Torso a plain physical fact over unquivering genitals – the words are read out in a sharp, New Yorker-frenetic voice in the café at the Whitney Museum as the poet Ariane Reines gives a reading. Approximately 60-70 people have turned up to attend this reading event, arranged by Semiotext(e). The publishing house takes part in this year’s Whitney Biennial, which opened a few days ago in the Brutalist-style Breuer building on Madison Avenue in the Upper East Side of New York; this is the last time the biennial will be held there.
In 2015 the museum relocates to larger premises in a new building on the Hudson River, designed by Renzo Piano. And to anyone who has, like I have, recently visited MoMA on a happy-hour Friday with free admission – with the vast quantity of visitors almost running into the museum to queue by the museum’s crammed-to-overflowing escalators leaving the atmosphere close to that of a mall – the thought of Whitney’s plans to move may fill you with some trepidation. Fortunately the curators of this year’s biennial do not address the issue in their exhibitions, but as a visitor one cannot help but note, somewhat wistfully, how well-suited this sharp-edged building is to exhibitions – and to readings, too; the Brutalist interior formed the perfect setting, by turns hard and – perhaps due to the lighting – soft; an ideal backdrop for contemporary American poetry.
For many years the Whitney Biennial was curated by the museum’s in-house staff, but for the most recent instalments the museum has invited external curators to work collaboratively with a member of the museum staff. Thus, the fact that the three curators of the 2014 biennial – Michelle Grabner, Anthony Elms, and Stuart Comer – are all external constitutes yet another new departure for the biennial. They should not be regarded as co-curators, but as three independent curators offering up their own takes on a Whitney Biennial – one on each floor.
This has the effect of providing many different angles of approach to the question of what characterises contemporary American art. But it also means that the exhibition very notably dissolves itself as a structure because it is far from simple to pinpoint what the 2014 biennial is about, and strangely enough this almost cacophonic state of affairs makes the biennial seem far less curated than e.g. the Independent fair in Chelsea, which opened concurrently with Whitney and which might, with its approximately 40 specially selected galleries this year, be broadly described as a presentation of a familiar neo-formalist, possibly slightly European outlook on painting and sculpture with delicate threads pointing back to a tasteful, socially acceptable Modernism.
No such simple description can be applied to this year’s Whitney biennial. It is infused by a far more inconsistent, even incoherent curating that makes it rather more akin to a classic salon exhibition. You have to prod around the corners yourself to make your discoveries. Not just because this is in effect three group shows rolled into one, but also because none of the exhibitions seem particularly stringently curated – an impression that is only deepened by the fact that the biennial does not employ any instrumentalised exhibition architecture, nor a dominant visual identity of the kind suggesting that the curator’s most important meeting was the one held with the graphic designer. The combination of these elements cause the biennial to appear somewhat old-fashioned and eclectic, but perhaps this is also what makes it seem a little more “free”; it is founded on the terms set by art rather than by the biennial concept.
The most trendy section of the biennial – and the one displaying the fiercest attitude – is the exhibition staged by MoMA curator Stuart Comer on the 3rd floor of the museum. Here you will find Ken Okiishi’s abstract oil painting on a flatscreen where moving pictures (advertisements, TV series, political chat shows, or simply a bright screen-blue light) form a constantly shifting canvas underneath the rapidly applied brushstrokes. An utterly simple device that compresses, in a highly nonchalant manner, painting and moving images into a single aesthetic channel. This is also where Bjarne Melgaard presents his dystopian funhouse – a cacophonic meltdown of a total installation with seats allowing you to lounge amongst silicone sex dolls and “penis cushions” while watching video clips, projected onto the wall, of mass weddings, mass suicides, war scenes, and gorillas copulating; basically letting yourself be engulfed by an all-encompassing degeneration.
Or you can leave the Melgaard room and join two other visitors in putting on Ei Arakawa’s three-person sun hat while the artist takes your photo with his telephone. A happening so ephemeral and transparent that it borders on the silly, but it is probably more fun to have a picture of yourself actually wearing art on your head rather than to have the art behind you; as is the case in so many of the multitude of selfies snapped in front of the works presented at Whitney.
Comer’s exhibition also focuses on artists’ books and the production of texts. The online magazine Triple Canopy contributes an installation and a number of talks, and Lisa Anne Auerbach’s giant fanzine is “activated” at regular internationals. You will also find an entire micro-exhibition with books, pamphlets, vinyls, and other publications from Semiotext(e) – the groundbreaking publishing house founded in 1974 with the express objective of bringing French Structuralist theory to the USA.
Semiotext(e) remains a vibrant, relevant endeavour today; a claim that is borne out by the fact that the publishing house makes another contribution to the biennial: it has published 28 new pamphlets (by Chris Krauss, Mark von Schlegell, Ariana Reines, and other excellent names) available from the museum bookshop. A rather different kind of “art hat” to bring home for your head.
Several of the artists at Comer’s exhibitions have ties to some of the trend-setting and leading smaller galleries on the Lower East Side of New York; e.g. Reena Spaulings, Essex, and 47 Canal. And given that the show also features the legendary Julie Ault, Morgan Fischer, and similarly prominent figures, it contains numerous names that we recognise from a European context.
By comparison, the section curated by the Chicago-based artist and professor of painting Michelle Grabner has a far more “American” feel. It features a much greater number of artists from every region of the USA, and Grabner certainly has no ambition to pander only to the New York scene. She herself runs two different exhibition venues, Surburban in Oak Park, Illinois, and Poor Farm in Waupaca County, Wisconsin – far away from the great art metropolis.
