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Farewell to the Breuer – The 2014 Whitney Biennial

Jill Spalding

Triple Canopy, Pointing Machines I (Chestertown, Maryland),, 1969. All 2013. Pigmented inkjet print, 22 1/2 x 15in. (57.2 x 38.1 cm). Collection of Triple Canopy. Courtesy Triple Canopy.

A marking moment in art history, Biennial 2014 is the Whitney Museum of Art’s 77th and final showcase of American art in the storied Marcel Breuer building before surrendering it to the Metropolitan Museum and relocating to the Meatpacking district downtown. Essentially a last hurrah, this effortful production manifests the exuberance of a party girl; with a few quiet exceptions, the overall presentation is in your face, dressed to kill, and having a very good time. Feedback has been generally positive. What’s not to like? There’s a lot of painting, a sizable representation of women artists, a strong focus on the cross-cultural and inter-disciplinary, and attention to art-making over concept.

Many question, however, why the museum entrusted its last spin to outside curators: Michelle Grabner, an artist and professor at Yale and Chicago’s School of the Art Institute; Anthony Elms, an artist and Associate Curator at Philadelphia’s Institute of Contemporary Art; and Stuart Comer, Curator of Media and Performance art at MoMA. And why three? Ostensibly, we are told, for maximum range and diversity. (The back story—“not for publication,” whispered my Informant—is that they were engaged to collaborate on a joint show, but got along so poorly that each had to be given a separate floor). The unfortunate result is the tendency to choose a favorite floor and curator. Of greater concern is whether, in the translation of diversity, the Biennial’s mission got lost.

Since its inception in 1931, the Biennial’s brief has been to select and exhibit the current state of art in America. That’s Art: Across the 50 United States: Now. A simple directive one would think, but over the years curators have increasingly complicated the process. In keeping with the Whitney’s recent history, iteration 2014 is both all and none of the above. To understand why, it’s instructive to think of a Biennial as a collective: a wunderkammer that displays disparate talents, materials, styles, techniques, influences, and directions of work pulled straight off the walls and floors of artists working today.

This Biennial duly delivers disparity in its presentation of 103 artists, more than double since 2012, and the full monty of materials that serve art today: vinyl, bronze, concrete, paper, plastic, clay, wood, fiber, fabric, acrylic, oil, graphite, powder-coated aluminum, enameled plexiglass, you-name-it readymades, dust-to-garbage detritus, and the full array—neon, LED, Ganzfeld—of light-stimulated experience.

But, fresh? Eight of the artists exhibited are dead, and some 40% were born before 1970. If influence is the curatorial criterion here, it’s an iffy one; Edward Hopper has made it into 26 Biennials, Andy Warhol only two.

American? Not as commonly understood: “born in…” (France, Israel, Lebanon, Japan… fill in the country of origin. Even one of the curators, Comer, hails, very recently, from London).

Across the nation? Texas, Hawaii, Massachusetts, and Michigan make it in, but artists working in Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York elbow out small-town America.

Art? All three curators have stretched the definition beyond sound and performance to include novelists, poets, and even archivists, to the ire of venerated dealer Jack Tilton. “They’ve taken the places of my artists! Really, Julie Ault? [born 1957, and shown here in her capacity as a theorist], “David Foster Wallace?” [A writer. And dead!]

Now, take a deep breath and ask the real question: Talent? Unquestionably. If a Whitney Biennial acts as a finger to the wind, the great American art collective is gusting.

The consensus has been to start on the exuberant fourth floor, but if you want to leave on a high, I’d advise you to save it for last. Let the tinnitus of sound artist Charlemagne Palestine’s echoed chants buzz you up the stairs to the second floor (only out-of-towners take the elevator) and you’ll encounter Anthony Elms’s resolve to put “more artists in more peoples’ faces.” You’ll stop before outsize oils on linen, exquisite drawings, sculpted papier mâché, and digital conversations; Terry Adkins’ suite of floated Aviariums, Valerie Snobeck and Catherine Sullivan’s assemblage involving cufflinks, suitcases, and vitrines, and 25 works by the Sensory Ethnography sound lab collective.

Stuart Comer’s third-floor offerings are more in your face. Bjarne Melgaard and Travis Jeppeson’s perfectly dreadful, if superbly crafted, soft-sculpture and media salon outs the culture of transgender, transsexual, and voyeurism as mainstream, while an adjacent 3D video by Jacolby Satterwhite splices his archive of screaming, sexual images into a surreal corps exquis. Let Eric Fischl rail in the Financial Times that “Museums are afraid of sex.” Not this one. (Just revisit the Whitney’s permanent collection to reacquaint yourself with the erotic works of Georgia O’Keeffe and Alice Neel). Notably, though, with the exception of a poignant video that traces the evolving relationship of two friends undergoing simultaneous transitions, the sexuality pervading this Biennial is willful, intellectual, and processed. Queer aesthetics power Elijah Burgher’s exquisitely drawn hieroglyphs that slyly channel Paul Klee before veering into cryptographs of soft porn. Gary Indiana’s juxtaposed photomontage of nubile Millennials next to swift-moving LED images of naked Cuban prisoners and jellyfish also feel like skin flicks. Alma Allen’s wondrous wood carvings dialogue with a marbled penis that speaks for itself. On all floors, erections and pubic hair serve as attention grabbers, with varying success—Jennifer Bornstein’s video of two women testing their tentative sexuality has a tremulous grace—but gone are anger and despair. Protest has ceded to tongue-in-cheek manifestos. Only the curator knows that the heavy tools hanging from a happy electrified crystal and silk installation by Joel Otterson signal that he is living with HIV but can still work with his hands. Represented here only by a much older piece, the searing wounds still inflicted by AIDS, guns, and prejudice—though ever present on the big screen and TV— feel so 20th century.

