Scattered Threads

Scattered Threads

This year’s Whitney Biennial fails to address the question of which art pertains to our time rather than any other.


In 1932 New York Times art critic Edward Alden Jewell greeted with enthusiasm the Whitney Museum’s plan to mount a biennial exhibition of American painting; a show of sculpture, drawings, watercolors and prints would then run in the alternate years. "In the course of a typical New York season the galleries and museums place on view quantities of American art and one is always enabled to study the work of individual artists in considerable detail," he conceded. "But the value of comprehensive group displays hardly needs emphasizing. By such means scattered threads are woven into a single strand and a broad survey of the field becomes possible." Back then the exhibitions were not curated in the current sense of the word. Once invited, each artist was free to choose what work to present. The Whitney’s founding director, Juliana Force, put it clearly: "We send out our invitations and each artist may wear what he pleases to our party."

These days the quantity of art on view in New York is so great that only professional obligation or genuine obsession–or, more likely, both at once–could compel anyone to delve "in considerable detail" into more than a small swatch of the proffered efforts. What’s more, the art world is so internationalized that there are significant American artists who, for one reason or another, are exhibited more often abroad than at home. An overview is therefore even more necessary now than it was in the days of Force and Jewell, but it’s all the harder to come by. Every friend I met in the days after my visit to this year’s Biennial, which was curated by Francesco Bonami and Gary Carrion-Murayari and will run through May 30, had more or less the same question: what does it say about the situation of art today?

Good question–and just the one Bonami and Carrion-Murayari raise by titling the exhibition not thematically but simply with the year "2010." Yet there is more than one way to look at a question like that. One might assume it means, What’s in? What’s out? What’s hot? What’s not? That’s to have an eye trained on fashions in art–and don’t turn up your nose at it, if only because the reactionary’s favorite pose is to pretend that everything new or unfamiliar in art is passing fashion or an old idea recycled. In the art of our time we seek a reflection of the time, and it’s always passing. Baudelaire admonished that beauty contains a transient element as well as an eternal one. He imagined, for instance, a sequence of historical fashion plates, "from the origins of France to the present day," with the clothes of each era juxtaposed with "the philosophic thought which that age was mainly preoccupied with or worried by, a thought which the illustration inevitably reflects." This curious notion of a seductive image accompanied by a deep and possibly anxious thought is more tellingly allied to art than costume.

We expect that thought to be anxious even more than we expect it to be deep–anxiety is always in fashion–or rather, we can’t help thinking that a thought that’s not anxious isn’t deep. That’s why it’s so dismaying to read, on the first page of the curators’ introduction to the Biennial’s catalog, that "with the election of Barack Obama, the clouds broke and the rain of renewal poured over the entire country." Hokey metaphors aside–and hokey metaphors abound in this text–one fears that the curators are about to tell us not only that the forty-fourth president has been sent by Providence to save the nation but that his secondary mission is to rain renewingly on art until it has become washed-out and boring. Luckily, all is not well. Bonami and Carrion-Murayari are pleased to announce in their catalog that "the image of the body that 2010 presents is one that is shaped by physical, spiritual, or social violence. The individuals depicted…bear the scars of war, discrimination, and hatred."

But if this is so, the question remains, What’s new about that? What is there in this Biennial that pertains to our time and no other? War, discrimination and hatred, unfortunately, seem eternal, not transient. Perhaps what is most symptomatic of the moment is not any of the particular works included in "2010" (I will humor the curators by following their lead in referring to the exhibition and the year as if they were nearly identical) but in their seemingly random juxtaposition. One of the things I liked best about this Biennial is that it includes fewer artists than its most recent predecessors and therefore allots more space to each one. But this has also led to the artists’ works being presented in a way that is more self-contained, and so a grouping with scant coherence ends up seeming even more disjointed than it might have otherwise.

