Thursday, April 24, 2014

No More Uptown! 

The 2014 Whitney Biennial 

Whitney Biennial 2014 Poster, Entranceway, 
Whitney Museum of American Art 
945 Madison Avenue at 75th Street, Manhattan
Photo: Hillary Ganton

The Whitney Museum of American Art's 2014 Biennial is here.  This vast, diverse and jam-packed Biennial is the final one to take place at the museum's Madison Avenue and 75th Street building. The Bauhaus-trained architect Marcel Breuer completed the Brutalist-style  edifice in 1966.  Initially ridiculed, the building is now generally admired and liked.  Next year, the Whitney Museum moves downtown to the Meatpacking District where a new building designed by Renzo Piano will triple its current space.  Thus, this is the last chance to see the Whitney's signature show in the iconic Breuer building.

Whitney Museum of American Art
945 Madison Avenue at 75th Street, Manhattan
Photo: Hillary Ganton

The Biennial purports to survey the contemporary American art scene. Every two years, art world denizens are chosen to curate the exhibit. This year three non-New York curators were appointed:  Anthony Elms, Philadelphia, Stuart Comer, London (at time of appointment but now in New York) and Michele Grabner, Chicago.  Each took charge of a Whitney floor.  Elms's picks are on the second floor, Comer's on the third and Grabner's on the fourth.  Choices, nevertheless, spilled over into other locations creating some confusion should the viewer want to follow one curator’s mindset.  On a positive note, the resulting mix makes for some interesting juxtapositions of some 103 represented artists.

Installation view of  2014 Whitney Biennial fourth floor, 
ceramic sculptures by Ruby Stirling in the foreground,
Whitney Museum of American Art 
Photo:  Kathleen MacQueen, Shifting Connections Web site

Installation, performance, conceptual, collective, residency, video, film and sound works dominate the more traditional sculpture, painting or photography modes of expression.  Poetry, literature, music and dance are also included.  No artistic medium appears to be left out and materials employed are as varied as the forms.  

Installation view of Sheila Hicks, Pillar of Inquiry/Supple Column,
2013–14, acrylic, linen, cotton, bamboo, and silk,
Whitney Biennial, fourth floor gallery
Photo:  Rozalia Jovanovic., artnet news Web site

Artists multitask.  Gone are the adherence to one, two or three disciplines.  These artists write, edit, sculpt, paint, perform, compose, collaborate, collect, curate and more.  Such is the case for the artist A.L. Steiner whose art involves performance, video, photography, collectives, collaborations and activism for art and political causes.  

Installation view of 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.),
2014 Whitney Biennial, third floor gallery,
Whitney Museum of American Art
Photo:  Jillian Steinhauer, Hyperallergic Web site

Curation, as an art form, is particularly common in the current scene and, often results in curatorial layering.  At the Whitney Elisabeth Sussman and Jay Sanders, Whitney Museum curators, advised this year’s appointed triumvirate.  Elms, Comer and Grabner, in turn, selected some artists to “curate” their own shows resulting in exhibits within an exhibit. 

Installation view of mixed media works by Richard Greene,
curated by Catherine Opie and Richard Greene,
 2014 Whitney Biennial, third floor gallery, 
Whitney Museum of American Art,
Photo:  ARTFCITY Web site

Tony Greene, His Puerile Gestures, 1989, 
mixed media, 25 1/2 × 29 3/4 in. (64.8 × 75.6 cm),
Collection of Ray Morales from the estate of Norm MacNeil, 
Copyright Ray Morales. Courtesy Ray Morales,
Whitney Museum of American Art,
Photo: Whitney Museum of American Art Web site

In one small third floor gallery, artists Richard Hawkins and Catherine Opie, selected by Comer, have organized a show of works by the mixed media artist Tony Greene.  Hawkins and Opie went to school with Greene who died of AIDS-related complications in 1990.  Greene's  paintings, usually in oil on photographs mounted to wood, are rich and attention-deserving.  An image of Greene's studio taken by Opie is the only non-Greene piece in the "Greene" gallery.  It adds to the installation's sense of melancholy.      

Gaylen Gerber, a Grabner choice, stretched a painted gray, 40-foot-long canvas on a Whitney wall making it indistinguishable from the actual wall.  On this, Gerber hung works by other artists.  When the Biennial opened, two Trevor Shimizu paintings were displayed.  A few weeks later, they were replaced with artworks by David Hammons and Sherrie Levine.  Gerber effectively curates his "backdrops" engendering quiet mediations on the interaction of art with its context.  

Installation view, Public Collectors, Malachi Ritscher
2014 Whitney Biennial, second floor gallery,
Whitney Museum of American Art
Photo:  Jillian Steinhauer, Hyperallergic Web site

Public Collectors, an Elms selection, is a Chicagoan collaborative devoted to preserving cultural artifacts.  Their Biennial contribution is an installation of objects relating to the life of Malachi Ritscher.  Ritscher, an audiophile, musician and engineer, recorded thousands of non-commercial concerts from Chicago's music scene.  Much experimental music performances that took place would be lost if not for these recordings.  Visitors may hear some of these recordings at a gallery listening station.  Ritscher was also a political activist who committed suicide in 2006 in protest to the Iraq war.  

