Bye-bye Biennial

John Haber
in New York City

The 2014 Whitney Biennial

And so another Whitney Biennial says good-bye—only this one means it. The 2014 edition will be its last on Madison Avenue, before the museum relocates to larger and trendier digs downtown.

No wonder it is looking back, although not to the Whitney itself or to the course of American art. For once, the show that promises to sum up the moment seems trapped in another era entirely, some thirty years before. It looks back to when theory mattered and gay Americans were dying, and it recalls their demands as if art could never have anything like that urgency again. This lifeless Biennial is a series of tributes to the dead. Zoe Leonard's sketch for 945 Madison Avenue (Whitney Museum of American Art, 2014)

Skewing old

The 2014 Biennial may not sound static. It has three curators, one to a floor and none of them from the Whitney, with an abundance of painting on the fourth floor worth the price alone. The show enters the courtyard, the lower level, the stairs, and even the elevator. It tumbles off-site as well and into performance, to the point that one can hardly locate it all. With more than one hundred artists, roughly twice the size of the 2012 Biennial or the "recession Biennial" of 2010, it has way more than it should. If a Biennial ought to represent not just the present, but its diversity, and it should, this one aims high.

It is lifeless all the same—and not simply because it is old. Jerry Saltz has estimated the median age of its artists at fifty-five, but this is not the establishment crowd of past shows. Remember the glitz of the 2004 Biennial, with lines to catch an installation by Yayoi Kusama? Remember the 2006 Biennial, with the monumental scale of Mark di Suvero and Urs Fischer? This time all three curators try to avoid Chelsea stars. When older names do appear, like Louise Fishman with rich brushwork and Sheila Hicks with cascading fabric columns, they feel like rediscoveries.

No, the average skews high because so much of its art and its artists has passed away. Some work simply looks to the past for guidance, especially sculpture. Ricky Swallow's bronzes may start with found cardboard, but then they recap early modern design from art deco grillwork to Surrealism. John Mason's ceramics have the torqued planes of Horse, the Cubist sculpture by Raymond Duchamp-Villon. Other work reenacts the shocks of Modernism—like Shana Luther's stage set, in memory of riots at a 1926 ballet, or Joshua Mosley's deliberately clumsy animation, which moves from period rooms to a tennis match in 1907. Dashiell Manley's doodles have something to do with The Great Train Robbery, the pioneering silent movie, but darned if I know what.

Other artists, though, really do pay tribute to the dead. Just start a body count. The most poignant tributes continue the work of artists who, in a kinder world, might have lived to see the results—like Sarah Charlesworth, a veteran of the "Pictures generation" who died in 2013. Philip Vanderhyden reenacts Gretchen Bender's wall of crumpled black vinyl lit by film titles. If the movies seem a bit old, she died in 2004. Jimmie Durham, born in 1940, is still alive, but the names in Choose Any Three, from Gertrude Stein to Ho Chi Minh, are not. Robert Indiana might have left this hat rack or totem pole, topped by an eagle, in storage and forgotten about it.

Other contributions, too, look like discards from others. Carol Jackson's glittery sculpture resembles early Lynda Benglis, while Donelle Woolford's joke paintings dare one to decide whether "Richard P" stands for Richard Prince or Richard Pryor. If an appropriation of a joke painting is not a stale joke, nothing is. One could mistake two installations for a bad boy act by Mike Kelley, who took his own life in 2012. Charlemagne Palestine composes eerie music to accompany stuffed animals along the stairs, while Bjarne Melgaard packs a room for kids to play with their sex toys. Both are suitably creepy, but both are retreads.

Others look back further. Richard Hawkins and Catherine Opie devote a room to talismanic paintings by Tony Green, who died of AIDS in 1990. Julie Ault gives her space to clippings of two more AIDS activists, Martin Wong (who died in 1999) and David Wojnarowicz (who died in 1992), while Paul P. sets out what he insists is Nancy Mitford's table. Joseph Grigely preserves the books and photos of Gregory Battock, a critic and anthologist who turns out to have had an unexpected flair for posing. Matthew Deleget's collection of used art books would have made a fine course in contemporary art the year of Battock's still unsolved murder, in 1980. And these are just the amateur archivists.