As a result, there appears to be an unbridgeable gap between what the curators call the "personal modernism" of abstract artists like Lesley Vance, Roland Flexner and Tauba Auerbach and the hot-button topicality of documentary photographers Nina Berman and Stephanie Sinclair. These represent the show’s two poles, though most artists fall somewhere in between. Sinclair’s images of Afghan women who had set themselves on fire in response to abuse from husbands and families are documents in the purest sense, repulsing any aesthetic or contemplative gaze whatsoever. I thought of a Goya print from his "Disasters of War" series–the one showing a massacre, which he captioned, "This is not to be looked at." The difference is that Goya’s image is one you are drawn to look at; the disconnect between the painfulness of its subject and the finesse of its representation, the emotional dichotomy between the injunction to avert one’s eyes and the desire to look, is contained within the work itself. The photographs from Sinclair’s series "Self-Immolation: A Cry for Help" (2003-05) perhaps issue the contrary demand: you must not refuse to look at this. But unless you have sufficient medical training to have been desensitized to scenes of horror, these images are very difficult to look at. That they exist, one feels, is important, but in the way that a piece of evidence is important. "In response to the widespread attention these images received," the catalog explains, "a new burn unit was created in Herat, Afghanistan." Photographs are unlikely to alleviate a desperation so acute that the only available protest is to attempt a spectacular form of suicide, but it’s encouraging to learn that at least they can provoke an effort to succor the survivors. Sinclair’s work points to the limits of art and intends to act beyond them.

Displayed in a museum, such images drain power from the works surrounding them; everything else seems trivial in the face of such profound suffering. Works like Vance’s intimate, contemplative paintings, hanging not far away, might appear escapist by comparison. In the catalog, Vance is quoted describing her paintings as a continuation of the tradition of still-life painting, but in such a way that they "part with their spatial and physical references and form a more malleable, even intuitive space, a tactile yet totally fictitious abstraction." The paintings are not only beautiful; they possess an ontological weight that lends credence to her ambition that they be worthy of considering in relation to the great tradition of European painting. One might even say that in their own way, and if only through their distant echoes of that tradition, they concern themselves with mortality. What’s so refreshing about these works is their insistence that ambition in art is not a matter of grand scale, extravagant imagery or epic subject matter–that art can also be next to nothing.

But how can we give our time and attention to works that focus on formal and philosophical issues arising from our experience with artificially cultivated perceptual conundrums when, as images like Sinclair’s remind us, people are dying–or living lives that they find more unbearable than the most painful death? Such a question has any number of cogent answers, but it’s not easy to call them to mind while in the vicinity of imagery so disturbing. My argument is not with Sinclair’s commitment to document realities that most of us find hard to face even in pictures, let alone in person. Rather, it is with the curators’ inability to articulate their exhibition in a way that establishes a dialectic between the aesthetic and topical aspects of contemporary art. The threads Jewell spoke of in 1932 remain scattered.

Needless to say, most of the art in this year’s Biennial is neither entirely abstract and introspective nor purely documentary in nature. The self-reflective thinking characteristic of Vance’s art is shared by very different kinds of work, some of it overtly political. I was particularly impressed by R.H. Quaytman’s Distracting Distance, Chapter 16 (2010), a cycle of paintings conceived in response to the architecture of the room in which they were exhibited as well as to an Edward Hopper painting in the Whitney’s collection, depicting a nude woman standing, a cigarette in her hand, in a sunlit bedroom. Combining abstract patterning with silkscreened photographic imagery, Quaytman offers a witty, disenchanted yet subtly sensual meditation on art’s dependence on and conflict with its institutions. And besides, these days there’s something pleasingly subversive about a picture of someone smoking in a museum.

