The Whitney Biennial review of contemporary art in the United States is the venue for art that is new (to the public at large). Because of the importance of New York in the art world, the biennial is the focus of much interest and controversy.
This year’s Biennial has been much praised for its representation of the diversity of artistic effort in the US and the quality of the works presented.
Inevitably the Biennial incorporates the biases and politics of its time.
In 1993, after decades of the domination of conceptual art in all its forms, there was barely one painting in the Biennial.
Some balance has been restored.
Balance or not, painterly judgement seems to have eroded.
I take it that this is because painting has a long history and rigorous standards which tend to collide with the buzz which can be produced by works using other media. No buzz, no New York!
The prestigious Bucksbaum award presented by the Whitney this year went to a work in the Biennial which displayed tiny black-and-white photocopied snapshots of a person, one on each of 2755 pieces of bologna.
It was pungent. The bologna exuded liquid. Reference was made to its curing process and thence to the notion of ‘healing’.
The whole was presented as a representation of the proportion of Jews in New York and as a disquisition of the problems of ‘big data’.
Claim (Whitney Version), exterior view, 2017. Pope.L (a.k.a. William Pope.L), born 1955. Photo by MAXIMILÍANO DURÓN/ARTNEWS
Claim (Whitney Biennial version), detail: one piece of bologna, 2017. Acrylic paint, graphite pencil, pushpins, wood, framed document, fortified wine and bologna with black-and-white portraits. Pope.L aka William Pole.L, born 1955.
Certainly the liveliest work in this Biennial was not a painting but a “stained glass window”: a vast piece of artisanal excellence made by Raul de Nieves, born 1983, in which there was no stained glass.
Nieves’ wonderful “window” is fronted by elaborate beaded creations, many with a substructure of shoes.
beginning & the end neither & the otherwise betwixt & between the end is the beginning & the end, 2016, tape, paper, glue, beads. There is no glass in this window. (Photo by Matthew Carasella, Whitney Museum of Art)
Also excellent is a 3-D video projection by Anicka Yi, born 1971, which dealt with genetic engineering both of plants and of human perception. She and plant biologists were pursuing a fabled, elusive plant in the Brazilian Amazon.
In this work, she comes to the very interesting Portuguese word saudade: a profound melancholy brought on by the presence of something which is actually absent.
This word is thought to appear in very few languages and among them, Celtic: hiraeth. And in Amharic: tezeta.
Some (most of the) paintings
On the other hand, several of the paintings were of no particular interest: derivative, weak, overly self-absorbed, difficult to read and boring.
It may be that it was, partly, the urge to be fair (known, in its negative form as ‘political correctness’) that yielded this year a mixed bag paintings.
The museum says that it is committed to spreading its net in a vast enough area to take in the diverse talent of the country’s population.
It was still the case that, of the 63 artists represented in the exhibition, 38 were from New York. And it was noted, in congratulation, that half of all the works were of women and people of colour.
Half, that is, were of white men who do not, of course, make up half the population.
Whole areas of the country were left out while the west and east coasts were favoured.
Of the painting artists, the most interesting and evolved work is that of the Afro-American artist, Henry Taylor. He is approaching 60 and has been painting for more than 20 years.
I imagine that it is these continuing imbalances that were partly at the root of the one dispute (noted below) to break out in the Whitney Biennial this year.
A dispute which was stated in the language of the ‘wrongs’ of cultural appropriation especially when there is money to be made.
Tala Madani, born 1981, Teheran and lives now in Los Angeles
The text suggested that Tala Madani is interested in transferring light – in the Western tradition normally thought to be in the mind and to be associated more with men than with women – to the body. An effort to point up certain patriarchal and misogynistic values.
Shafts, 2017, oil on linen
Tit Shit, 2016, oil on linen
Babeless, 2017, oil on linen
Celeste Dupuy-Spencer, born 1979
St. Tamany Parish, oil on canvas, 2016
Fall with Me for a Million Days (My Sweet Waterfall), 2016, oil on canvas
Closing Party (Hit the North) and details, 2016, oil on canvas
Veteran’s Day, and details, oil on canvas, 2016
Trump Rally (and some of them I presume are good people), 2016, graphite pencil on paper (Blue Lives refer to the Police).
Jo Baer, born 1929
The text informs that the artist, who has researched a prehistoric megalithic site in Ireland, is interested in deep time and intermingles distant past with present.
Heraldry (Posts and Spreads), 2013, oil on canvas
Royal Family (Curves, Points and Little ones) and details, 2013, oil on canvas
In the Land of the Giants (Spirals and Stairs) and details, 2012, oil on canvas
Henry Taylor, born 1958
Ancestors of Ghengis Khan with Black Man on Horse, 2015-2017, acrylic on canvas (photo by Benjamin Sutton for Hyperallergic)
The 4th, 2012-2017, acrylic on canvas
THE TIMES THEY AIN’T A CHANGING FAST ENOUGH, acrylic on canvas, 2017
Philando Castile was shot to death by a policeman on July 6, 2016 in a suburb of St. Paul, Minnesota. His dying was live-streamed by Diamond Reynolds, his girlfriend. He died in hospital. Her 4-year old daughter was with them in the car and could not have but watched. This was a traffic stop. Nationwide violence broke out.
The policeman was charged with homicide and in June 2017 was acquitted.
A HAPPY DAY FOR US, 2017, acrylic on canvas
Julien Nguyen, born 1990
The notes explain that, in the format of the New York Times, the artist is laying out in this painting below, an allegory of conflict
Executive Function and details, oil on canvas, 2017
Dana Schutz, born 1976
Elevator, 2017, oil on canvas
Shame, 2017, and details, oil on canvas
The painting below was the occasion of conflict between members of the African-American artistic community and the artist and the Whitney.
The painting depicts the open casket of Emmett Till. Emmett Till was 14 years old when, on August 28th, 1955, in Money, Mississippi, he was kidnapped, beaten and mutilated. He was then shot in the head and his body was thrown into the Tallahatchie River. This was on the word of a white woman that Emmet Till had flirted with her.
His murderers were acquitted.
The woman who had accused Emmett Till, Carolyn Bryant Donhem, admitted to a historian in 2008 that she had lied.
Emmett Till’s mother, Mamie Till-Bradley (later Till-Mobley) allowed photographs of the open coffin so that everyone could see how her son had died.
Members of the African-American artistic community stood guard around this painting to prevent its being seen. They also asked that it be taken down. Some wanted it destroyed. All said that they are weary of the appropriation of African-American history and symbols for purposes of gain.
The artist, a white American, wrote a statement of her purpose when she painted this approximation of the open casket. It was the summer of 2016 and young black men and women were being killed one after another on the roads and in the parks of the United States.
Her work here, the artist said, is not the photograph of Emmet Till. It is a representation of her empathy and support of the African-American community. She said that she had never intended to sell this painting; and never will. At that point, the protest stopped but a guard was posted thereafter at this painting.
The Whitney voiced its support for its curators who wanted to include this painting because art is critical in the endless conversation about race and racial violence in the United States.
Shara Hughes, born 1981
The notes speak of the artist presenting windows into another world.
Reaching My Plateau, 2016, oil, acrylic spray paint and dye on canvas
Split Ends, 2016, oil, acrylic and vinyl paint on canvas
In the Clear, 2016, oil, acrylic and dye on canvas