The good people over at Gathering of the Tribes recently had me follow up my I Am Not Your Negro review with a piece on this year's Whitney Biennial. And let me just say one thing first: I've always loved the biennial. Sure, you can go from work of genius to abject idiocy in a matter of seconds, but the fact that the show would rarely generate a critical consensus symbolized to me the beauty of contemporary art; so much of the onus is placed on the viewer to decide whether a work of art if "good" or "bad" or something else entirely.. I especially loved the 2014 edition in which supposed curatorial squabbling amongst the chosen trio resulted in a three-biennials-in-one situation as they split each of the former museum building's three floors amongst themselves. And it was one of the most entertaining, challenging, at-times irritating, but largely revelatory biennials in recent memory with the curatorial acrimony resulting in what felt like a race to outdo one another. One of the greatest revelations of that biennial for me was that it kicked off what has been a protracted rebellion, one that is still gaining steam, against art history's relentless obfuscation and over-specialization as older figures formerly seen as existing outside of art were folded into the biennial, from the radical philosophical press (and my dear friends at) Semiotext(e) to the minimal-maximal grids of Chana Horowitz. And while plenty in the show didn't work, the fact that it felt so diverse and so varied in quality and subject matter--even though the demographics didn't support that aesthetic feeling--left me feeling pretty darn good about the start of art in America at that moment.
It's important to acknowledge that this year's biennial was always going to be different. A lot has happened since 2014 and although the art for this edition was selected in 2016, before Trump was elected and the world as we knew it came crashing down, there was never really any doubt that this would be a more direct and immediate biennial in terms of its purview and recurring themes. As I write in my review:
When the first reviews of the 2017 edition of the Whitney Biennial came out before the exhibition was open to the public, there was a curious univocity or single voice at play among most of the critics who initially reviewed the show. Everyone stated in one way or another that this year’s edition was “the most politically charged” Biennial in decades, and the 1993 edition was held up as this year’s less successful analog. Additionally, the Whitney’s desire to attract a young and diverse crowd through the “fresh” appointment of the curators Christopher Lew and Mia Locks was typically noted. Both Asian-American curators are in their mid-30s, and their curatorial take appeared to be an unmitigated success. Of course, this being 2017, the homogenous praise over the nearly half non-white and half-female artist selection soon gave way to cultural angst and public arguments about appropriation and censorship when a group of artists grew offended and outraged over the inclusion of a white female artist’s--the painter Dana Schutz--portrait of slain 14-year-old Emmett Till, whose body was mutilated for Till having supposedly made improper comments to a young white woman in 1952 in the American South, an accusation she later recanted long after it could make any difference.
Yep, by the time I finally attended the biennial two weeks after it had opened, I found myself attending against a far-different cultural context due to the controversy raging over the painter Dana Schutz's depiction of Emmett Till's open casket in The Wake; an image, it should be noted, that was made possible in the first place due to his mother's decision to ship his corpse to Chicago where she could present this act of inhumanity to the whole world. And thus the week prior to my attending the biennial was spent reading the profusion of think pieces to try and understand just what these protestors were really taking issue with.
One early piece that stood out as particularly daft was found in The New Republic. At first it seemed to earnestly critique the artist's technique before descending into authorial essentialism, chiding her for exercising artistic freedom to depict Till's mutilated face as she saw fit. For the record, when seen in person, Schutz's work makes for a truly charged and emotional experience as Schutz manages to reflect the pain inflicted upon Till's face by layering paint upon itself until his head is protruding from the canvas, almost daring the audience to look away. What I found so baffling about the authors Josephine Livingstone and Lovia Gyarkye's argument is that while they acknowledge Till's mother fierce defiance by having hundreds of photographs of taken so that the image would take on iconic status, they find error with Schutz firstly for being a white woman when the injustice against Till was due to the lies of a young white woman. But even more astoundingly, they write, "The streaks of paint crossing the canvas read like an aggressive rejoinder to Mamie Till Mobley’s insistence that he be photographed." So in this case, they are saying that photographic image itself could never be replicated in any way other than 100% faithfully as to do so would betray what they believe to be Mamie Mobley's intentions (and man, they really have no problem speaking for a dead woman.) Their argument basically boils down to it being unacceptable that a white woman paint or take artistic license with an image of black suffering already in the public domain with which she feels a certain connection, taking the artistic license one is entitled to in our country.
And stuff only got out of hand from there....