One of the most memorable pieces in the show is Parole (2010), a video installation by Sharon Hayes. I could say it concerns a woman sound recordist at work in somewhat the same way I could say that Ulysses is about a guy wandering around Dublin. On multiple screens inside a jerry-built enclosure, we see Hayes’s silent and rather butch redheaded protagonist in various situations. She is apparently pure witness, someone who records the voices of others without needing to make her own voice heard. Still, she makes her presence felt: in Parole‘s most striking scene, we see her recording someone of ambiguous gender reading a stirring manifesto on lesbian rights, which becomes even more extraordinary when one realizes that it was written by the German activist Anna Rüling in 1904. The scene is shot mostly in close-up; the recordist is holding her microphone up to the speaker’s face, and because the distance between the people and the circling camera is so short, their heads seem to eclipse each other. This dance of proclaiming and recording is both aggressive and erotic. I couldn’t help thinking of the climactic scene of Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (1966), in which the two female protagonists, one of them silent, seem to exchange identities as the camera closes in on them. In Parole it’s not personal identity that’s at stake, not even in the highly metaphysical sense in which Persona entertains the notion. Hayes is more concerned with questions of address: who is saying what to whom, and who hears it. Her piece may not be entirely coherent, but its abundant passion and intelligence are exhilarating.

If you’re looking for portents of the present in contemporary art, it’s possible you should look less to art itself than to its relation to the market. A major barrier between commercial and theoretically noncommercial sides of the art world was broken in January, when art dealer Jeffrey Deitch was appointed director of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. While it’s always been possible for people from the museum world to bail out and go for bigger bucks in the private sector, the reverse move has been shunned until now. (Retired generals can go to work for defense contractors, but one doesn’t appoint an executive from Northrop Grumman to the Joint Chiefs of Staff.) Now the net that holds artists, dealers, collectors and ostensibly educational and charitable nonprofit institutions has been drawn much tighter than ever before.

Deitch, a onetime art critic who got himself an MBA and went into business, was much on my mind as I visited the New Museum in New York City recently. It struck me that you don’t have to be a director to leave your mark on an institution; in fact, you needn’t ever have been employed there. Deitch’s fingerprints are all over the New Museum, thanks to the exhibition "Skin Fruit: Selections From the Dakis Joannou Collection," curated by Jeff Koons and on view there through June 6. Deitch was for many years an adviser to the Greek collector and New Museum trustee; it was he who first showed Koons’s work to Joannou, in 1985. For Joannou’s Deste Foundation, Deitch curated some exhibitions that reverberated far beyond Athens, notably "Cultural Geometry" (1988), "Artificial Nature" (1990) and "Post Human" (1992-93). Deitch’s vision has always been imbued with a disconcertingly cheerful dystopianism. "An artist can still pack a portable easel and hike into the mountains to sketch a small section of wilderness," he wrote in an essay for "Artificial Nature" that is reprinted in the "Skin Fruit" catalog, "but a truly contemporary artist might be better advised to seek truth in nature in a strip mine or in the visitors’ center of a game preserve. To immerse oneself in nature today is to uncover layers of chaotic exploitation and man-made ‘improvements.’ Genuine nature may now be more artificial than natural."

Like Deitch’s appointment as director of LA MoCA, "Skin Fruit" incited an uproar the moment the exhibition was announced, and in some circles it was decried as a betrayal. In its first incarnation, under the direction of its founder, Marcia Tucker, the New Museum’s countercultural bent was patent. She had been a curator at the Whitney, but the exhibitions she organized proved uncomfortably radical for the museum’s trustees and for critics like the Times‘s Hilton Kramer, so in 1977, she was cut adrift. Why not start an institution as experimental as the art it’s meant to show? As Roberta Smith put it in an obituary for Tucker, the New Museum under her leadership was "a somewhat chaotic, idealistic place where the nature of art was always in question, exhibitions were a form of consciousness raising and mistakes were inevitable. She also wanted the museum to welcome art that was excluded elsewhere because it was difficult, out of fashion, unsalable or made by artists who were not white or male or straight." For those who treasured that New Museum, giving the building over to a private collection without even entrusting the selection from it to one of the museum’s own curators was the last straw. The museum, they figured, had completely sold out to the market. But if that’s true, it’s merely the culmination of a much longer process; after all, one floor of the museum is already named for Joannou.

