn, she can be deceptively easy to see. Her work looks so familiar, from the spare, nuanced, off-kilter color fields of Ellsworth Kelly—or the clear patterns, rigorous logic, and insistence on canvas as a material object of Frank Stella. The surprise comes in finding her name on the wall label, along with her dates.

Now the Whitney means to change all that, through January 9, with “Lines of Sight.” It focuses on just twenty-five works from just thirty years, from 1948 to 1978. Together with a recent survey in Chelsea, at Lisson through June 11, it makes Herrera both more historical and more contemporary. It begins with her move with her American husband to Paris, after nine years in New York—not so very far, it turns out, from the Whitney’s first home on Eighth Street. And it centers on nine of the fifteen surviving works in Blanco y Verde, spanning twelve years, including the painting in the Whitney. Beginning in 1959, several years after Herrera’s return to New York, the series goes far to define her maturity.

Stella would have understood the title (“White and Green”) as a signal that “what you see is what you get.” He would have admired her narrow triangles, not so far from his stripes and similarly playing off a painting’s edges and center. He would have insisted on looking to the sides of the canvas, where the paint continues. He would, that is, if he had ever seen them before undertaking his own. Meanwhile Kelly would have appreciated the broad areas of color, sometimes filling an entire canvas set against another, much like his. He would have liked the arbitrary choice of green and its varied, intuitive placement.

Herrera is capable of Stella’s drive and Kelly’s serenity, without the latter’s frequent dryness and the former’s frequent fuss or chill. She gets there, though, not by repetition on the one hand or refusal of symmetry on the other—but rather by displacing shapes, so that they form new ones. Sometimes staggered triangles leave a square at the center, and sometimes staggered rectangles seem to eat into one another like forks. In the Whitney’s painting, two panels lie above one another, both white except for a slim green triangle running along the lower edge of the top panel. It could be minding the gap, as they say in London, which one might otherwise overlook. It could also be pointing up from the gap and extending it, as if prying the painting apart.

A room to the left shows her before 1958, with a busier Modernism out of Fernand Léger or Futurism. Circles lie within triangles or vice versa—or rectangles within ovals within rectangles, like a head by Alexej von Jawlensky. As Herrera streamlines her vocabulary, she lands in a diamond of alternating black and white stripes, nearly a decade before Stella’s black paintings. A room to the right shows her settling down after 1970 and brightening her colors. She also tries her hand at estructuras, or stand-alone structures in painted wood, just as Stella’s later work came off the wall. Yet here, two, adjacent parts seem slightly ajar, as if opening under their own power.

The show’s climax comes even before one enters. The curator, Dana Miller, spreads a series of seven paintings, for the days of the week, across two front walls. They shifting arrangements have a new and more persistent energy. They also suggest a stronger connection to the return of painting today. Painters like David Rhodes, Gary Petersen, Don Voisine, and so many more could not have taken Herrera for a model for their tapering geometries either, no more than Kelly and Stella, but they would know where to look. Who said America is hard to see?

Read more, now in a feature-length article on this site.