Process and Politics: The Whitney Biennial 2014

Saul Anton

Reviews / 06.06.2014

Curating the Whitney Biennial has long been a thankless job. Documenta has all the weight of German Kunstgeschichte behind it, not to mention a sleepy five-year cycle that allows everyone to reset their expectations. The Venice Biennale offers Mediterranean breezes, bellinis and a concentrated dose of dolce vita. And newer megashows in Moscow, Gwangju or Dubai offer the frisson of exoticism – or at least the potential for novelty, its art world equivalent. By contrast, a trip to the Whitney has all the romance of a subway ride. It feels like you’re stepping into a family holiday dinner hoping that somehow this year things might just be different. Although the near-complete collapse over the past decade of an overarching critical agenda has somewhat mitigated the hostility that traditionally greets the Whitney Biennial, the problem now is that in the post-everything, oligarch-and-hedge-fund-money-fuelled bazaar of today’s international art market, there are as many versions of contemporary art as smart apps to help you buy airline tickets.

Installation view, ‘Whitney Biennial 2014’, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 7 March–25 May 2014. Photograph: Sheldan C. Collins. On plinths left to right: Sterling Ruby, Basin Theology/CRL-40.941 NOMAD, 2014; Sterling Ruby, Basin Theology/Butterfly Wreck, 2013; and Sterling Ruby, Basin Theology/The Pipe, 2013. On walls left to right: Laura Owens, Untitled, 2014; Jacqueline Humphries, 31/13, 2014; and Jacqueline Humphries, 41/14, 2014.

So how does a museum choose between them? On what basis can the Whitney make its selections without simply reproducing and reaffirming the market logic of the art fair? On the one hand, if biennials are meant to represent the present, not art history, they need neither historical nor critical rationales. If there’s said to be an overlap between the museum and the art fair, it only means – in financial parlance – that the art world has become far more ‘efficient’ than it used to be. The evolution of an artist’s practice from something at the edges of conventional paradigms into blue-chip material used to take a generation. Now it happens in one or two biennials. At the same time, the developmental arc of an artist’s work takes more than two years, thus making it hard to say what exactly is the ‘moment’ being surveyed in a biennial. This disconnect between the time of labour and the time of a career arc makes it hard to identify clear trends and important tendencies or attitudes. Even if we accept the inevitability of historical acceleration and the simple model of the survey show, the sheer quantity of art being made today at a range of cultural speeds and in different modes might be said to represent a specific ‘moment’ in itself – an exploded one moving in many different directions.

These questions, it seems, played a big part in the Whitney’s decision to choose three outside curators this year. Michelle Grabner, an artist and professor of art at the Art Institute of Chicago; Stuart Comer, Curator of Media Art and Performance at the Museum of Modern Art in New York; and Anthony Elms, an associate curator of the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia, each present a different show on each of the three floors of the Whitney Museum. One could add, perhaps cynically, that this strategy has the benefit of deflecting and managing the hysterical criticism typically levelled against the biennial. It’s harder to shoot three messengers than one.

But if there are snarky comments to be had, it’s not due to the curating. Grabner, Comer and Elms have produced a coherent and, in places, ambitious show that considers a number of tendencies both together and separately. Each floor explores a distinct set of concerns and, although there are over 103 participants, taken as one the biennial orchestrates a series of tightly-conceived thematic and critical moments, which keeps the overwhelming quantity of work and the multitude of approaches and agendas on view from collapsing into a cacophony of chatter – visual and otherwise.

At its best, the show succeeds in staging dialogue, conversation and competition. On the fourth floor, for instance, Grabner has organised a section of women abstract (or semi-abstract) painters, whose works whisper to, speak and yell at each other in the context of a floor devoted largely to art on the edges of traditional media and forms. These women – Suzanne McClelland, Jacqueline Humphries, Molly Zuckerman-Hartung, Louise Fishman, Dona Nelson, Amy Sillman and Laura Owens – are mostly established artists, but they are often not given the critical attention they deserve because they do not necessarily play to the latest trends. It was refreshing to have an opportunity to consider their work as a group, and the differences are illuminating. Humphries’s oversized canvasses have a certain reserve and a self-effacing anti-monumentalism. They are cool without being blithe. By contrast, Sillman (in collaboration with Pam Lins), Owens and McClelland are irreverent and casual. Nelson presented two relatively modest-sized grid paintings that were rigorous and intense, and which would have been illuminating to have seen hung across from the 36 black-and-white concoctions by Charlene von Heyl on view two floors below.

If I had to reduce Grabner’s floor to a single claim, it would be that process is an important and neglected aspect of contemporary art practice, both as a means and an end.

