The Whitney Biennial 2017

After a three-year hiatus, in which to settle into the new building, the Whitney Museum of American Art resumes its Biennial exhibition. So, naturally, I had to go. Before I dive into the art, a few words about the building, which I haven’t reviewed to date. I was never enamored of the previous building, designed by Marcel Breuer and now on long-term lease to the Met, which is showing Modern and Contemporary works therein. The Breuer building interiors always seemed dark and slightly claustrophobic to me. The new building from the outside looks a bit of a hodegpodge, but the interior spaces are bright and tall, with enough windows to feel connected to the city, but not so many as to interfere with installing the art. Now, on with (and to) the show!

The ostensible goal of the Whitney Biennial is to somehow capture the state of American art in the last two years. This is close to impossible; for the audience, it is about how the curators try to achieve or even acknowledge that goal. In all, 2017 curators Christopher Y. Lew and Mia Locks (read about them here) have done a good job. The state of art today is too amorphous and polymorphous to be captured – let’s set that aside and consider it instead as a series of snapshots: bits and pieces from the artistic life of the last two years, with context left up to the catalog (I bought it, and will be reviewing it later).

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As a painter, I found the painting selection to be tepid, and disappointing. Although I have already blogged about Dana Schutz’s painting Open Casket, I found another painting by her, Elevator (2017, shown above) to be far superior. A commanding picture, with people and more squashed into an elevator in a Guernica-like jumble, it was confident where Open Casket was muddled, and amusing where the other was annoying/infuriating. Interesting that they were not hung together.

Another painting highlight was Frances Stark’s Ian F. Svenonius’s “Censorship Now” for the 2017 Whitney Biennial, a series of 8 selections from punk musician Svenonius’s treatise in favor of censorship, with selected sentences/phrases underlined. Svenonius pulls no punches, and his fire is surprising considering punk’s reputation for tearing down barriers. This has been described by others as a very political Biennial, and Svenonius’s words bring chilling premonitions of the Trump administration.

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Raul de Nieves satisfied the need for eye candy and then some in his collection of figures (costumes, perhaps) made of yarn, beads, cardboard, costume jewelry, and more, stood in front of a “stained glass” (actually acetate sheets) window. The colors and textures are dramatic and gorgeous. Don’t take my word for it – look at the detail above.

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Jessi Reaves has several pieces of creatively upholstered/assembled furniture, which left me with mixed feelings. The most creative-looking works were not comfortable; the most conventional of them (shown above with the author in repose) was also the best to sit in. The piece above was one of two in a room otherwise filled with paintings by Carrie Moyer. Unusable but interesting were Kaari Upson’s faux furniture made from urethane foam.

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KAYA, a collaboration between painter Kerstin Brätsch and sculptor Debo Eilers (above) were also eye-catching and demanded closer inspection. I find it hard to summarize just what they are doing or why, and that’s okay. Brätsch’s contribution drew the eye in to half-hidden details; Eiler’s sculptural elements commingled assemblage and AbEx gestures.

Soundtracks to video works in contemporary art can vary wildly from the serene to the obnoxious; it was nice to hear Kamasi Washington‘s jazz suite, Harmony of Difference, which was not only pleasant to the ears, it was the point of the work. The video accompaniment is in support of the music, not the other way around.

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Another: Casey Gollan and Victoria Sobel created Reflections (above), text on windows. Perhaps not the most creative work in the show, but on a Spring day with the sunlight coming in the viewer wants to stay and read every word.

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Samara Golden created an installation (above) that is…well, let me describe it. You stand at a railing. Looking down from a bay of west-facing windows, you see reflections of rooms; looking up you see the same. The reflections come from mirrors above and below. The rooms being shown – a bar, what might be a hospital or nursing home, etc., are small-scale models on either side of the space. The models mounted on the floor are reflected in the upper mirrors; the models mounted to the ceiling are reflected in the lower mirrors. The spaces are very lifelike, and the change in scale is not noticeable. What you do notice is that there are too many rooms for the amount of real space, and the absence of people. The rooms have no relation to each other, yet you see them as a whole. The effect is quite fascinating. Mea culpa: I forgot to write down the title, and the catalog reads “As Yet Untitled.”

I could go on, and discuss why I did not watch Jordan Wolfson’s VR installation, or dissect the rather blah quality of most of the painters (only one of which I really disliked; the others I was just indifferent to) but this is about highlights. The Biennial is well worth a visit – it runs until June 11 – and if the day is fine, follow up with a walk along the High Line, which begins right opposite the museum.

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