Within a week of the Whitney Biennial’s opening in March, African-American artist Parker Bright made headlines by standing in front of the painting wearing a shirt that read “Black Death Spectacle.” He was soon joined by a number of artists who seemed to recoil at the very notion that such a painting existed. This reactionary wing was embodied in British-born, Berlin-based artist Hannah Black who took things considerably further beyond mere protest without even seeing the painting in person (and within the context of the show itself), by penning a letter signed by herself and around twenty other artists condemning the Whitney for allowing “a white person to transmute Black suffering into profit and fun.” What has caused concern amongst critics like myself and others is that Black and her co-signers did not simply call for the work of art to be removed but to have it br destroyed so that it could no longer cause the pain it did to these self-appointed cultural censors.
If this narrative sounds familiar--a person of one race being impugned for appropriating and exploiting another culture in the name of art and potentially profit--that’s because it is. This current decade has seen a new breed of young and politically-minded individuals coming together to decry the cultural exploitation perpetuated by those implicated in the white capitalist patriarchy, often in the name of “wokeness.” With the laws of cultural physics calling for an equal or greater reaction in response, those who support Black Lives Matter and similar movements have become targets for the alt-right for what they see as an attack on good ol’ (racist) American values and the entitled snowflake culture of the millennial generation that all too often tends to mistake feelings for political positions. And both the alt-right and Generation X liberals have found plenty to quibble with, such as the dreadlocks controversysymbolized by the video of a young black woman haranguing a young white male with dreadlocks for his insensitive cultural appropriation or author Lionel Shriver famously donning a sombrero while delivering a keynote speech at a writer’s festival to mock a group of Bowdoin college students for their protests over fellow students donning sombreros while drinking tequila (and while Shriver’s actions might have been a tad shallow, reading the full transcript of her speech yields a number of keen insights into the dangers of over-reactive political correctness).
What has kept our country’s current cultural rift continuing to grow is the fact that the students mentioned above or Black herself aren’t entirely wrong, which makes constructive arguments rather difficult. Not to validate those on the alt-right, but Black embodies the exact type of short-sighted arguments that do in fact strike upon a rich vein of truth--the appropriation of any culture in the name of profit and exploitation should be monitored and harshly criticized when warranted--while failing to take into consideration the greater cultural and historical contexts or even the self-awareness to understand why their arguments might be met with derision. But it was after seeing this year’s biennial in person that I started to wonder if the controversy that Black has become a major figurehead within actually provides a much more engaging way to talk about such relevant topics, or at least more engaging than exhibition itself. For while Lew and Locks valiantly attempted to capture the many “conversations” occurring throughout the country about identity, politics, race, gender, and so much more, much of the art itself fails to really give the audience anything to hook into, making the Schutz controversy all the more attractive.
For me, the single-minded focus on "diversity" perpetuated by curators Christopher Lew and Mia Locks felt like a direct betrayal to the more organic selection of art that had seemingly occurred in previous biennials. What truly eats at me though is not some attempt to meet a socially acceptable quota of half female artists (which, hey, that's fantastic) and nearly half artists of color. It's the short-sightedness that pervades both the curator's artist selection and presentation of the work within the biennial and much of the art itself, which often feels immature and didactic, or underdeveloped and ambiguous (I've honestly lost count of the number of wall didactics and reviews in which a piece in the biennial has been applauded for injecting nuance through vagueness or indecisiveness; too many of the pieces feel like they are straining to deliver a political message but then stumble on their way to articulating it.)
And while I realize that I'm talking a lot about the context around the art and not much about the art objects themselves, I'm doing so because context is key to enjoying and understanding any piece of art. A failure to understand the greater cultural and historical context in which an artwork is made can result in ill-informed calls for its destruction, as Black exemplifies. What worries me is that despite such well-reasoned critiques of the protest that seek to situate Schutz's painting within a larger art historical context, such as Roberta Smith's essay in the New York Times and veteran art activist Coco Fusco's impassioned decrial of censorship, the type of cultural, political, and historical shortsightedness embodied Black and her fellow protestors seemed to find a healthy amount of resonance within the biennial itself. And I don't mean to question Black's or any other artist's sincerity and I understand that as a white cis male, there are realities and identities I can never assume or truly know. But calls for censorship are worrisome by those whose livelihood and potential success often hinges on their freedom to express themselves as they see fit.
Part of the issue, to me at least, with the underwhelming quality of much of the work included in this year's biennial is that in the museum's desire to be "fresh," they equated that quality almost exclusively with youth, causing them to make a stumble akin to the Oscars hiring James Franco and Anne Hathaway to host "the cool Academy Awards." And if this biennial results in young artists being inspired, than who am I to question that? But speaking as a millennial born in 1984, as I saw wall label after wall label show that the artist was born after 1979, a direct correlation between the quality of the work and the age of the artist began to emerge. Of course, there are plenty of fantastic young artists working today, many of whom I've interviewed here and others like Deanna Lawson and Shara Haye that were in this year's biennial. Still, it was hard to deny the sense that a reverse ageism was at work in the selection of the art on display. Sure, the biennial is supposed to focus on young and lesser-known artists, but as recent editions alongside shows like The Keeper at the New Museum and the Kerry James Marshall retrospective at the Met Breuer have shown us, there is still much new art to be discovered and celebrated that was made by older artists, like Jo Baer's whose minimalist imaginary landscapes provided a rare reprieve rom the fatigue induced by taking in so much art "with a message."