Letting go

The professionals include Academy Records, Public Collectors, Harvard's Sensory Ethnography Lab, Triple Canopy, and Semiotext(e). They take one back to such theorists and activists as Jack Smith, Giles Deleuze, and Malachi Richter, a documentary filmmaker and opponent of the Iraq war who had no particular interest in art at all. Nor did David Foster Wallace before his suicide, and yet the show has the notebooks for The Pale King, his unfinished novel. And then there are artists with archives of their own, like Valerie Snobeck and Catherine Sullivan with old suitcases, Alan Sekula (who died in 2013) with notebooks toward political causes, and Manley with the largest installation of all—storage racks for his own paintings. Ben Kinmont invites others to join his SHH Archives by revealing the date but not the content of one's darkest secret. This exhibition just cannot let go.

Some do not even try. Fred Lonidier is still fighting NAFTA, while Keith Mayerson promises a "cultural history of America" through its dependence on the oil industry. His paintings (in, of course, oil) look left over from a thrift shop at least a generation ago. Gary Indiana invokes a notorious Cuban prison, in photographs of macho men and in a glowing curved wall, which stands for Jeremy Bentham's "panopticon." You may recall that Michel Foucault used Bentham's all-seeing authority as a metaphor for modern thought. Or you may not, because not even the most earnest Biennial can overcome forgetting.

By now, you can see what it hopes to remember. It has much in common with last year's "1993," the New Museum's evocation of the AIDS crisis or its 2015 triennial coming up, and "Rituals of Rented Island," the Whitney's story of the Soho performance scene of the 1970s—but without the former's anger and trash or the latter's exhilaration and incoherence. The Biennial is a soothing elegy, even when it turns to more recent art. Elijah Burgher's pencil drawings turn to Antonio del Pollaiolo in Renaissance Florence for an image of the male body, while Jacolby Satterwhite turns to upbeat video for his. Zachary Drucker and Rhys Ernst, a transgender couple, and A. L. Steiner, a gay activist, line a room with personal photos. Yet they, too, are turning the pages of a family album rather than energizing the present.

Their themes can still resonate, because Postmodernism refuses to go away, and gay rights have thankfully entered the mainstream. And yet theory and identity do not sit still. They are the site of a continuing debate, not a mausoleum for white males. Like an overly stern teacher, My Barbarian acts out the words of Melanie Klein, the psychologist, and Eleanor Roosevelt as a "feminist and queer narrative." Mostly, though, gay identity here is male, and women have the greatest say in older media. For the Biennial's rare pleasures, one had better start with them and one of three mini-shows, on the exuberant fourth floor.

Even on the face of it, a lack of collaboration among three curators sounds like a terrible idea. It turns a unique event into three manageable but oversized group shows, sharing little more than a concern for still more postmodern theory—in the words of the curators, "the slipperiness of authorship." Surely galleries have enough of those practically every month. The headlong rush from one to the next has helped to inspire a call for "slow art." To make matters worse, the Biennial opened the weekend of the ultimate in fast art, the 2014 art fairs. Yet three curators also have an obvious upside, for it translates into three distinct points of view about American art.

Yes, American art. It sounds obvious, but this Biennial also largely avoids the lure of a global elite for global markets. Remember "Day for Night" in 2006, which promised a European perspective on America, or the 2002 Biennial, which asked to look beyond Manhattan to other cultures and other nations? All that sounds frighteningly like business as usual in today's competitive art scene, and this mostly home-grown Biennial avoids it. The closest it comes to a multinational celebrity is Shio Kusaka, a Japanese ceramicist based in LA, or Charline von Heyl, with a wall of abstractions akin to inkblots and said to pick up Russian and Polish folk art.

