The highs and lows of attempting a sweeping recap of the latest in Contemporary art? It’s all in the attempt. And hopefully the Whitney Museum of Art will keep it up. 2013 feels so last year. If the Whitney Biennial is a snapshot of the art world, then the three-floor review may be an interesting way to reflect on the past twelve months. With a sweeping survey of contemporary art, what is most interesting is seeing the international attention to science and art collaborations.
By Larissa Zimberoff
The Whitney Biennial is not an exhibition dedicated to SciArt, but in holding a comprehensive survey of contemporary art, science rears its head through the cracks of many artists’ works. This year each floor was mapped out by a different curator, none of whom are affiliated with the Whitney: Stuart Comer, Anthony Elms and Michelle Grabner.
The best part of attending the opening cocktail reception Wednesday, March 5 was not the art—it was the fashion. Of course, for the first hour I saw nothing but coats. It was a chilly evening, one where waiting in line was a special form of torture for an art-enthusiast. The crowd was bundled up in long winter jackets, every one of them black, or very dark gray. When I made it in I dashed up the four flights of stairs, both to warm up and to get to the top of the exhibition to finally see some art.
The art competed for my attention with the pageantry of brightly hued guests. My eyes darted around, refusing to settle on any one thing, so I took it all in as one artful whirl of painting, woodwork, ceramics, prints and photography. Oh, and there was knitwear.
The three floors each had different peaks of interest. Here are a few of the SciArt highlights:
One of the more talked about installations was a vast room on the 4th floor devoted to a camera obscura created by artist Zoe Leonard. 945 Madison Avenue takes the Marcel Breuer designed building as inspiration and leaping off point. On one wall is a small hole that pulls in the outside world into an unlit museum room closed off on two sides by thick black curtains. The first time I saw the work the room was pitch black—or so it seemed. I jostled along with other attendees hoping for that moment of insight. I missed it. The second time I went in it was an overcast gray day, the outside world was pulled in, but it was still faint. It was the New York winter hanging on for dear life.
Another room installation by Triple Canopy connects the history of reproduction to the recent rise in 3D printing and our ability to create art from digital means. Titled Pointing Machine, it was an investigation into “how the meaning of artworks shifts as they are commissioned, made, collected, disowned, replicated, photographed, exhibited, and published.” The clearest example of this were the three versions of a colonial-era wash basin, the original, a reproduction and one output by a 3D printer.
The giant “fat lava” sculptures by Sterling Ruby pulled you in to their colorful mass. They looked like a hot mess, but one that you loved. The artist created the vessels and then filled them up with mistakes or failures. He then fused the pieces together and put them through a repeated process of re-firing and glazing.
Artist Channa Horwitz, spent her whole career working in a rule-based art form of her own making, called Sonakinatography that was built on a standardized grid (that of graph paper) and a system of notations based on the numbers 1 through 8, each assigned its own color. This rigid system allowed the artist to mark and express time, movement, and rhythm. Her hand-made creations are visually interesting, with numbers and colors that you want to unpack and discern, and in the end you wonder about the time involved, the pencils she used, the brand of graph paper. It is a form ideally suited to the past, where one had the focus and attention that had yet to be stunted by technology.
Public Collectors, founded in 2007 “to engage in collaborations with others who are dedicated to preserving the kind of cultural materials that museums and other institutions often disregard,” had a dense display. Their installation was the story of Malachi Ritscher, a music fan devoted to recording jazz and experimental music in the early 1990s. On display are suitcases, tape players, CDs and more detailing the lengths of this man’s passions. In addition to his passion for music he was a fervent opponent of the war in Iraq, eventually taking his life in Chicago in demonstration against the government. Far from traditional museum fare, the collection of Ritscher’s stuff told a fascinating story.
Sheila Hicks, who also found a way to use the Breuer building, cascaded coils of colored cord from the geometric cement ceiling. Peter Schuyff, whose pastime of grinding down pencils and dowels––without looking––as a form of meditation, became a colorful glass display case of carved monuments of time spent. The geometric paintings of Dan Walsh follow specific rules in their creation, but show hints of the element of handwork. The artist has said he is “trying to paint his way out of the grid.”
What eventually became clear to me was that the 2014 Whitney Biennial was far from a current view of SciArt or American art––or America––but more a broad sweep of the past hundred years, of vastly disparate artists each with a tiny selection on view as a placeholder for a life-spanning career. The comprehension of their art then became a sleight of understanding, or as a friend wrote in an email to me, “a lot of it was ‘inside baseball’ to me.” Me, I couldn't help but see the show as one big goodbye to the building.
The Whitney Biennial 2014 on view through May 25, 2014
Wednesday - Sunday, 11:00 a.m. - 6:00p.m.
945 Madison Avenue at 75th Street
About the Whitney:
The Whitney’s history of holding group exhibitions of American artists began in 1932. It was originally called the ‘Whitney Annual’. The first biennial wasn’t until 1973. Founded in 1930 by sculptor Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, the Whitney Museum has always been a home for American art. The first location was on West Eighth Street in Greenwich Village. When they outgrew that home they moved uptown, to West 54th Street, before settling down at their current home on Madison Avenue and 75th Street. Once again the museum is moving and in 2015 they will call the artful NYC neighborhood Chelsea home—meaning the Biennial on view is the very last one you’ll see in the building designed by Marcel Breuer and Hamilton Smith.