Charlemagne Palestine,  hauntteddd!! n huntteddd!! n daunttlesss!! n shuntteddd!!,
2013, 12-channel sound installation,
Whitney Museum of American Art  stairwell
Photo:  Jillian Steinhauer, Hyperallergic Web site

Audio pieces, not restricted to earphones, makes for a rather noisy Biennial.   These works reverberate through the museum's public spaces.  In the museum's lobby, a composition by  the composer and artist Sergei Tcherepnin emanates from the Breuer designed ceiling lights.  Tones and silences alternate and change according to the time of day.  The composer, musician, performer and visual artist Charlemagne Palestine fills the entire museum stairwell with his sounds. The ritualistic audio piece travels with visitors as they pass stairwell landing speakers which were covered by the artist with fabric and stuffed animals. The museum's elevator is not silent either.  Jeff Gibson's video plays on a monitor inside the elevator cab's wall.  His humorous critique of consumerism is accompanied by the banal tunes of Muzak.  It makes for an entertaining ride.  

Radamés “Juni” Figueroa, Breaking the Ice
2014, mixed media construction, 
Whitney Museum of American Art  Sculpture Court, 
Photo:  Hillary Ganton

If all the busyness is too much, visitors may rest in Radamés “Juni” Figueroa’s amusing makeshift beach hut in the museum's sculpture court.  It is even heated for tropical verisimilitude.  

A curious aspect of this year's exhibit is the prominence of many older (60 plus years) and deceased artists.  This group makes up approximately 25 percent of all the selected participants.  Gerber is in his sixties.   Hammons was born in 1943 and Levine in 1947. Palestine was born in 1947 too.  Ritscher and Greene are deceased along with artists not already cited: photographer Sarah Charlesworth (1947 - 2013), painter, draftswoman and installation artist Susan Howe (1937 - 2013), and performance artist, musician, opera impresario, producer, director and writer Robert Ashley (1930 - 2014).

 Installation View of  various notebooks and materials by David Foster Wallace,
2014 Whitney Biennial, second floor gallery,
Whitney Museum of American Art
Photo:  Hrag Vartanian, Hyperallergenic Web site

The writer David Foster Wallace (1962 - 2008) is also among those no longer with us.  His late notebooks are showcased on the fourth floor. They are open to pages with notations from the last novel he worked on before committing suicide.  These  are archival material  from the Harry Ransom Center of the University of Texas at Austin.  The University acquired them at the end of 2009.  Perhaps these historical documents are better suited for public display at the Center's library or museum.  

Louise Fishman, Ristretto, 2013, oil on linen, 
70 × 60 in. (177.8 × 152.4 cm),
Private Collection; courtesy Cheim & Read, New York
Photo:  Brian Buckley,  Whitney Museum of American Art Web site

More "senior" artists include Jimmie Durham (born 1940) represented by a splendid wooden mixed media sculpture from 1989, no recent work of his is shown; ceramist John Mason (born 1927) shows his remarkable technically complex sculptures; ink and watercolorist Etel Adnan (born 1925) displays her delightful accordion paper books mixing text and paint; sculptor, painter and weaver Shelia Hicks (born 1934) presents a massive column of colorful  fibrous cords as well as four more successful small easel-size works using paper and various textile threads;  painter Louise Fishman (born 1939) has her evocative, blue-green Venice-inspired oils on exhibit and painter Dona Nelson (born 1947) has on view her two-sided intensively colored canvases employing both paint and embroidery that simultaneously stimulate the sense of touch and sight.  

Zackary Drucker and Rhys Ernst, still from She Gone Rogue, 2012, 
HD video, color, sound, 23 minutes
Courtesy the artists
Photo:  Whitney Museum of American Art Web site

Although many of these older and deceased artists are exhibition-worthy, it is as if the curators did not have time to uncover and explore the work of younger artists who may be just under the art world's radar screen. 

Having said that, there is still plenty of art by those under sixty.  Of this group, Zackary Drucker and Rhys Ernst should be praised for their beautiful film and photographs addressing polymorphic gender, identity and transformative themes.  Their work is a highlight of the show.  Also of merit is Zoe Leonard's camera obscura installation with its serene manifestation of perception evolving over time.  

This big Biennial may not be the best ever but it is stimulating and fun. Take it in.  

As for the fate of the Whitney Breuer building, the Metropolitan Museum of Art has agreed to take it over in 2015.  The Met plans to use the space for the exhibition of modern and contemporary art and educative programs.  The multiyear, renewable agreement between the Whitney and the Met includes the possibility of  collaborations on collections, publications and other educational undertakings.  Lots of good things to look forward to.  

MAR 7–MAY 25, 2014

945 Madison Avenue at 75th Street, Manhattan
Wednesdays, Thursdays 11:00 a.m. - 6:00 p.m.
Thursdays 11:00 a.m. - 9:00 p.m.
Saturdays, Sundays 11:00 a.m. - 6:00 p.m
Closed Mondays and Tuesdays

The Museum is closed on Thanksgiving Day, 
Christmas Day, and New Year’s Day.
The Museum is open to the public on July 4, Independence Day.
Check the Museum Web site for special holiday hours.

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