Whitney Biennial

The problem with the art exhibited at this year’s Whitney Biennial is that the artists seem more concerned with exhibiting their knowledge of the technology behind their presentations than with the meaning, emotions or visual impressions left by their productions. This serves as a comment on the state of contemporary art, a movement which has run out of ideas and has always been short on visuals and emotions, much too given to cheap irony than to depthful images. The exhibition contains too many assemblages, either collages hanging on a wall, or as installations on the floor of the gallery. These always seem to me to betray a lack of imagination in that found junk is just glued together rather than arranged in a complex pattern so as to provide for aesthetic satisfaction. This is true of the work of Joe Minter and Daniel Lind-Ramer, and also of Troy Mitchie who provides the overly cute title “This Land Was Mexican Once” to his collection of junk. A title is not a substitute for art.


A preoccupation with the work of doing the art rather than with what the art conveys is also true of what might be considered the political art at the Biennial. A firm called “Forensic Architects” is billed as responsible for what is a documentary about the development of its highly digitalized cartoon presentation which treats of tear gas grenades without explaining exactly what is wrong with using them. There is no emotion in the film other than that supplied by songs by Richard Strauss which are used as accompaniment. High technology is also employed in a very elaborate animation of a film of players taking a knee at a National Football League game. Titled “National Anthem”, it hardly seems to justify treating this protest as a landmark occasion. Rather than addressing the public so as to mobilize them or at least to get them on your side, the political art is insular: it is talking to fellow artists about how cleverly it was done even if that removes any passion from the supposed political point of the art. That failure becomes humorous and ridiculous in a bit of video set in a rectangular box where a costumed animated woman looks up at you to declare her independence, but from what is never made clear. It is as if that is already known and so doesn’t have to be imagined, which means turned into images. Martine Syms has her protagonist angrily shout “Who’s trying to fuck me over?” and my answer is that I don’t know, even if the artist has charts that show people to be subject to something called “risk”. The artist has a lot of verbal anger against what might have been called “alienation” in a more ideological time, but here it has no clear cause. A very cheap claim on political relevance that is at least understandable is provided by a sequence of tabloid newspaper headlines that follow the course of the Central Park Five from the time of the rape to the claims of “wilding” to a view that the charges were rushed and ending with Donald Trump’s ad calling for the restoration of the death penalty. Well, the meaning that the boys were railroaded is clear but does a series of half blacked out newspaper pages qualify even minimally as art? This too is a failure to imagine freshly.

Some of the art with no political agenda at least deserves to be called art, even if not of any high quality. Ragen Moss hangs a set of torsos from the ceiling that are looked at at eye level. They are in a variety of shapes, some more like hanging meat, some more like amoeba. The shapes are translucent so that shapes interior to the outer skin can be seen. You come away with an awareness of the difference between the internal and the external, something like what you sense when you see a diagram of all the parts that go into a biological cell as those go about their business within the cell membrane. This is, however, an intellectual satisfaction, and a minor one at that, which has to be squeezed out of the observation of the collection of objects, all of them just hanging there without any pattern into which they all fit. Why not just one or two torsos? Does more make not too worthwhile art better? The same is true of “An Exercise in Tenderness”, where Jennifer Parker comes closest to offering the viewer a painting of a stretched out human. She offers a variety of colors and kinds of lines in her presentation of outstretched legs, and that is it. No rich emotional experience comes of this as a viewer, again, has to find something to comment on or experience rather than take in what is manifestly there.


And much of the art that is non-political is just as barren of artistic interest as the political art. Jeanette Mundt painted over composite photos that showed gymnasts in motion, that accomplished by using photos taken seconds apart. This is, obviously, a tribute to Eadweard Muybridge’s Nineteenth Century photos of running horses but adds nothing to it and so is simply a ripoff of an old idea. Curran Hatleberg takes photos of backroads somewhere where garbage and refuse seem to grow and in “Untitled (Camaro)” has a car whose front and rear rest on two steel piers with debris below the car. Is this a message about rural life today? Or the American worship of cars? There is no way to tell. All that is clear is that one wrecked car is like another. I hope artists drop that particular metaphor because it is so stale, so unfresh. Find new images to photograph.


As is often the case, at the old Whitney as well as the new, but not at the Met, where it is the art that engulfs your imagination, the best part of the experience of the Biennial was coming across the large window that allows you to look across the Hudson to the new buildings on the Jersey shore. Skyscrapers and water get you every time, especially when the art on display has been so unstimulating that you have to be on the edge of your senses to take any aesthetic pleasure from such pallid presentations. Artists, be ashamed of yourselves. I am waiting for this movement called contemporary art to end and something fresh to take its place, to make me see the world freshly or at least accurately. Just biding my time until the inevitable happens in some short order of time.

I do not have a good explanation for why contemporary art is of such poor quality. At least it has given up just using banks of television screens to present nonsense, which is what happened when contemporary art first came into favor in the Eighties and Nineties. Perhaps that much underappreciated early Twentieth Century literary critic George Woodbury was correct in thinking that some ages just have fewer geniuses than others. There were a lot of geniuses among the Impressionist painters and there were few in early nineteenth century England. Certainly, the answer is not that artists have not been able to master the technology that their age made available to them. Artist figured out how to use photography and film readily enough to create silent masterpieces and a great variety of both realistic and “artistic” photography. Artists like Rothko and Frankenthaler soon enough learned how to use acrylic paints to make the colors of their compositions particularly vivid. But not now. The paintings and other art works at the Biennial look pallid and forced, in no way bold, and that is the spirit of their art though that does not mean it is the spirit of their age, which is filled with both magnificent events, like the election of an elegant black man as President of the United States and also with horrible events, like the election of his successor. Art is a world of its own and has to be observed for its own sake, for what it accomplishes, for what emotions and thoughts it engenders, and at these tasks contemporary art fails.

The best I can say by way of explanation is that the artists of this era have accepted the parameters of this era in art. That means they find it easy and satisfying to carry out its conventions. They go for irony in that the emotion they foster is a sense of being aloof and critical, disparaging of convention, being slightly off base. Their ironies are also “cheap” in that just about anything constitutes an irony, a basis for distancing, which means that they prefer, are satisfied with, an irony when it is cheap. That certainly is the case with “National Anthem”, which poses a sporting event as a great historical moment but removes itself from it by rendering it as a cartoon, as if to say, “I know better than you that you are in the presence of a great event.” It is also true of the aforementioned “A Sense of Tenderness”” where we are supposed to get a sense of the art of portraiture by looking at a picture which is a very unfinished act of portraiture (rather than, as was the case with Picasso, a very different sense of portraiture). But it is also a failure of imagination in the artists rather than the failure of the age in that another picture of ruined cars is hardly a fresh impression, anymore than is the tendency of movies and television dramas to give us endless shots of cars going into and getting out of parking spaces, perhaps because the directors can’t think of how to fill out the movie with visuals. It is the artist and not just the age.