The counterargument to these claims would be that so much has changed since 1977 that the old distinctions no longer hold. Today, almost everything is salable, and collectors seek out difficult art with relish. Take Tino Sehgal, whose work seems intentionally designed to frustrate market demands: it consists of actions to be performed but without any documentation or written instructions. His exhibition at the Guggenheim earlier this year was one of the best I’ve seen in a long while, a poignant meditation on progress, time and aging, which used the visitor’s stroll up the museum’s spiral as its underlying metaphor. His piece for the New Museum is simpler: one of the museum guards sings, "This is propaganda." That’s about it. I’ll be interested to see what price that might eventually fetch at auction.

In any case, wouldn’t you rather see an exhibition curated by an artist like Koons–whose work has, at least at times, been genuinely significant–than one organized by a professional curator? No one has ever installed works of art in this unsympathetic space with as much clarity and elegance as Koons. But how is his judgment as a selector of works? That’s hard to answer without having seen the rest of the collection. I was a little taken aback to notice that while Chris Ofili, one of my favorite painters, has four pieces here, they are not among his best; one was probably the weakest Ofili painting I’ve seen. True, Ofili has a retrospective on display in London right now, and it includes much stronger paintings from Joannou’s holdings. But this raises the question of whether a big collection is necessarily a great one. Wouldn’t Joannou’s Ofili collection be stronger if it were smaller but more rigorously selected? Undoubtedly, but then he might find it more useful to be known as a "big" collector than a fastidious one.

As for the idea that today’s collectors and the institutions made in their image no longer shy away from difficult art, there’s some support for that in "Skin Fruit." Half of the works on view could have cost a curator her job in 1977. Indeed, like a number of other prominent collectors of contemporary art–Charles Saatchi and François Pinault come to mind–Joannou could be accused of nursing a taste for sensationalism, as evinced, for instance, by works from Ashley Bickerton, Paul McCarthy and the team of Tim Noble and Sue Webster, among others.

There’s clearly a love of grandiosity at work in "Skin Fruit," a fascination with overweening scale and visual ostentation as signs of artistic importance. Needless to say, that’s a pretty lame criterion, but the catalog writers seem to have struggled bravely to present the collection as having a core philosophy, one with "an obvious connection to the humanistic tradition of classical Greek culture," no less. They invoke "new images of man" to describe the collection’s subject, evoking a much-criticized 1959 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art that proposed figurative expressionism as an antidote to abstraction. There were some great artists in that show–Bacon, Dubuffet, Giacometti–but will Joannou’s new new-imagists turn out to be as important, or are they more likely to slip from view, along with the likes of Kenneth Armitage, Rico Lebrun and Germaine Richier? More the latter, I’m afraid.

Even so, there’s a great deal of interesting work on view here; I’m always happy to see anything by David Altmejd, Nathalie Djurberg, Kara Walker or Gillian Wearing. And it’s work that clearly aligns with the program the New Museum has been pursuing all along. Urs Fischer, prominently featured in "Skin Fruit," recently had a solo show at the New Museum, and most of the pieces on view would have slotted comfortably into previous group shows like "Unmonumental" and "Younger Than Jesus." It’s hard to claim that the museum has compromised any principles by accommodating Joannou’s holdings, but that’s precisely the problem: it is no longer easy to see how there is any substantive difference between the interests of the art market and those of the art museum, and so efforts to maintain a hands-off relationship between the two seem increasingly artificial.

Yet just as much as art needs the market to survive in a market-driven society, it needs its distance from the market if its survival is to count for anything. In the end "Skin Fruit" is another nondescript group show of fashionable art. There was no strong reason to mount it but no strong reason not to do so either. It’s business as usual, and I only wish I could feel that art as usual did not make such an easy fit with it.


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