At a biennial with a generally rather eclectic feel, Grabner’s exhibition may well represent the biennial’s most consistent and coherent curating effort. Her intentions are clearly felt in the largest room, which features huge paintings by e.g. Laura Owens, Amy Sillman, Molly Zuckerman-Hartung, and Jacqueline Humphries: female artists on a grand scale in every sense of the term. The works include conceptual painting, abstract painting, and painting about painting. Furthermore, a definite focus on “craft” permeates the entire exhibition – with Sterling Ruby’s three giant ceramic vats with “garbage parts” thrown higgledy-piggledy in (almost like a giant ashtray) and Sheila Hicks’ yard-thick, soft column made from brightly coloured yarn in acrylics, cotton, and silk, hanging down heavily from the ceiling. It almost borders on a hippie crafts aesthetic. But, as David Robbins – one of the artists featured at the biennial – put it during a conversation: “Stuart Comer’s is about sex, Michelle Grabner’s exhibition is sex.”
Even though it is certainly possible to regard the “arts-and-craft” perspective as conservative, it might also be perceived as an attempt at providing an answer to the task at hand (profiling American art in the here-and-now) by extending its scope and recreating the primordial scene, the one associated with art and creation. Sex or no sex. It is hard to tell who is actually having sex and who is faking it. Nevertheless, there’s quite an interesting way of talking about art here: whether a given artistic mode of expression is something or is merely about something? Prodigy or poseur? You can ponder that thought as you stand in the stairwell between the 3rd and 4th floors, between Stuart Comer and Michelle Grabner’s exhibitions, where Charlemagne Palestine’s wondrously peculiar sound installation (complete with the usual signature – a small gathering of teddy bears, stuffed toys, and colourful scarves placed on all loudspeakers) fills the space with the wheezy, breezy sound of an organ sputtering.
Palestine’s sound work was selected by the third curator of the biennial, Anthony Elms, who is an artist himself as well as a curator at the ICA at the University of Pennsylvania. This is the exhibition I have the greatest difficulty in getting a firm grip on, even though there are excellent works in there apart from Palestine’s – such as a video work by Michel Auder: with its grainy footage zooming in on the neighbour having sex, cooking, watching TV, taking selfies with their iPad it satisfies all our voyeuristic yearnings.
Insofar as anything can be said to unite the three exhibitions at this year’s biennial it might be an underlying faith in art and in the classic work of art; art capable of presenting itself without a great deal of curatorial mediation. This is to say that – apart from the introduction of publications and text production in Comer’s exhibition – the 2014 Whitney Biennial is not the place to dash to if you are searching for fully unfolded discursive art that challenges traditional work categories or institutional allegiances; there is no fodder here for study circles or research units. And now that I have seen a few Whitney Biennials it strikes me that things are actually often like that. Perhaps it is because the biennial as an institution and New York in itself – as art scene and art market – is infused with a kind of conservatism which means that you simply cannot – although this is never said out loud – disrupt or dissolve the form too much. There is a different set of rules here compared to e.g. the Berlin biennial, where it would be quite disappointing if that year’s curator did not try to break and subvert the institution along the way.
From a European perspective it is, for example, quite interesting to note that this exhibition, which purports to present American art today, only very sparingly addresses the kind of attitude-relativistic new formalism (display art, post-Internet, etc.) that we see quite a bit of on the young European art scene. The kind of art that incorporates all the things that the classic art world – as exemplified here by Whitney and the Independent fair – would not touch with a bargepole; i.e. visual culture that is an imprint of all the things that whiff of consumption, apps, Facebook, Ikea squalor, etc., and which can currently be seen given free rein in New York in DISown, the new shop opened by DISmagazine. The opening itself – a festive affair – was held on the day after the biennial vernissage (presented in perfectly natural and completely unproblematic co-operation with Red Bull Studios, of course).
On the other hand there is also something refreshing and liberating about a biennial that does not simply chase the new (even if Stuart Comer does this to a certain degree) or woos the Chelsea galleries without conscious thought. And at a point in time where the roles of the city’s museums and commercial galleries are, if not reversed, then certainly displaced – some of the largest galleries have recently presented several curated exhibitions with a museum-like quality; examples include the former MoCA director Paul Schimmel’s much-praised historical exhibition on American art from 1950-80 at Hauser & Wirth, as well as the gallery David Zwirner, which celebrated the centenary of the birth of Ad Reinhardt with a large-scale exhibition of the artist’s oeuvre curated by Robert Storr – it may make perfect sense that this year’s Whitney Biennial seems to be the least instrumentalised biennial seen for many years.
The fact that two of the curators are practicing artists themselves also facilitates our understanding of this year’s biennial. For Grabner, Comer, and Elms’ biennial is a return to the earliest history of Whitney – to the annual exhibitions held from 1918 onwards at the Whitney Studio Club, the precursor of the present-day museum. Their underlying democratic principles, focusing particularly on the artists, also infused the first Whitney biennial in 1932 and would continue to do so for many years ahead. As stated in the catalogue foreword, the museum strove to downplay the part played by the organiser or curator for an unusually long time, precisely due to a strong tradition for keeping the organiser invisible in order for the art itself to be visible. This last Whitney biennial to be held in the Brutalist granite box on Madison Avenue shares something of that quality. It is a return to the idea of “the annual exhibition” – a return to the salon.