What really frustrates me is that in their introductory text for the show, curators Lew and Locks spoke of the many conversations they encountered in their travels selecting art for the biennial and pitched this year's exhibition as an attempt to reflect the many discussions going on in America. The problem with the show itself is that it feels less like a conversation and much more like a monologue. The politics on display are of the decidedly leftist variety in that the show lacks liberalism's even-temper and tried to go straight for the guy. The issue is that few pieces ever actually connect with the viewer and the politics all smear together, losing any individual power. Gone is the charming hodgepodge quality of art dealing with all types of topics as the majority of the work on display focused on issues of identity, race, capitalism, and other perennial targets of the American left. And of course art made and selected in 2016 is going to reflect a certain dissatisfaction, if not rage, about the many issues that existed before Trump took office. But rarely does any of the art stand out on its own with a unique voice. Weeks on from first seeing the biennial, I'm hard-pressed to recall it in a way I can previous editions. What I do remember is a lot of political vagaries and an underlying sense of fantasy or escapism, best found in the paintings of Haye and Baer.
And so it wasn't without a sense of irony that the first room of the biennial that I entered contained Frances Stark's painted reproductions of Ian F. Svenonius’ 2015 screed Censorship Now!
While the visitors on hand seemed more than happy to linger on Stark’s quasi-cartoonish recreations, the general myopia contained within Svenonius’ original contrarian manuscript feels of an ilk with Black’s letter. Both sound fine when read in a vacuum--hey, artists should extend their unique temperament to censoring our capitalist oppressors, man--but things are indeed far more nuanced when read in the context of this biennial. It feels a tad ironic that in Stark’s recreation of the book’s cover page there is the handwritten number from the limited print run in which it was originally available. Dissent ain’t cheap.
And to their credit, Lew and Locks often seem ready with an artistic rejoinder to much of the rhetoric coming from the art itself, as evidenced in the nearby Occupy Museums installation. This artist’s collective is united in their desire to shine a light on the monetary paradoxes that artists so often find themselves in--needing to sell their works to collectors without selling out their art. Perhaps to reflect the throw-away culture at play with contemporary art buyers and the bankers who back them, the roughly dozen artists who find their work encased in the lifesize infographic seem to be sacrificing their individual work to the conceptual umbrella as no piece really succeeds at standing out against the bank logos that make up the data-mined wallpaper. That such a remarkable group effort elicits a shrug might have something to do with the handpainted logo and text indicating the luxury jewelry behemoth Tiffany’s sponsorship of this year’s Biennial within spitting distance of this lifesize meditation on the fiscal realities of being an artist. It kind of undercuts the works’ sincerity.
Living in a time of big data as we are, Pope L.aka William Pope L.’s Claim (Whitney Version) is another heavy-handed meditation on identity, in this case, of the Jewish variety as the artist created a room-like grid containing nearly 2,800 slices of bologna, each affixed with a black-and-white photographic portrait. The slices are supposed to be roughly proportional to New York City’s million-plus Jewish inhabitants, based off the artist’s own “rough” as a means to inject an air of ambiguity into the statistical determinism that can so often be our downfall in the digital age. Ultimately, much like the other larger-than-life art on hand at this year’s biennial, the whole thing ends up feeling overwrought, didactic, and bloated. Such an assessment also holds true for Raul de Nieves floor-to-ceiling stained-glass-like windows and bedazzled dresses that adorn the human-like mannequins of his beginning & the end neither & the otherwise betwixt & between the end is the beginning & the end. Here was an artist seemingly confronting the entirety, or a significant chunk, of his cultural and religious upbringing with a meticulousness that was supposed to transform “the mundane into the fantastical,” according to the object label. And yet, the sheer sprawling nature of it all made it feel at once trite and self-indulgent, a feeling that would soon settle in for much of the remaining work at hand.
This was particularly true with Jordan Wolfson’s Real Violence. Had I not been wearing a virtual reality headset to view the piece, the eye rolling that I did while surrounded by his “gritty” video would have let the line full of people behind me know that they were in for yet another ham-fisted rumination on identity and the “real world.” Recited Chaunnakah blessings provide the work’s sonic backdrop, and we find ourselves on an eerily empty Manhattan street as two young white men beat a third to a bloody pulp. The victim looks up at us with hollow yet accusatory eyes. While Wolfson, or whoever provided the stunningly real effects, might have a bright future in torture porn, Real Violence comes across as over-eager to beat the audience over the head with a message that is too cowardly to articulate itself, diffusing the impact some slight recasting might have given it.
