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This category contains the following articles
Between Myth and Reality - Victor Man's Existential Painting
"The Contemplative Art Experience no Longer Takes Place" - Olaf Nicolai on the Future of Biennials
MACHT KUNST - The Prizewinners - Hide and Seek: The Self-Portraits of Annina Lingens
An American Affair - A Visit to the 2014 Whitney Biennial
Let's talk: Dayanita Singh & Gerhard Steidl on the High Art of Making Books
Six Feet Under - Why does contemporary art love to spotlight Old Masters and forgotten outsiders?
"Optimism is part of a revolutionary mindset" - An Interview with Biennale of Sydney Curator Juliana Engberg
Rethinking the Language of Art - The Whitney Biennial 2014 beyond Discourse
The Man Who Invented Pop Art - London Celebrates Richard Hamilton
Dark Metamorphoses - Victor Man Is Artist of the Year 2014
MACHT KUNST - The Prizewinners - "Colors were never strong enough for me": A visit with Nicolas Fontaine
MACHT KUNST - The Prizewinners - Lena Ader: A Certain Strength

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An American Affair
A Visit to the 2014 Whitney Biennial


The idea was that everything should be different this year. Three curators were called upon to reform the New York Whitney Biennial. And to provide a fresh look at the contemporary American art scene. But is the legacy of the country’s most important art event too much of a burden? Jessica Loudis had a look around the show.


When the Whitney announced the line-up for the 2014 Biennial last fall, the selection was met with curiosity and tentative excitement. Unlike previous biennials, this one felt different—certainly stranger and possibly smarter, fragmented but inclusive, and more explicitly interdisciplinary. Absent were the stars of the international art circuit, and in their place was an eclectic collection of cult favorites, hometown heroes from Philadelphia and Chicago; and, in the form of monumental paintings by Amy Sillman, Donna Nelson, and Louise Fishman, elder stateswomen of the art world. And alongside the names one might expect to see on the walls of the Whitney, there were the more mysterious additions: what were writers David Foster Wallace and Gary Indiana doing in the show? Why was the Brooklyn-based editorial collective Triple Canopy invited to participate? And what about minimalist composer Charlemagne Palestine, or California publisher Semiotext(e)?

This year’s biennial (which, I should note, was sponsored in part by Deutsche Bank) is the first to be shared among three curators: Michelle Grabner, a professor at the Art Institute of Chicago; Stuart Comer, a curator of media and performance art at MoMA; and Anthony Elms, a curator at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia. The result is a show that feels unabashedly local—both geographically and in terms of each curator’s affinities and interests—while also engaged in a highly self-aware dialogue about the systems of production and distribution governing contemporary art. It is also the last biennial that will be held at the museum’s current location on 75th Street—next year, the Whitney will move into a new space in the Meatpacking District—and at the press preview, nostalgia about the Breuer building was running high.

Though each floor has a distinctly different feel—in broad strokes, Grabner’s fourth floor is the most thoughtful and visually striking; Comer’s third more dense and experimental; Elms’s second spacious and understated—all engage with different facets of the biennial’s perennial if somewhat exhausted concern: “What is contemporary art in the United States today?” In effect if not by design, the show offers a kaleidoscopic response, breaking the question down into its component parts. I began on the second floor, which introduced its ambitions via a note architect Marcel Breuer had scribbled during the construction of the Whitney: “What should a museum look like, a museum in Manhattan?” Breuer’s response, of course, was the Brutalist bastion for art, which, since its 1966 opening, has drawn comparisons to fortresses and ziggurats. (Personally, I’ve always thought of it as having an architectural overbite.) Conversely, the ethos of Elms’s floor seems to contradict the building’s imposing aesthetic by embracing genres that typically fall outside the purview of the museum—political archives and poems, independent film and performance. Ephemera and found materials such as Allan Sekula’s notebooks, documentation of Chicago jazz musician Malachi Ritscher, and Susan Howe’s collage poems are positioned alongside proper artworks by Cherokee-born sculptor Jimmie Durham and painter Elijah Burgher, making for a nebulous mix of art united more by individual talent and a spirit of provocation than a coherent curatorial framework. It was all perfectly fine, but if Elms’s preoccupation is not what a museum should look like but what it can do, stronger answers were on offer in the floors above.