Trending? The question always asked of a Biennial should be asked of its curators, says Michelle Grabner, given that contemporary art is a construct, existing only in the eye of the beholder, or in this case that of Grabner, Comer, and Elms. Grabner favors buoyancy—especially as tendered by female artists. She gives the advantage of the fourth floor’s tall ceilings to vibrant craft-based abstractions wrought with fabric, thread, wood, and ceramics. Comer has fingered collective assemblage: teams building new truths out of archival materials and re-purposed artifacts according to the Jasper Johns more-is-more mantra (‘take something, do something to it, do something else to it’) to make deep social statements. You’ll have to study the wall texts to decode them. That of the collaborative Triple Canopy involves such disparate components (the enlarged engraving of a salon furbished with 19th-century folk art that was offered to and rejected by the Whitney, transparencies of portraits, and two reproductions of the original wash basin exhibited next to them—the one in fine wood, the other 3D-printed) that the docent I listened to took 20 minutes to explain the relationship between them. Thankfully, 3D-creep remains muzzled, though you know it lies in wait, being groomed for zeitgeist 2016.

Concept abounds, for the most part empowered by creative ideas and arcane juxtapositions of repurposed ephemera; interventions of numbers and words that have been extracted from notebooks, diaries, files, and shopping lists; and Susan Howe’s chopped, spliced, and re-positioned semi-sentences that form the semi-illegible paragraphs she lays out under glass like tape interrupted, and calls poems.

Glitter, the marketable seduction tool that has been easing fair-art on the public eye, sparkles aplenty on all floors, but with purpose. Nature bends to the will of Carol Jackson’s geodes that gleam from buried crevasses; of Carissa Rodriguez’s gritty, cast salt earth surfaces; and of Jacqueline Humphries’ silvered canvas that flashes the night sky.

Painting is firmly back, large abstract oils with cross-disciplinary interventions like the row of pottery vases Amy Sillman has propped on the wood frame of her canvas to call attention to the back, and the stitching Dona Nelson punctured through to leak paint to the reverse of acrylic abstractions that swing out from the wall like wallpaper displays.


Sterling Ruby, Basin Theology/Butterfly Wreck, 2013. Ceramic, 28 1/8 x 39 3/8 x41 inches. Copyright Sterling Ruby. Photo: Robert Wedemeyer.

Ceramics impact strongly: the elegance of Shio Kusaka’s vases and the impossible complexity of John Mason’s sculptures leave you breathless. Then, stumbling upon the primordial bowls Sterling Ruby has filled with a pre-ceramic soup of failed work, you recoil and shudder. These (for me) ugly, ancient, and disturbingly future avatars, come closest to what a Biennial should present.

Other standouts are Lisa Anne Auerbach’s take on post-rural America via a dialogue between an elaborately stitched tapestry, three knitted outfits, and a massive magazine, whose 24 pages of inkjet landscapes were turned over on opening night by Whitney volunteers wearing gloves; Etal Adnan’s small abstractions that paint words and letter paint; Sheila Hicks’s soaring fiber totem; Lucien Castaing-Taylor’s and Véréna Paravel’s powerful video, Leviathan, that explores humanity’s tumultuous relationship with the ocean; Zoe Leonard’s intervention with the window Breuer angled northwest that moves on from Robert Irwin’s famed scrim veil to convert the entire space into a camera obscura.

There are accomplished amusements—the very large bookcase David Robbins closely crafted for four tiny books; a row of elaborately carved pencils by Peter Schuyff (born in the Netherlands, and—case in point—still living in the Netherlands); wry comments on commerce like David Diao’s substitution of his name for that of a more famous artist on MoMA’s invite to a trustees function; and Allan Sekula’s painting, lettered: “wear your collar, take your dive, all little profits get together and turned into one big profit.”

Opinion is mixed about the show’s links to the market. A recent article in Forbes openly labeled Biennials a guide to investing. However, despite a few crowd pleasers, and the disquieting realization that Michelle Grabner was exhibiting one of her own installations across town at the Armory Show during the Biennial’s opening week, and although most of the work on show here is “in the collection of the artist”(read: for sale), and although any name included in a curator-driven exhibition will thenceforth inevitably be more marketable, I don’t see how a jumble of photographs, paintings, sculpture can indicate what to collect for investment, or even, by its deliberate diversity, guide more than confuse.

Having long come to terms with the partnership of art and commerce, I had other reservations. Why, indeed, the decision not to entrust at least one in-house curator with this last Breuer-chapter Biennial? (What can it possibly mean to relegate the excellent Elizabeth Sussman to the position of “advisor”?) The wall texts are a problem; even the guards can’t always direct you to the relevant one. And, what is it with vitrines? This new fashion for installations of ephemera laid out like an archeological dig in glass boxes? They may have a logic in museums, whose mission is protect and conserve, but here they deaden. It is the viewer who feels placed at a safe remove. Also disappointing, live performance engaged for the first weeks, then petered out as the artists moved on, imparting the feeling of a balloon deflating. Most poignant, where were the fireworks? Although logistics will crown the upcoming Jeff Koons retrospective as the Whitney’s historic farewell to the Breuer building, an all out, shout out, blowout Biennial would have served as an indelible marker.

My overarching emotion on leaving was—like the gentleman in the famed New Yorker cartoon who approached the crowd reading the Titanic Survivors list to ask about the fate of the iceberg—concern for the building. How will it survive without the Whitney Biennial? Will it be happy?