OK, so I really wasn't feeling it. Honestly, after about twenty minutes in my mind started running with all the nasty things I've ever read about my generation as so much of the art felt inexperienced and shallow. And again, this is where context is important because when you look at the reviews written by older white guys like Jerry Saltz of New York Magazine and Peter Schjeldahl of the New Yorker, they were clearly energized by what they saw as a generational defiance. Or as Saltz put it, this was “the first, last, and only Hillary Clinton biennial." For these critics the context of seeing so much politically-minded art at a time when political awareness and protest made the show a success. Whereas personally, I saw a lot of muddled, self-righteousness ,and short-sighted "statements" masquerading as art.
And ultimately, I realized what the show's few successes achieved was a fusing of the poetic and political, like in Henry Taylor's incredible paintings alongside Schutz's work.
The room that holds The Wake is arguably the strongest in the entire show as Shutz’s colorful work is interspersed with the chunky, earnest paintings of Henry Taylor. Taylor has emerged as something of a critical counterweight for his depiction of the murder of Philando Castile in his momentous painting The Times They Ain’t a Changing Fast Enough! He places the viewer in the perspective of the victim’s girlfriend who recorded the cold-blooded murder of Castile at the end of a police officer. That such a tragedy would never arise out of a routine traffic stop for the largely white visitors in the Whitney the day I attended was a cold, hard fact that loomed over that entire piece and into Taylor’s other works on display. Both The Wake and The Times wrestle with a private tragedy that was soon shared with the whole country, either by the newspapers in Till’s case or social media and the internet in Castile’s. That these two paintings are shown in the same room goes some way to putting into relief the fact that while both depict black pain, they also both reflect a common grief over these all-too-American tragedies, separated only by time as both cases boggle the mind in rationalizing how they even came to pass. Taylor’s painting of a man grilling burgers in The 4th significantly adds to the all-too-rare feeling of humanism for which the 2017 Whitney Biennial has been lauded.
I was feeling pretty down after a couple hours of trying to get on board with Lew and Locks' vision and just not being able to do so. And then I exited the elevator onto the seventh floor where there was what I had been waiting to see all day.
Greeting visitors who came to the seventh floor is a ragtag collection of photographic and painted portraits from the past century was something that had been missing in so much of the “racial” art in the biennial itself. Thus the impact of seeing Barkley L. Hendricks’ 1976 painting “Steve,” a portrait of pride and defiance embodied in the white jacket-clad subject of the portrait, immediately upon exiting the elevator onto the seventh floor was nothing short of soul-shaking. The dark-colored face of Steve emitting a barely-there smirk as his eyes rest behind the reflective aviator sunglasses he wears all too well.
There’s a poetic precariousness at work in the painting’s white background and Steve’s mostly-white wardrobe. Seemingly a commentary on the whitewashing of black culture, Hendrick’s painting achieved what few artists outside of Schutz and Taylor did in creating art that does actually say something but does so by being art. Just like last fall’s revelational Kerry James Marshall show at the Met Breuer, here was an artist that was new to both myself and likely the majority of biennial visitors, a strong reminder that in focusing so intently on the younger side of the art world, there still exists a whole generation of largely overlooked artists of color whose work resonates with the present moment in a way that little else in the biennial did. There was no preening, no posturing, no technique to obsess over when weighed against the sheer visceral nature of the work. That it achieved what two floors of art had failed to do--making me so angry and impassioned as to want to enact change upon leaving the building that day--only confirmed my worst suspicions. This year’s biennial is a far cry from the unmitigated success it’s been depicted as, with many artists happy to strike a political posture but very few taking a real stand, let alone empowering the audience do the same.
Seeing Steve has since become a bittersweet revelation as Hendrick's recently passed away (I'm actually working on an essay about him now!) But it was still a revelation in a day where so much art in a wide variety of mediums all managed to blur together in a political haze that never really let up. And I'm not judging the biennial on the fact that it didn't include Hendricks, though it would have been wise to, but rather that there were so few moments of poetics being tantamount to politics and in Hendricks' work, as well as Taylor and Schutz's, there was a true feeling of connection between myself and the work itself. If only I could have felt that way within the biennial itself.
Correction: An earlier version of this article mistakenly referred to the artist Cauleen Smith as a millennial, when she in fact was born in 1967. Additionally, while younger viewers, like myself, might ascribe certain pop cultural reference points to the hand-stitched banners that make up In The Wake, the artist was in fact drawing upon Catholic processional banners and Masonic heraldry.