The Whitney Biennial 2019 Catalog

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Two years ago, when I reviewed the 2017 Whitney Biennial catalog, I wrote about it in isolation, arguing that ever-changing authors and topics, beyond the all-encompassing rubric “art”, did not allow for treating Biennial catalogs as a series. This is not like “Tom Swift and his Electrostatic Nephew” or “The Cobblywobbles of Oz.”

Well screw that. I’m going to try the opposite approach this year. I have bought catalogs regularly since 2006, and read various ones before that. As my review of the Biennial itself hinted, I was disappointed with this year’s model, because, despite its good intentions and curatorial focus, the art did not rise to the challenge. I am sorry to say that the 2019 catalog is the same: mostly nice to look at but you get up from the table hungry.

Let’s start with the necessary elements: essays by the curators, Jane Panetta and Rujeko Hockley, who both do a good job recounting the process through which they assembled this show. They stressed their travels outside of New York City, cognizant of the repeated criticism that the Biennial is primarily focussed on NYC artists. Well, they did go a lot of places and heard about the sociopolitical issues that are important to artists today, but they ended up picking a lot of artists who live at least part time in the city. A certain amount of backseat quarterbacking is inevitable, and it’s understandable that the curators might feel a little defensive.

The primary reason for my disappointment with the content is structural. Arguably the best parts of any Biennial catalog are the guest essays, writings by people other than the curators or director, bringing light and perspective, humor and opinion, to the topics at hand. In this edition, there is no guest essay at all, and the lack of it is painful. I still reread Rebecca Solnit’s essay in the 2008 catalog, in part because I generally adore Solnit’s writing, not only for content but for her marvelous prose, but also for the richness she brought to the book. Of recent Biennial catalogs, the 2008 remains my favorite, both for content and design.

Catalogs often include extra works from the artists themselves, as a bit of the exhibition that is not on the walls but you can bring home with you. In 2019 we get “Process” a selection of works-in-progress, sketchbook pages, and random images from each artist. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but often those thousand words let us know what the images are about; too often as I flipped through “Process” I thought “Um…okay.” It is not a substitute for a guest essay; it sheds little light on how the artists work.

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I took this photo of my slightly battered copy of the 2006 catalog because I couldn’t find on online that did justice to the size of it. This book is a brick, 2 inches thick, and the lettering on the cover and spine glow in the dark. It does what is required of it – several guest essays provide good reading – but the sheer heft is due to “Draw Me A Sheep” a project in which Biennial artists were asked to provide an image relevant to the last two years for inclusion as a fold-out. Some artists seem to have wandered from the topic, or their images are so self-referential as to be incomprehensible to the general public. The result is the thickest 396-page book you’re likely to find. A “noble experiment” as people say when they’re trying to find something nice to say, but ultimately a failure. “Process” in 2019 is too much like “Draw Me A Sheep,” but diminished as “Process” features existing work instead pieces allegedly made to order.

The 2019 book is nice enough to look at, with one major caveat I mention below, but it is strangely understated. Why be so restrained in an era in which hyperbole, scandal, and impending disaster is so prevalent? This is a “protest Biennial” as some have said, so let the book shout! 2006 is brash and does not try to hide it.

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Of the catalogs I own, the worst is undoubtedly the 2010 catalog, which devotes a large chunk of its 264 pages to a history of past Biennials, with photos, newspaper clippings and more – but not much more. A proper history of the Whitney Biennial has yet to be written, and robbing today’s Biennial of catalog space to look backward is kind of antithetical to the point of the Biennial in the first place. Onanism might be fun for the one doing it, but it doesn’t do much for anyone else. In short, yuck.

P.S. It’s high time the Whitney looked seriously at creating a book on the history of the Biennial.

One final condemnation of the 2019 edition, and a particularly egregious one. Several years back I started wearing reading glasses for fine print. I can still read unaided unless the type gets pretty small. I can barely read the 2019 Biennial catalog without my glasses, but it has to be in strong light, because the text is printed in this weak, silver-grey ink that challenges even the healthiest eyes. It accentuates the weakness of the book overall: just a little more, in content and presentation, and things would stand out beautifully. Palimpsests are for history museums, not art catalogs.

This post goes up as the Biennial enters its final weeks, but the catalog will be around for ages to come. In that way, it is the most important part of the show. Don’t miss it; even a bad catalog has something to offer.

