As CultureGrrl readers will remember, my first post-pandemic visit to a museum—the Metropolitan—did not end well. Happily, things went more smoothly for me at the Whitney ten days later, when the last staff member I ran into, just prior to leaving, was my favorite museum guard (whose art-appropriate last name I have just learned). His cheerful, helpful presence has graced the Whitney (both in the new and the old buildings) for more than 30 years, as he informed me when I asked how long he had served and expressed my delight at reconnecting after my long, art-starved hiatus.
Although this is not Eric’s customary stance in the galleries, he took full advantage of his chance to welcome me:
It seemed somehow fitting that this return to the museum-going that I love was dominated by a generous mid-career survey (to Aug. 8) of Julie Mehretu, an artist on whom I had set my sights when she was a rising star at the 2004 Whitney Biennial. I later viewed her monumental diptych mural, “HOWL,” commissioned by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art for temporary longterm display in its grand entrance lobby. Although I admired its ambition, the interruptions of my sightlines by the atrium’s obtrusive columns frustrated any attempts at full appreciation, whether from the floor below or from the staircase above.
Most of the people I observed seemed to move obliviously through the space, without stopping to gaze at this magnum opus:
Although I’ve experienced Mehretu’s oeuvre in bits and pieces (as here, at the Museum of Modern Art), this was the first full-blown retrospective that gave me a chance to appreciate how her eclectic styles and concerns have evolved. My reactions during my Whitney foray were as varied as the works I was contemplating.
I gravitated towards compositions that seemed complex, yet airy…
…and stumbled while trying to find my way through dense tangles that seemed to me excessively belabored. This splotchy maelstrom is too busy for its own good:
What I didn’t perceive until I listened to the audio guide after I returned home was the political undercurrent that (as the guide informs us) runs through the most recent works. In the painting that the Whitney recently chose to purchase (accessioned in 2021), Mehretu “work[ed] with many different blurred photographs of…events throughout this time”:
Like most of her work, this registers as an abstraction. But according to the audio guide, “Mehretu was inspired to make this painting by the protests that emerged against former President Donald Trump‘s policies. The painting also draws on photographs of U.S. detention centers for migrant children.” She speaks of having depicted herein “two colossal figures that are about to fight.” But even knowing the struggle that I’m supposed to see, I don’t really see it. Have my eyes become rusty from disuse?
One sight that caused me to do a double-take was the atypical (for Mehretu) orange-saturated palette of another recent painting, bearing a title whose religious significance I immediately understood:
The Hebrew word hineni (“here I am”) is what Moses utters when God calls his name “from within the Burning Bush to tell him he would lead the Israelites to the promised land,” as noted in the painting’s label. Not mentioned: It is also what Abraham said to his son Isaac, whom he was about to sacrifice before the timely intervention of an angel. In Mehretu’s painting, as it is said, the fiery cast is also meant to represent both the Northern California fires and the burning of Rohingya homes in Myanmar—a confoundingly wide array of historic, geographical and topical references.
Which brings me back to the reassuring familiarity of my friendly guard: My path through the Mehretu galleries ended just past his post—at the Whitney’s wide, picture-windowed space that usually offers an expansive view of the Hudson River. Not so, on the day of my visit: Gray scrims veiled not only my view of the river but also of the two new public projects that I had wanted view at least as much as the Mehretus.
Instead, I saw this:
When I complained to Eric the Red (aka “Vermilion”) about this visual impediment, he indicated that I had the bad luck of arriving on the first day when those curtains had been unfurled by order of the museum’s conservators, who feared that the rays of the afternoon sun could damage this painting, installed directly opposite the west-facing window:
The view of the river (when not obscured by the scrim) had brought to Mehretu’s mind “the history of Ellis Island,” which had been a “point of entry for many people seeking asylum,” as she said on the show’s audio guide. (The parenthetical title is a reference to Géricault’s “Raft of the Medusa.”)
Eric advised me that visitors were permitted to pull the curtains aside for unobstructed views of the new installations below. (I saw no signs indicating that you could do so.) This gave me the chance to enjoy an optimal bird’s-eye view of David Hammons‘ Day’s End—a permanent public art project that was developed by the Whitney:
While gazing down upon it, I wondered whether local denizens knew what this ghostly steel-beam skeleton of the original shed at Pier 52 memorializes. The Whitney’s sanitized press release noted that this site (named after a 1975 project there by Gordon Matta-Clark) was “a gathering place [more explicitly—a trysting place] for the gay community in the 1970s.” For the sake of averting controversy, perhaps it’s just as well that none of the innocents walking by seemed to notice this visually modest work, let alone to wonder about its significance. Similarly oblivious were those sitting right beside the sign in front of the Whitney that was intended to call peoples’ attention to this intervention on the Hudson:
I was taken by this minimalist evocation of maximalist issues, once I could see it properly by my transgressive act of pulling aside the museum’s veil. Doing so also gives one a bird’s-eye view of Little Island, conceived by Barry Diller and designed by British architect Thomas Heatherwick (as discussed at 7:45 in my CultureGrrl Video at the bottom of my review of the Cooper Hewitt’s 2015 show on Heatherwick):
My camera’s zoom lens revealed how mobbed the far end of this new attraction was on a cloudy post-pandemic weekend afternoon:
But back to the Whitney: The political and social turmoil referenced in Mehretu’s paintings (notably in “Ferguson,” loaned by the late Eli Broad‘s foundation) takes place against a backdrop of turmoil in art museums in general, and at the Whitney in particular. Trying to ride the DEIA wave, rather than wipe out in its turbulence, Adam Weinberg issued one of the strongest statements I’ve seen from a museum director, condemning the “injustice, systemic racism, and violence aimed at people of color in our country” and pledging to take “specific actions and initiatives” to address “the art and experiences of people of color, especially Black communities,” both inside and outside its own walls.
Case in point: the Whitney’s current Dawoud Bey exhibition, infused with the NYC-born photographer’s profound empathy with his sitters. Particularly affecting is his Birmingham series—portraits of children who are the same ages as those who were killed in the Sept. 15, 1963 Alabama violence (believed to have been perpetrated by members of the Ku Klux Klan), paired with portraits of adults 50 years older—“the ages the victims would have been had they lived”:
Also furthering the Whitney’s diversity drive were the recently announced promotions, effective July 1, of black and Puerto Rican-born assistant curators—Rujeko Hockley and Marcela Guerrero, respectively—to newly endowed associate curatorships.
As it happened, my trip home via the West Side Highway took me past one of Thomas Heatherwick’s most controversial projects, predating Little Island—The Vessel at Hudson Yards. Here’s that copper-colored, basket-shaped structure (then closed to the public), as seen behind a fence through my car’s passenger-seat window, as we headed north:
Envisioned by the architect as a structure that city-dwellers could climb to get healthful exercise while enjoying great views, The Vessel was recently put to tragic use and closed to visitors. It has now reopened, with additional precautions to deter suicides, but without the addition of new barriers. If there’s one more jumper, there ought to be another shutdown and (at the very least) additional measures taken to better insure safety.
I’ve lived near two jumper-magnets: the George Washington Bridge and the gorges below bridges on the campus of Cornell University. Both, after too many tragedies, installed barriers to make it difficult for the disconsolate to act on a sudden urge to “gorge out” (as it was called at my college). There are too many troubled people during these troubling times: Some have visited violence on others; some on themselves. All are in need of preventative help, not inspiration for dramatic exits.
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