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The 2014 Whitney Biennial, the last in the iconic Marcel Breuer building on New York’s Upper East Side, is divided into three floors curated by Anthony Elms, Stuart Comer, and Michelle Grabner, respectively. Each floor has its own more-or-less open thematic, and little attempt is made to connect them aside from the premise that the curators come from outside of New York (Comer only recently took a job at the Museum of Modern Art). Nevertheless, the Whitney’s impending departure for its new Renzo Piano building downtown seems to have inspired artists throughout the exhibition to grapple with the histories, discourses, and relationships that have given the Breuer building a sense of place over the decades.
Elms, a curator at the Philadelphia Institute of Contemporary Art, departs from Breuer’s expansive notion that a museum in Manhattan should not look like “a place of light entertainment” but should be an “independent, self-reliant unit” that is “exposed to history” (Marcel Breuer quoted in the accompanying exhibition catalogue, 151). History emerges in Elms’s show in projected and recorded images and in narratives of individual concealment or sacrifice. For instance, Zoe Leonard used the sole window projecting from the facade of Breuer’s inverted ziggurat to transform a gallery on the fourth floor (a floor otherwise devoted to Grabner’s exhibition) into a massive camera obscura that incorporates visitors into a moving image of Madison Avenue. This opening of the Breuer building to its exterior is a reminder that the most ancient image technology still captivates in its simplicity, yet specters of surveillance necessarily intrude on this ephemeral image. On the second floor where the remainder of Elms’s show unfolds, Michel Auder’s three-channel video Untitled (I Was Looking Back To See If You Were Looking Back At Me To See Me Looking Back At You) (2014) exposes the private life of the artist and others who enter his voyeuristic frame. Auder has compiled a vast archive of footage since the 1960s, and these scenes shot through windows of strangers having sex or watching television capture moments of intimacy and profound alienation. Auder’s piece, like Leonard’s, confronts the interrelation of memory and meaning with the persistent mediation of images, whether recorded or experienced in real time.
Other works in Elms’s second-floor exhibition offer personal archives as additions or alternatives to historical narratives. Most striking in this regard is Marc Fischer’s Public Collectors: Malachi Ritscher (2014), a presentation of recordings of improvisational music, photographs, and skateboard designs made by the Chicago-based documentarian and activist who self-immolated in a public protest against the Iraq war on November 3, 2006. Joseph Grigely’s The Gregory Battcock Archive (2009–14) similarly presents materials related to a figure that met a violent end—the artist, critic, and editor Gregory Battcock, mostly known for his important anthology Minimal Art: A Critical Anthology (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1968), who was murdered in Puerto Rico in 1980. Grigely came across the papers by chance in an abandoned storage facility in Jersey City in 1992, and his presentation offers surprising information regarding Battcock’s early career as an artist and the scope of his critical activities and involvement in gay life in post-Stonewall New York. Whereas Ritscher’s materials are presented in a straightforward museological display, Grigely exhibits Battcock’s documents in cases crafted from different hardwoods and installed at varying heights which he describes as an “irregular modular sculpture” (185). These works present history as an accumulation of personal records rather than as a social process negotiated between interested parties. Allan Sekula’s explorations of the histories and geographies of global exchange might have provided a needed corrective, yet his work is represented only by personal sketchbooks that fail to convey the scale and stakes of his practice, as other reviewers have noted.
Comer’s exhibition on the third floor centers on discursive and intermedia works by established and emerging artists. Text-based objects and hybrid publishing projects are paired with contemporaneous efforts to juxtapose and reconfigure mediums. Two pieces by Fred Lonidier employ the conventions of photo-text conceptualism to document the exploitation of labor in the United States and Mexico and to advocate for workers’ rights. GAF Snapshirts (1976) uses custom T-shirts ordered from the photographic supplier GAF to present Lonidier’s research into that company’s labor abuses. The artist implicates his own photographic practice in an industrial process that victimizes workers, and thereby subverts the purported neutrality of the documentary aesthetic. N.A.F.T.A. #16 A/B “‘N.A.F.T.A. . .’ Returns to Tijuana,”/“‘T.L.C. . .’ Regresa a Tijuana” (2005) relates Lonidier’s attempts to exhibit his research into labor conditions in the maquiladoras across the border area in a mobile gallery installed in the box of a shipping truck. Highlighting working conditions across trade borders opened by NAFTA and neoliberal deregulation, this project offers a test of artistic representation beyond the white cube: by bringing his art to workers in factories and union halls, Lonidier privileges his subjects as interlocutors and makes their self-recognition the gauge of his work’s realism; the presentation at the Whitney correspondingly questions its true audience.