 

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The Whitney Biennial 2019

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The view from atop the Whitney Museum of American Art, August 18, 2019. The Statue of Liberty is barely visible through the haze left of center

As we stepped into the 7th floor of the Whitney Museum, my girlfriend Heather let out a sigh. “So good to be around art again.” I disagreed, but understood. The Whitney Biennial, so full of artists growing and searching, had a hard time competing with a greatest-hits collection – but they aren’t competing; they’re under the same roof.

While I was more admiring than Heather, I did find a lot of drabness in this year’s iteration of the Biennial. The 2017 show was flashier, but not deeper in content. The curators, Jane Panetta and Rujeko Hockley, worked hard to tie works into history and art history, but once in a while they strained: are Eddie Arroyo’s paintings of the Little Haiti neighborhood in Miami Edward Hopper-esque? I don’t think so. Olga Belama’s sculptures I found sloppy and boring.

detail of Augustina Woodgate’s National Times, 2016

Augustina Woodgate’s National Times, a room full of clocks connected to the power grid to keep them synchronized, while sandpaper attached to the minute hand slowly wears away the numbers, was eye-catching, though it owed a lot to Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ Untitled (Perfect Lovers) from 1991. You might notice from my photo that the third clock down is no longer in synch; 4 clocks had malfunctioned, and in one the sandpaper had come loose and sat at the bottom of the clock. Such are the complications of technology and art.

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Heather watching Laura Ortman’s My Soul Remainer, 2017

One of the most beautiful works was Laura Ortman’s My Soul Remainer, a video in which Ortman plays the violin in a lovely outdoor setting while a dancer listens and occasionally moves in sympathy with the music. Ortman, who is a White Mountain Apache, seems to be meditating on transience: her music is improvised; the water that flows through the scene, like the music, comes and is then gone; likewise the dancer’s movements. I can connect this to the lost lands and culture of her people, and the dangers the natural world face from human greed and idiocy. This work does not break new ground pictorially or intellectually, but it is excellently made.

I have little love for Nicole Eisenman’s Procession, 2019, a parade of Heironymous Bosch-esque figures built with varying degrees of finish. Yes, it’s eye-catching, and makes a good background for photos, but there’s little new or interesting. The assemblage is further spoiled by a figure on all fours who farts copiously at intervals – that’s just juvenile, and while it might have been edgy and transgressive in Bosch’s day, it’s just crass now. A video work by Eisenman, consisting of a visually altered live feed from an upper floor of the music, is supposedly related to the sculptures, but it’s not.

This is the second Biennial in a row where what is essentially a music video has moved me considerably: Kamasi Washington’s Harmony of Difference was a standout in 2017.

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Detail of Janiva Ellis’s Uh Oh, Look Who Got Wet, 2019

I have stated elsewhere, and I’ll repeat it here, that the last few years remind me very strongly of the late 1960s. What do we worry about? The climate, women’s rights, civil rights, a corrupt Presidency, wars overseas. Janiva Ellis’s painting, Uh Oh, Look Who Got Wet brought another facet of the past to mind, its pseudo-solarized colors reminiscent of psychedelic rock videos and light shows in clubs. In a show generally weak in painting, her work was a bright exclamation point.

Politics was, in keeping with the times, ever-present. like Laura Ortman’s video, Nicholas Galanin’s White Noise, American Prayer Rug finds a Native American (Tlingit and Unangax) confronting what modernity and man have done to his culture. The image is lost in a haze of static; meaning is under siege. The black border looks funereal.

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Nicholas Galanin’s White Noise, American Prayer Rug, 2018

Prophecy is justified in Marcus Fischer’s Untitled (Words of Concern), 2017, a tape machine on the floor endlessly playing a loop of audio tape which stretches up into the air and back. Voices on the tape speak their fears about the coming of a Donald Trump Presidency, fears which have all to sadly come true. Alexandra Bell’s selections from No Humans Involved: After Sylvia Wynter, contains images from Donald Trump’s unsolicited and hate-mongering involvement in the Central Park Five case in 1989.

Forensic Architecture, one of the groups/artists that threatened to withdraw if Whitney Trustee Warren Kanders did not resign (see my last post) provided a video on the use of the tear gas Kanders’ company produces. Though a moving and damning work, I can’t really consider it art. It’s a documentary, which is not to diminish it in any way. Just don’t expect an aesthetic experience.

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Still from Kota Ezawa’s National Anthem (Buffalo Bills) 2018

I first saw Kota Ezawa’s work at the Wadsworth Atheneum in 2005. He continues to work strong, producing his distinctive, semi-rotoscope animations, this time around Colin Kaepernick’s protests during the National Anthem.

Two other highlights:

Curran Hatleberg’s Untitled (Camaro) from 2017, a car perched atop two steel beams (?), wittily echoing Michael Heizer’s Levitated Mass at LACMA; Joe Minter’s assemblages of found objects, which hint at pain and slavery.