Walking onto Stuart Comer’s floor—an orgiastic compendium of film, mixed-media, and sound installations, archival materials, and photography—feels like walking into the center of a heated conversation, one in which it takes a moment to get your bearings and in which you might have to duck at any given time. The works assembled reflect and comment on art’s distribution networks and linguistic dimensions—in other words, how meaning and messages are conveyed (or are able to be generated in the first place) as art migrates across technologies and through physical space. This is the floor that contains an homage to the radical press Semiotext(e)—fittingly, one of the first American publishers of Deleuze and Guattari—the precise, systemic grid-drawings of Channa Horwitz, and the paint-splattered video screens of Ken Okiishi. A number of the works on this floor, including Zachary Drucker and Rhys Ernst’s transfixing photographs of transitioning from male to female and female to male respectively, address LGBT issues; within the realm of film, Comer included Computer Chess, director Andrew Bujalski’s black and white homage to the analogue eighties and the early computer scene—a typical low-budget mumblecore production quickly filmed with lay actors and improvised dialogue. On the other hand, at least a dozen cameras were in use to film Leviathan, which  Lucien Castaing-Taylor made in collaboration with the Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab. Ravishing and visceral, the film documents the men working a fishing trawler off the coast of Massachusetts.The floor’s overall effect is chaotic but fascinating, one that, for better or worse, caters to the splintered, internet-mediated ways in which media is now consumed and transmitted.

Discussing the difficulty of putting together a show whose mandate is to reflect the state of American art, Michelle Grabner noted, “curating in the biennial is not fair. It can't be fair.” Fairness, of course, is not always a good thing, and it’s her floor that makes the strongest case for allowing the curators to interpret the biennial’s mission statement as subjectively as they see fit. In contrast to the lower floors’ preoccupations with questions of institutions and artistic production, Grabner is largely focused on the figure of the artist, or rather, as she writes, how “answers to the question of who is the artist, the author, or the maker are shifting and variable.” Grabner’s response is broad in its inclusion of painters, ceramicists, textile artists, photographers, and conceptual artists like Donelle Woolford, and her floor is arguably the most satisfying and aesthetically diverse. It is also home to one of the show’s standout works— Zoe Leonard’s lovely and haunting camera obscura of Madison Avenue, which occupies its own large room near the fourth-floor window. The piece, curated by Elms, is one of many that strayed from its home curator’s turf, but in its quiet, accumulative elegance, it feels well suited to the location.

Despite clear differences, points of convergence and conversation materialize between the curators, and universal concerns do emerge. One pronounced theme throughout the show is artists mediating other artists. Gaylen Gerber’s contribution, the largest work in the Biennial, consists of an innocuous gray backdrop upon which, over the next several months, he will present paintings by David Hammons, Sherrie Levine, and Trevor Shimizu. On the third floor, artists Richard Hawkins and Catherine Opie jointly curated a room dedicated to the paintings of artist Tony Greene, who died of AIDS in 2010. Also on that floor, Julie Ault selected several works by downtown New York artists David Wojnarowicz and Martin Wong. The spirit of paying tribute was also present in the number of artists honored by way of posthumous inclusion. Matt Hanner, Channa Horwitz, Sarah Charlesworth, Alan Sekula, and Robert Ashley, all of whom have died within the past several years, were curated into the show, as was David Foster Wallace, whose manuscript pages for his unfinished novel The Pale King are on display.

As I was preparing to leave, I remembered two works that I had forgotten to see—a wooden shack installed on the lower level by Puerto Rican artist Radames Figueroa, and a piece by French-born, New York-based artist Diego Leclery. Leclery’s contribution, which is very easy to miss, consists of him playing the video game Civilization V every day during museum hours for the duration of the Biennial. Seated behind a pillar outside the museum’s ground-level café, the artist, playing as China, was in the early stages of taking over the world when I sat down to talk to him. As he invaded Cologne, I asked him what he thought of one of the more sensationalist projects in the show, a darkly comic Bjarne Melgaard installation full of seventies-style silicon sex dolls, violent films, and plush male genitalia. “Contemporary art is torture,” Leclery remarked. “It’s just that little bit of mediation that makes it not insufferable.” It was -9 °C outside, and as we spoke, artists and colleagues from his former hometown of Chicago came by to say hello.

The problem with biennials is that they’re based on a losing proposition. Representing the state of art in a city, much less a country, is an impossible task, and the best one can hope for is an interpretation, an individual narrative, that captures why the question is worth caring about in the first place. I’m not sure what, if anything, the 2014 Whitney Biennial says about contemporary American art that we don’t already know, but the particular genius of this show is that the presence of three curators lessens the sense that a monolithic response is required. As such, this year’s Biennial is an imperfect reflection of the weirdness and diversity of the contemporary art scene, and that seems appropriate. It’s a uniquely American move—one I hope is repeated in the future.




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