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The “Resistance” Biennial: The Whitney Museum Gets Tough

How politically provocative can or should a nonprofit cultural institution allow itself to be in contentious times? With its 2017 Biennial (Mar. 17-June 11), the Whitney Museum is navigating those choppy waters.

Some museums have been notably circumspect in their polite pushback against Trumpism. After all, they need to seem welcoming to all constituencies, including those who are pro-Trump. Although Graham Bowley attempted to update initial reports about the Trump Effect on cautious cultural institutions in his latest NY Times piece, Museums Chart a Response to Political Upheaval, his rundown was outdated as soon as it hit the web, largely thanks to Monday’s Biennial press preview.

L to R: Whitney director Adam Weinberg and Biennial organizers Mia Locks and Christopher Lew at the press preview
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

This no-holds-barred show goes further than the famously provocative 1993 Biennial (under the directorship of David Ross) in forefronting “racial tensions, economic inequities and polarizing politics” (in the words of the Whitney’s own description of its 63-person survey of current art, which opens to the public on Friday).

At a cocktail reception for the press two months ago, the Whitney’s director, Adam Weinberg had told us:

This is America. And we really need to express what we believe….I feel strongly about the Whitney’s role in that. It is our role not to let them own what we think of as America but to express what we believe is America.

Thanks to the art that curators Christopher Lew and Mia Locks selected (with Adam’s blessing) for the 2017 edition of the Whitney Biennial (opening Friday), the gloves are off and punches are thrown. One lands squarely on the chin of the Museum of Modern Art, via Occupy Museums’ contribution to the show, “Debtfair”—a huge wall chart that demonizes Larry Fink, CEO of the BlackRock asset-management firm, identified as a member of MoMA’s board and a member of President Trump’s Strategic and Policy Forum (an advisory group of business leaders).

Occupy Museums had staged a protest action at MoMA last month calling for Fink’s ouster from its board.

Protest action, Feb. 17 at MoMA
Photo from Occupy Museum website

The Whitney has now obligingly (and questionably) invited the activist group to occupy it (for a second time), in a display that deplores Fink as a “pioneer of the mortgage-backed securities market, the collapse of which triggered the 2008 financial crisis.” (I had always thought that the Great Recession was triggered by the collapse of Lehman Brothers, under a different MoMA patron, Richard Fuld, whose wife still sits on MoMA’s board.) I don’t believe that a political litmus test should be applied to museums’ board members or donors.

The most viscerally challenging piece in the Whitney’s survey of the new, which even some members of the crusty press found unendurable, was a virtual-reality drama, “Real Violence,” by Jordan Wolfson. It began with an innocuous street scene accompanied by a melodic chant to which I reflexively began singing, sotto voce—the traditional Hebrew blessing over the Hanukkah candles.

This piece, in the open gallery area, should have been relegated to a sequestered room, governed by an ironclad parental warning. Kids are going to want to try out the cool technology. DO NOT LET THEM!

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

What follows the serene introduction is a horrifically brutal, bloody baseball-bat beating perpetrated by the artist himself on an innocent-seeming young man who collapses on the sidewalk, where the pummeling continues. No humans were actually harmed in this enactment, but the attack is unbearably realistic and more personally intense than a gory movie being viewed on a distant screen.

It finally dawned on me, since this was VR, that I could turn my head to see what else was happening down the street (not much). After two minutes and 25 seconds, the clip goes dark. As I removed the headset and goggles, two other members of the press (a man and a woman) blurted out to me that they had bailed out early, unable to bear watching it.

The Whitney’s curators, in their accompanying wall label, seem as baffled about the artist’s intentions as I was:

We witness the artist himself engaged in an act of unexplained violence….Presented as it is here with no motive or backstory, the assault is almost a distillation of pure intensity….Though the [Hanukkah] chanting is not explained, the artist has explored other facets of Jewish identity in previous works. [Emphasis added.]

Jews figured in another unsettling installation, which, like Wolfson’s piece, is a visitor magnet that is off-putting and baffling:

Pope.L aka William Pope.L, “Claim (Whitney Version),” 2017
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

The Whitney’s puzzling label tells us that the walls of this room are covered by “a grid of 2,755 slices of bologna, each affixed with a black-and-white photocopied image of a person. A text mounted within the work ‘claims’ that the number of slices corresponds to a percentage of New York’s population of 1,086,000 Jewish residents.”

Below is a close-up from the bottom row of decomposing, oozing meat. (We can only imagine what this will look and smell like in June.) In the center of each slice is a ghostly dark-black photo portrait:

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Trying to take the artist’s bologna seriously, intrepid reviewers have come up with various interpretive metaphors. Staring at the line-up of decomposing flesh and charred-looking portraits, I was repulsed by where my own imagination took me—a crematorium. What the label does tell us is that Pope.L “plays with our tendency to project ourselves onto numbers and stokes our awareness that such counting often lays the groundwork for systematic acts of discrimination” (i.e., genocide?).