My final judgement is that this year’s Biennial has its heart in the right place, but the choice of works does not quite rise to the intentions, with a few exceptions. My review of the catalog will be coming soon.

As I mentioned, we also liked the selections from the museum’s permanent collection, and Spilling Over: Painting Color in the 1960s, which we saw on its final day.

You still have a little time to catch the Whitney Biennial, which runs until Sept. 22, 2019.

 

 

Long Time Coming

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The Whitney Museum of American Art

The controversy surrounding the 2019 Whitney Biennial is not a new one; it merely has a new, exciting chapter. Questions about the moral and/or ethical, personal and/or professional behavior of donors and Trustees has been with us for at least half a century. Artists such as Hans Haacke and the Guerrilla Girls have brought sociopolitical controversies into galleries for years. The question at the heart of it all – should there be a moral imperative for museums – remains under debate, though the arguments against are harder and harder to justify.

The controversy surrounded now-former Trustee Warren Kanders, who owns Safariland, a company which produces tear gas and other military equipment, and is part owner of Sierra Bullets – their product is self-explanatory. Safariland tear gas has been used against protesters at the US-Mexico border and elsewhere. Kanders and his wife Allison collect contemporary art, and have given large sums to the Whitney. His presence on the Board enraged a number of artists chosen for this year’s Biennial. One of them, Michael Rakowitz, withdrew from the Biennial before it was mounted. Demands from some on the Whitney’s staff to address the issue was met with responses from Kanders and museum Director Adam Weinberg, neither of which succeeded in defusing the issue. Protesters have gathered at the museum since the Biennial opened; several artists have asked to have their works removed from the show, though Kanders’ resignation seems to have solved that potential problem. Allison Kanders has also resigned from her positions on the Whitney’s painting and sculpture committee.

Some people have argued that to be part of such a prestigious and noteworthy exhibition only to withdraw halfway through (the Biennial runs from May 17 to Sept. 22) is perhaps hypocritical. These artists will be in the shows catalog, with no addenda documenting their protest – the “official truth” in that sense nullifying their protest. But I dislike this viewpoint. At what time is it too late to grow a conscience? You can be cynical if you like, but they took a stand, however you might characterize it. The position of godlike detachment museums have taken to date – a “not our problem” position – is untenable.

A year of work by curators Jane Panetta and Rujeko Hockley, and many others at the Whitney, was jeopardized. Kanders did the right thing in stepping down.

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A 1969 letter demanding the Rockefeller’s resign from the Board of Trustees of MoMA.

I do not agree with Lee Rosenbaum’s assessment that Kanders’ resignation is due to a failure on the part of the Whitney’s Board and Director to back him up. Based on the lack of available information it’s just as easy to see the Board’s silence as tacit acknowledgement that Kanders had become a liability. Did he jump or was he pushed – and was it the protestors or his colleagues who did the pushing? Museum Boards practice confidentiality to a degree which would make the Illuminati jealous; what went on behind the scenes will likely never be known. Even the sole tidbit – Trustee Kenneth Griffin resigned in a huff, then just as quickly unhuffed and, as of this writing, is still on the Board (Griffin says he never resigned, so there’s that.) – raises more questions than it answers. The Board’s statement on Kander’s resignation expresses “profound gratitude” but little else; only rumor can tell us, and that dubiously, what the Trustees really thought.

I’m also not in agreement with Jerry Saltz’s characterization of the show as “A True Protest Biennial.” That’s premature, but may be right as time puts it in context. Warren Kanders is a symptom of the willingness of institutions to allow money to dictate choice – the lack of moral imperative I mentioned earlier. This is a step, admittedly a successful one, in the process of moving museum authorities to consider their place in society, starting with understanding the consequences of who they choose as their supporters, friends, and allies. The nameless protesters who have gathered to show their opposition to Kanders inside and outside the museum may not have the staying power of the artists who left and/or threatened to leave, but they have a special place in this: the ground troops in the war against indifference. Driving out one possibly unsavory Trustee is fine, but “true protest” must not stop there.

Another citation should go to Hyperallergic, whose coverage of the story brought it to light and has served to bring it to the attention of many (myself included) outside of New York City. Their writing on Kanders is not any too flattering toward Griffin either – read more here.