The next Biennial

The largest and best mini-show is also the closest to New York now. Its curator, Michelle Grabner, is an artist and teacher from Chicago, but her choices would feel right at home on the Lower East Side. She seeks the "materiality" and "strategy" behind art, which in practice means gestural painting and sculpture—especially by women. Much of it stretches the definition of abstraction, to include other processes, other media, and a hint of representation. The largest room is a riot of materials and color, including Amy Sillman, who collaborates with Pam Lins to make painting and its exposed stretcher double as a shelf for sculpture. Suzanne McClelland's numbers and blue streaks, Molly Zuckerman-Hartung's dark egg and curved geometries, Dona Nelson's colored string on a canvas grid, and the silvery blackness of Jacqueline Humphries add to party spirit.

Grabner does have her share of archives and looking back. Sillman says that her abstractions have something to do with her mother, while large ceramic tubs by Sterling Ruby incorporate the ruins of past work that never quite worked out. Charlesworth's silhouettes allude to early cinema. And hybrid genres can become as trashy as Joel Otterson's chandelier of found plastic, as mechanical as Tony Lewis's statements passing for abstraction, as smooth as Alma Allen's sculpture resembling giant nuts, or as garish as Philip Hanson's approach to outsider art based on quotes from William Blake and Emily Dickinson. David Diao again pushes his painting close to conceptualism. Still, every one of these artists is worth the time, for those who like to look.

The other two mini-shows start engagingly enough, too. On the third floor, Ken Okiishi's painterly gestures cover video monitors playing moments from cable TV, as if to put abstraction in context of contemporary culture. And the curator, Stuart Comer, ran the Tate's film department before moving to MoMA as chief curator of media and performance. His announced themes of globalism, technology, and identity sound contemporary, too. On the second floor, Anthony Elms of the ICA in Philadelphia, promises to ask what a museum in Manhattan should be—like, implicitly, the ones that the Whitney is approaching and leaving behind. On the way in, Dave McKenzie's video, Nefertiti, moves slowly between the windowed rooms of an abandoned building and a Berlin museum, as if spying on the ruins of western civilization.

Still, the entire floor's technology is dated, and its identity issues quickly narrow all but exclusively to gender. Etel Adnan is just off the entrance, with her visually and emotionally felt accordion book of her migration from Lebanon to America, but she is nearing ninety and depicts an industrial city all but unrecognizable today. Dawoud Bey remembers the civil rights movement in art, by imagining the children who died in a Birmingham, Alabama, church bombing in 1963 as they were then and as they would be today—but on the floor above. (Donelle Woolford, it should be noted, is the fiction of a white artist, Joe Scanlon, and "her" inclusion prompted an actual black collective, YAMS, to quit the Biennial.) As for Elms, he never comes close to his own question, and about the closest thing to an examination of the Whitney on either floor is Morgan Fisher's nested boxes, representing stages in construction of the museum's future home. They are empty as well, just as the Biennial leaves out almost all of contemporary art.

In a darkened room on the fourth floor, a trapezoidal window seems to float away from the wall, covered except for a circular opening. On the far wall, houses have the soft reds of old brick or an old painting. In reality, Zoe Leonard has converted the landmark Marcel Breuer building into another fondly remembered technology, a camera obscura. The African American artist situates the Whitney in time and space, while turning her back on the street and shuttering the museum. So does the Whitney, but far less vividly, in a 2014 Biennial reluctant to slow down. Cherish her alcove before both the Biennial and the Whitney are gone.

When they return, in new architecture by Renzo Piano, will they be prepared to enter the future? Will they look generic, opening onto one more vast museum atrium? Will they play it safe, in the gentrified Meatpacking District? Will they settle for pleasing the crowds walking the High Line? All one can say is that art has a life beyond all that, if only one is looking. It is now up to the 2016 Whitney Biennial to try.

BACK to John's arts home page

The 2014 Whitney Biennial ran at The Whitney Museum of American Art through May 25, 2014. You might wish to look ahead to the 2017 Whitney Biennial—or back to the 1993 Biennial, 1997 Biennial, 2000 Biennial, 2002 Biennial, 2004 Biennial, 2006 Biennial, 2008 Biennial, 2010 Biennial, and 2012 Biennial.


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