It wouldn’t be a Whitney Biennial without some sort of controversy, and this year, a furor erupted even before the show opened. The problem? One Warren Kanders, vice chairman of the museum’s board of trustees. He’s also the CEO of a concern called Safariland, whose subsidiaries include manufacturers of tear-gas canisters and bullets that have been used by ICE on the Mexican border and by the Israeli military in Gaza. These unsavory dealings have sparked protests led by the organization Decolonize This Place, which is demanding that Kanders be removed from the Whitney’s leadership—calls that, so far, have gone unheeded and that are blunted, in any case, by the Biennial’s inclusion of a documentary video exposing Safariland by the group Forensic Architecture. Kanders has yet to utter a peep about the film (perhaps because it doesn’t dig into his role at the museum), which is in keeping with the kind of intellectual jiu-jitsu typically employed by corporate capitalism to defang cultural dissent: not by censoring it, but by giving it a platform.
The rest of the Biennial follows suit. The roster is heavily freighted toward artists of color, so issues of race and gender take center stage. You wouldn’t know it, though, given how bland the exhibit is. You might even call it, to borrow a phrase, “low energy.” Speaking of which, Trump’s presence is barely registered here. True, a few pieces address the elephant in the room: Alexandra Bell’s enlarged and redacted pages from the New York Daily News take us back to 1989’s Central Park Five case, when Trump’s notorious full-page ad demanded the death penalty for the quintet of African-American teens who were later wrongfully convicted of raping a white female jogger. Marcus Fischer’s repurposed reel-to-reel tape recorder plays audio of his fellow artists sharing their Trump-induced anxieties. Neither effort elicits more than a shrug, though Josh Kline lands a somewhat harder punch with a series of photos (of Old Glory, the U.S. Capitol, Twitter’s headquarters, etc.) sealed inside box frames. Each contains a recirculating water pump that sprays the image, making it appear as if it’s weeping or drowning.
Not that an all-out Trump-bashing fest would have been anything other than an excruciatingly awful idea, but it would have at least risked evincing a pulse. And that’s more than can be said for the many works here that extol otherness at the expense of visual engagement.
Still, with 75 artists on hand, the show is bound to contain some standouts—and there are several. Self-taught sculptor Joe Minter presents a rambling installation of cast-off materials titled ’63 Foot Soldiers, which evokes the events of the civil rights movement’s pivotal year. Marlon Mullen, another self-taught artist, who’s also autistic, offers unalloyed delight in his brightly colored, impastoed canvases reprising art-magazine covers. And Diane Simpson assembles planar forms, based on dress patterns, into elegant objects that merge Art Deco with samurai aesthetics.
But the best work by far is Nicole Eisenman’s monumental sculptural tableau, Procession, which is rendered in her familiar cartoonish-Expressionistic style. Mounted on the Whitney’s sixth-floor outdoor patio, the piece features a parade of the downtrodden, including a Promethean (or Sisyphean?) giant in black who pulls a cart with square tires that bears a figure on all fours. The latter emits smoke from its ass at regular intervals and wears NY Giants socks, but these aren’t necessarily the oddest details in an ensemble that includes a live video of a Whitney exhibit on another floor, that’s overlapped with thermal imagery, as well as other weird characters lashed to equally strange cargo—including representations of modern sculptures riding atop shipping crates.
I take the work as Eisenman’s comment on the general suckiness of art today, a condition which you can lay at the feet of people like Kanders (and the rest of the .01 percent) who’ve muffled contemporary culture in a blanket of vanity. They’ve been ably abetted by institutions like the Whitney, and while blood money underwriting patronage is nothing new, its knowing acceptance by a democratic society is. However skeptically, I’m rooting for the likes of Decolonize This Place because, ultimately, you can’t have a better Biennial until you have a better world.
|Venue name:||Whitney Museum of American Art|
99 Gansevoort St
|Cross street:||between Tenth Ave and Washington St|
|Opening hours:||Mon, Wed, Sun 10:30am–6pm; Thu–Sat 10:30am–10pm|
|Transport:||Subway: L to Eighth Ave (14th St); A, C, E to 14th St (Eighth Ave)|
You can tell that this review of the Biennial which Time Out assigned was written by a white man.
Alexandra Bell's work apparently isn't more than a "shrug" to him?? That kind of response is indicative of his experience as a white man in this country - particularly in the times we are living in.
The Biennial this year is phenomenal. And frankly the piece that this reviewer praises so much really isn't the star of the show.
Be sure to give time to take in the area on floor 5 with Simone Leigh's sculptures.