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“Museums are not neutral” is more than just a slogan (coined by artists LaTanya Autry and Mike Murawski) it is a fact of life. The protest has only just begun. After the Biennial closes, there will be other issues arising, other debates to be held. Is Warren Kanders the only problematic Trustee? The issues are bigger than he is, bigger than the Whitney, and the work of bringing light to the many troublesome truths that lie in the shadows. In case it is not obvious enough, I believe in a moral imperative for museums, and think it’s high time everyone ask that cultural institutions acknowledge and reflect the world they are inextricably connected to. It’s happening here and now, and you cannot lock yourselves in the Boardroom and pretend nothing is going on.

I will be visiting the Whitney Biennial in August and, as I did two years ago, I’ll review the show itself and its catalog. Will there still be protests? Stay tuned.

What’s He Doing Here?

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The man himself

The thing about Bob Ross is that he has a limited connection to what we commonly define as the “art world.” He stood firmly outside the commercial aspects of art-as-business, though he built an organization that exists to this day. He ignored critics and curators and all the art intelligentsia. They were not his audience. He spoke to hobbyists, the aspiring, the curious, and those who want to do something more with their hours.

Wait – aren’t those things most artists want?

Not exactly. Ross’s lack of content has a mantra-like repetitiveness, and eschews anything  of human civilization, partly through intent, partly through Ross’s own awareness of his limitations. I remember the one time I saw Bob Ross try to paint a human being, a tall, spindly thing in the middle of one of his standard forest scenes. He painted the bottom half one color, then added another above that. I couldn’t figure out what it was. “How odd,” I thought. “A two-tone outhouse.”

“Now let’s put some hair on his head,” said Ross.

I laughed so hard I rolled off the couch I was lying on.

Let’s be clear: most art is bad. Most artists are mediocre or worse, whether they’re amateurs or professionals. This is not an indictment; art is a destination reached by trial and error and error and error. Bad art can be useful as signposts pointing to some better form, as yet unseen and unseeable from here. Bad art just comes with the territory, and any art is better than none at all.

The recent New York Times video of Ross’s organization is an unusual combination: funny yet predictable. Of course his legacy would be preserved in an amateurish but sincere way – that’s how he built it. These are not paintings that need to be preserved for the ages; Ross’s style (to coin a phrase) is simple and simplistic. His lesson is not about objects, but about a frame of mind. Yes, it is a frame of mind that has no thought for contemporary society, except perhaps as an anodyne to it. If his complete works went up in flames today, the idea of him would continue, and the world would soon be restocked with paintings of a similar nature. The same could not be said of Thomas Kinkade, who monetized his abilities to a much greater extent, and is not enjoying the same posthumous fame Bob Ross does.

So roll your eyes when you see his happy trees – I certainly do. Yet somehow, I think his having been on Earth was not a bad thing. If one person crosses into the greater art community and makes something more than Ross ever could, how can we condemn his influence?

Mention Übermenschen, part 2

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The “Zeus of Smyrna”, restored in 1680.

Before superheroes we had gods and demigods, who were as flawed as their modern counterparts, if treated (assumedly) with a bit more reverence. (No one has yet built a temple to Superman or Batman, but such an edifice could draw a large congregation, and inspire as much internecine conflict.) Both groups built on human foibles and strengths; gods cheated on their spouses, demigods had feet of clay. Perfection brings distance, and worshippers (for the most part) need a connection at a human level with their idol.

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Benjamin West, Theirs Is The Kingdom of Heaven, 1775, collection of the La Salle University Art Museum

For a long time, Christianity eschewed this approach, creating a Jesus who was isolated from the human side of his nature. The stoic, placid, Victorian Jesus, who never raises his voice or even an eyebrow, served as the model for a tremendous amount of saccharine, mediocre art. Benjamin West, the first internationally successful American artist, produced a number of sappy Jesuses – the example above is not even his worst.

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Still from Last Days In The Desert, 2015

In recent years, efforts have been made to bring Jesus back down to earth, acknowledging the human needs, wants, and flaws that lend spice and character to stories. This brings me to my topic, Rodrigo Garcia‘s 2015 film, Last Days In The Desert, which presents a Jesus very much like us – too much, perhaps.

It’s a beautiful film, shot in the stark loveliness of the Anza-Borrego Desert in California, not far from where I used to live. Jesus (played by Ewan McGregor) is out in the wild, being tempted by the Devil (also Ewan McGregor). While there Jesus meets up with a family living a very precarious life amid the desolation. The patriarch of the family (played by Irish actor Ciarán Hinds) is determined to stay in the desert, while his wife and son yearn for better lands. One might expect a few choice homilies from Jesus, a reconciliation as the family unite, and a wholesome, uplifting conclusion.

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Ciaran Hinds in Last Days In The Desert.