For me, the most powerfully moving room in the show was devoted to the multifaceted exploration of black lives in America, as expressed in the fruitful “years-long creative dialogue” (in the wall text’s words) between painter Henry Taylor and photographer Deana Lawson.

These two works—depicting an innocent boy next to someone who appears to be his grandmother, and an innocent man, Philando Castile, shot beside his fiancé (who famously livestreamed his final moments on Facebook)—hang side-by-side in chilling juxtaposition:

Deana Lawson, “Ring Bearer,” 2016
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Henry Taylor, “THE TIMES THAY AINT A CHANGING, FAST ENOUGH!”, 2017 (spelling as shown on the label)
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Equally powerful was Dana Schutz‘s lusciously painted, semi-sculptural portrayal of a gruesome, mournful subject: the murdered, mutilated black teenager Emmett Till, viewed in his open coffin:

Dana Schutz, “Open Casket,” 2016
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

In the center of this detail is a actual gouge in the boy’s face:

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

This Biennial is distinguished by a series of monographic galleries, giving a satisfyingly in-depth look at featured artists’ recent output. The checklist is admirably inclusive in terms of ethnicity, gender and geography (artists working here who were originally from other countries; Americans now working abroad).

As for the range in age, this photo, taken during the director’s and curators’ opening remarks, says it all:

L to R: Jo Baer, born 1929 in Seattle, lives in Amsterdam; Raúl de Nieves, born 1983 in Morelia, Mexico, lives in Brooklyn
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Jo Baer told me this was her first Whitney Biennial appearance since about four decades ago, when she was admired as a Minimalist. Here’s one of her recent figurative works now at the Whitney, inspired by the prehistoric stones near a castle that she had bought and inhabited in Ireland:

Jo Baer, “In the Land of the Giants (Spirals and Stairs),” 2012
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Raúl de Nieves was given pride-of-place near one of the Whitney’s expansive city-facing picture windows, with this multifaceted, cryptically titled site-specific installation:

Raúl de Nieves with his mannequins and faux stained glass design, “beginning & the end neither & the otherwise betwixt & between the end is the beginning & the end,” 2016
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

The installation on the floor directly above de Nieves’ work also takes full advantage of the picture window’s sunlight. It’s an installation of 26 saplings, which can be rolled on wheels into different configurations:

Asad Raza, “Root Sequence, Mother Tongue,” 2017
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

They are tended by “caretakers,” who leave personal totems by each planter-box and chat up visitors with horticultural tidbits, reminding me of my Tino Seghal-orchestrated experience a few years ago on the Guggenheim’s ramps. The artist himself, Asad Raza, struck up a conversation with me, during which I mentioned to him another museum intervention with trees (of which he was unaware) that ultimately hadn’t gone very well.

For now, this improbable museum grove promises to be as much of a draw as Wolfson’s virtual reality assault, and considerably more child-friendly:

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Below are two pure-pleasure works that I’d like to hang at home, if only acquiring art that I’ve touted in reviews weren’t a journalistic conflict-of-interest.

The first was originally conceived as small cut-paper collages—a look that is preserved in this trompe l’oeil painting, which appears to be three-dimensional, as if black paper shapes were casting shadows over the vibrant paint layer.

It’s all an artful deception, composed solely of acrylic on canvas:

Carrie Moyer, “Glimmer Glass,” 2016
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Here’s a detail, showing the painted shading:

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

The second painting on my wishlist resonates with a sisterhood-is-powerful vibe. Maybe that’s why I liked it more than Andrew Russeth did, in his otherwise astute review for ARTnews:

Aliza Nisenbaum, “MOIA’s NYC Women’s Cabinet,” 2016
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

One thing connected with the Biennial that I have no desire to acquire is a “limited edition” object branded by one of the five artists who were “handpicked” by the curators to design jewelry or tchotchkes produced by Tiffany & Co., the Biennial’s lead sponsor. Seemingly at odds with the Biennial’s anti-establishment feel, these objects are to be sold at both Tiffany’s flagship Manhattan retail outlet and the Whitney’s museum shop.

This gambit takes me back to the bad old days when a certain company used to promote its brand by providing its unhealthy cigarettes to attendees at the openings of the museum shows that it sponsored. (At least it didn’t charge for them.) More recently, there was the pricey Murakami/Vuitton boutique at LA MOCA and the Brooklyn Museum.

Can we please have corporate philanthropy without commercial tie-ins?

an ArtsJournal blog