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Past, Present, Futurism | The Nation

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Past, Present, Futurism

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Interventionist Demonstration, 1914, by Carlo Carrà

Interventionist Demonstration (Manifestazione Interventista), 1914, by Carlo Carrà

This year, the selection of artists for the Biennial has been entrusted to three people, none of them Whitney employees. Anthony Elms is a curator at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia; Stuart Comer has recently arrived as chief curator of media and performance art at MoMA after having worked for many years at the Tate Modern in London; and Michelle Grabner is a Chicago-based artist and critic who (with her husband, Brad Killam) runs two exhibition spaces, the Suburban (originally the garage behind their home in Oak Park) and the Poor Farm in rural Wisconsin. The three curators did not work together as a committee; each has his or her own floor. What’s strange is how nearly interchangeable the artists seem from floor to floor. Yes, Elms’s second floor seems a little more political, Comer’s third floor is a bit more evocative of queer identity, and Grabner’s fourth floor is heavier on women abstract painters; but even a significant amount of reshuffling might have left the floors feeling substantially the same. It’s as though each curator felt compelled to act as a committee of one and accommodate as much of the contemporary art spectrum as he or she could. I understand the impulse, but it blunts the point of having three curators work independently. It might have made for a more challenging (and more productively divisive) exhibition if each of the three had chosen to examine in depth just a handful of distinct tendencies in the contemporary scene, or even to focus on a single one exclusively. For instance, I’d love to have seen a whole floor of Grabner’s choice of women abstractionists (and quasi-abstractionists), all by themselves and with a lot more space for their work to breathe in—and, above all, with a lot more work from each artist. I’m crazy about Dona Nelson’s two-sided free-standing paintings and would have liked to see more than just a pair of them. And why only one work apiece from Molly Zuckerman-Hartung and Suzanne McClelland, two painters who embed language in their abstractions; why not show the breadth of their recent work instead? And I’d have the same question about quite a few of the other artists.

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Whatever my misgivings about the structure of this year’s Biennial, it features a lot more good and substantial work than it did two years ago, in a show that was wildly overrated by many critics. Maybe one reason for the frantic praise was that show’s sparse installation; with the work of many fewer artists on view than this time around, when there are no less than 103, one could fully grasp what was there and focus on it more clearly. But just as was the case two years ago, I can’t get over the feeling of an art world becalmed, and not only at the Whitney—other big exhibitions, such as the 2012 Documenta, gave the same sensation of art at a standstill. But as Boccioni’s bottle reminds us, stasis also has its hidden inner movements and tensions. There’s some powerful work being made these days, and a good bit of it is here at the Whitney; but as an ensemble, it seems smaller than the sum of its parts.

The Futurists believed themselves to be riding and even somehow pushing forward a wave of progress that was bigger than they were as individuals; three decades later, as Europe was tearing itself to bits, Benjamin feared that “what we call progress” was instead an endless catastrophe. Today, we have our own reasons for thinking the same. Artists are searching for clues in the recent past, trying to imagine how to proceed in the absence of a common project based on faith in progress. Without that, museums can seem more than ever what Marinetti proclaimed they were: “public dormitories where one lies forever beside hated or unknown beings…absurd abattoirs of painters and sculptors ferociously slaughtering each other with color-blows and line-blows, the length of the fought-over walls.” (Benjamin called this “historicism’s bordello.”) Yet one day, all these beautiful sleepers may awake. Certain works here are somehow more compelling than the context from which they emerged—and in which they have been buried in turn. Who will light the fuse thanks to which they will be blasted, as Benjamin hoped, “out of the homogenous course of history”?

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