But that’s not what happens. Jesus does resist the Devil’s temptations, but he is all but useless in advising the family. Character die – (spoiler alert: Jesus dies, too, after leaving them) and wounds are not healed.

At the end of the film (real spoiler alert this time) after seeing Jesus on the cross, we see the desert land in the present day. A group of people, friends, look out over the desert and take photos of themselves against its bleak majesty. Time has forgotten the family; the world continues on. It’s a frustrating film, never going where expected, but choosing less interesting routes to travel. With McGregor and Hinds, who both give good performances, it is also the most Celtic Bible story around. More brogues than the Middle Eastern desert was used to in those days.

I can’t recommend the film, because of the frustration. Instead, I suggest you watch the trailer, which makes it sound like a far more interesting story. Gods and demigods need to keep one foot in the heavens and one on the ground to appeal to people; too far in either direction and the illusion falls flat. We know the superhero is help up by wires, but they mustn’t be too easy to see.

Mention Ubermenschen, part 1

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Cover of Astounding Science Fiction, October 1939. Art by Hubert Rogers.

Alec Nevala-Lee‘s fine book, Astounding: John W Campbell Isaac Asimov Robert A Heinlein L Ron Hubbard & the Golden Age of Science Fiction, set my mind to work. It is, for those who don’t know, a history of three important authors (two positively, for the most part, and then there’s L. Ron…) and John W. Campbell, Jr., the editor who helped them to fame.

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The cover of Alec Nevala-Lee’s book, published by Harper Collins. Nevala-Lee had suggested the Hubert Rogers art above, but the publisher went with a new work instead.

A recurring theme in the book is the superior man, the hero figure who helps mankind move forward. He inherited the Lensmen series by Dr. E. E. Smith, which had begun before Campbell started editing Astounding Stories, and continued to present the occasional superman-as-villain (“The Mule” in Isaac Asimov‘s Second Foundation, first published in Astounding in November and December 1945) and the conflicted, more modern approach (Paul Atreides in Frank Herbert‘s Dune, serialized from December 1963 to February 1964 in Analog, which is Astounding poorly renamed.). Campbell was not alone: long before Nietzsche and the Übermensch, people have fantasized and worked with the idea of improving the race/species. Sad to say, most of these thoughts and plans have had bias and bigotry at their core, and many horrible things have been done in pursuit of this quixotic goal.

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Superman, from the opening of the Fleischer Studios cartoons.

The 1940s were a pivotal time for the concept of the superman: with the capital letter, Superman made his debut in the 1930s, and was regularly published in Action Comics from 1938 on. In 1940 Superman made his radio debut, and in 1941 Fleischer Studios began producing animated cartoons starring the character. On the other hand, Nazism exemplified the harmful aspects of eugenics and the idea of a “master race,” dampening enthusiasm for the idea among many. In modern times, the trend is toward antiheroes, leaving the superior man to the likes of religious cults and the remaining dregs of fascism.

It’s no accident that Kim Kinnison (hero of Grey Lensman) and Superman assume the same posture, Colossi astride their respective worlds. Such grand posturing still shows up in comics now and then, but mostly it has been abandoned. Today we want our heroes human, flawed.

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A depiction of the Colossus of Rhodes, by 18th Century artists Georg Probst.

Since the idea of improving mankind in some scientific fashion has fallen away (for the moment; genetic engineering promises a new Pandora’s box) what do we have in its stead? On one side are the blind worshippers, who need an idol to look up to, even if it’s Donald Trump saying “Only I can save you”; on the other are those who look to unity, who follow Margaret Mead‘s statement, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” The saddest part of Campbell’s story is that he could not let go of ideas that were fast becoming obsolete. For a while Campbell was the best editor in science fiction. Time has left some of his beliefs behind, but that happens to everyone.

More familiar names

It’s been unconscionably long since I last posted, due to a nasty respiratory bug, followed by wrist soreness, and then just life in general. Mea culpa.

So I come back, hoping to resume the blogging game, when I am reminded again of the power of trademarks and copyrights. A few months back, I reviewed Neil Gaiman’s book Art Matters. I was tickled that someone so much more famous than I would end up choosing the same name – no chance he stumbled on my blog and was inspired by it, but that doesn’t matter.

Now, I find that there is an Art Matters Foundation, which gives grants to artists. I know this because Lenka Clayton, whose project Sculpture for the Blind I reviewed a year ago, has just been awarded a grant. Good for her, and good for the foundation, which I had never heard of previously.

I will try to resume regular blog posts soon, secure in the knowledge that everybody thinks “Art Matters” is a good name.