Comer’s floor exhibits other hybrid and discursive practices such as Sylvère Lotringer, Chris Krauss, and Hedi El Kholti’s imprint Semiotext(e), which commissioned new pamphlet editions of critical texts for the biennial, and a project by Triple Canopy titled Pointing Machines that explores via historical and recent technological reproductions a collection of early American objects once in the Whitney’s collection. More affecting and visually engaging, however, is a room curated by artists Catherine Opie and Richard Hawkins of painted photographs by Tony Greene, a Los Angeles artist who died in 1990 shortly after graduating from CalArts. Made in the last two years of his life, these works have gone largely unseen since the early 1990s, and they use the then-unfashionable medium of painting to explore deeply personal attractions that gain political relevance in the context of the AIDS crisis. Appropriated photographs of fragmented male bodies or of taxidermied animals are given a dark oil glaze and overlain with text and arabesques applied in an impasto thick enough to take on bodily resonance; the central scenes are surrounded by a “moat” that offers a visual and psychological transition (or barrier) to Greene’s imagery, and the decaying body is preserved as an object and relic of desire.
Grabner, a Chicago-based artist and professor, puts the hybrid role of the artist/curator to a further test on the fourth floor. This section contains the highest density of artworks in the show, and it mostly eschews discursive practices in favor of objects and their interrelations. Grabner departs from a notion of art and curation as pedagogy, and focuses on the work of “artists who are pivotal in shaping young artist’s practices as teachers and mentors. Artists who have made a life, not a lifestyle, out of their dedication to artmaking” (265). This approach traces networks of personal and aesthetic relationships, such as those between female abstract painters whose work pertains to renewed discussions of materialism in painting, including Suzanne McClelland, Louise Fishman, Jacqueline Humphries, Dona Nelson, Laura Owens, Amy Sillman, and Molly Zuckerman-Hartung. More overtly political relationships can be found in Dawoud Bey’s diptych portraits of African Americans in Birmingham, Alabama, which are excerpted from his series The Birmingham Project (2012). Bey’s project recalls the violence in Birmingham on September 15, 1963, that killed four girls at the 16th Street Baptist Church and two boys in separate but related incidents. His diptychs unite sitters who are the age the victims were in 1963 with people the age that those victims would be today. Bey thus conveys, as he says, “the fifty years that the murdered children never got to live out” (324), and highlights the stakes of their sacrifice by hanging his portrait of Barack Obama at the entrance to the fourth floor. The “that-has-been,” Roland Barthes’s famous ontology of photography, manifests here as an absent presence of history and lives lost.
Opened in 1966, Breuer’s Whitney building anchored the cultural importance of American midcentury art by pairing challenging exterior mass with human-scaled interior spaces. The biennial, which succeeded the Whitney annual in 1973, secured a venue for contemporary practices that might not have found institutional support elsewhere; however, it also contributed to the proliferation of biennials around the world whose ever-increasing scale and entertainment value have rendered the Breuer building obsolete. Piano’s design for the new Whitney building adds floor space, reverts Breuer’s inverted ziggurat, and replaces his Brutalist masses with the unassailable taste of neo-modern transparency and lightness that one prominent critic recently termed “banal cosmopolitanism” (see Hal Foster, The Art-Architecture Complex, New York: Verso, 2011, 67). While the divided curation of the 2014 Whitney Biennial registered the dissensus and drift of the contemporary, Breuer’s building anchored certain practices and themes. Future biennial artists will have a larger stage, yet whether it will expose them to history remains to be seen.
Visiting Assistant Professor of Art History, Pratt Institute
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