The floor also held work by a set of what can be seen as male counterparts, the painters David Diao and Dan Walsh, sculptors like Joel Otterson, Ricky Swallow and Tony Tasset, the ceramicist Sterling Ruby and the film-maker Morgan Fisher. Aside from Diao, who tends to explore the institutional conditions in which paintings and artists exist, these artists put process and craft at the centre of their work. If I had to reduce Grabner’s floor to a single claim, it would be that process is an important and neglected aspect of contemporary art practice, both as a means and an end. Such activity is ‘folded into the construction’, writes Catherine Wood, speaking about the paintings of Channa Horwitz in the show’s catalogue.1 The emphasis on process is fair enough, but one can also ask if process can or should become a new critical baseline that replaces the notion of medium-specificity, which served for so long as an anchor for avant-garde and contemporary theory. Ruby’s oversized glazed ceramic urns, Basin Theology/Butterfly Wreck and Basin Theology/The Pipe (both 2013), seem to embody this question. They are vessels filled with the carcasses of earlier works he considers failures – yet as lovely as the thought is of a Keatsian urn for artworks, they do not succeed in being more than object lessons. I’m not able to see in these the memory of early works, nor the paradoxes and contradictions around ideas of truth and beauty that characterise Keats’s reflection from his ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ (1819).

Indeed, it’s tempting in our over-wired condition to romanticise craft and process. They offer a modicum of control over one’s labour while we are being plugged into ever-larger agglomerations of data and media culture. Yet if our historical moment is one in which it is already possible to 3D-print human bladders and Brooklyn has emerged as a post-industrial landscape of micro-industries, ‘craft’ whiskies, pickles and beers, where on the spectrum of contemporary culture does process fall? On the one hand, the use of such processes re-inscribes practices that have been developed in the context of anti-aesthetic art into the broader culture. They align critical practice with the evolution of small-scale production, and thus with the development of what are, in effect, luxury craft products. One might see this as a de-proletarianisation of industrialised forms of production and the revalorisation of small-scale production. One recalls that Alexander Rodchenko became a graphic designer after producing his version of the ‘end of art’; that is, he embraced a vision of mass culture and production that stepped entirely outside the categories and concerns of painting and fine art as they have been defined. On the other hand, one can also see the focus on process as the abdication of the Modernist idea of aesthetic negativity, which Theodor W. Adorno, for example, saw as the condition of modern art, and which lay at the core of the insistence on medium as a limit-condition for critical practice. In this way it implies a rejection of what Yve-Alain Bois has called the ‘difficult task of mourning’, or a practice of painting that continues to problematise and operate through the ‘end of painting’.2 Similarly, critics such as Rosalind Krauss have long argued that critical art practice depends on a continued attention to the operative conditions and limitations of medium, since only through such a notion can art remain fundamentally material in its nature.3 Process, by contrast, claims that it is the labour in the studio that counts, not the ultimate product.

We have come to a point, it seems, where the old slogan that ‘everything is political’ has the paradoxical effect of depoliticising art in the aggregate.

Process is also present on the second and third floors, curated by Elms and Comer respectively, but it appears in terms of what happens on media platforms and via publication strategies and, to a lesser extent, in terms of issues of gender identity and sexuality. Language, printing, publication, bookmaking and other modes of dissemination – many of which formerly flew under the flag of Institutional Critique – here enter into the work and become a critical and reflexive examination of its boundaries. Thus, one comes across the small-scale visual letterpress poems of Susan Howe, Untitled (from Tom Tit Tot) (2013), Uri Aran’s text-image compositions and Lisa Anne Auerbach’s American Megazine (2014), an oversized facsimile of a mid-twentieth-century magazine, and a lot in between. Jimmie Durham’s Choose Any Three (1989) is a totem-like stand upon which he has written names from the history of liberation movements, such as Frantz Fanon and Bartolomé de las Casas, the sixteenth-century Bishop of Chiapas who fought for Native Americans against the Spanish and Portuguese. It greets visitors on the second floor and seems to announce the theme of Elms’s selection – only it’s not clear that it does. Elms’s floor includes artists who have spoken as and in the name of oppressed minorities – Gary Indiana and the late, great Allan Sekula, in particular. But the point seems somewhat peripheral to his section and re-emerges on other floors as a general sensibility more than a focused question. The accordion books, or leporellos, of the 88-year-old Lebanese artist Etel Adnan, which explore and recount the charged historical circumstances in which she has lived, are arguably emblematic of what is, more precisely, a kind of graphical parsing of the political unconscious. But there are many degrees of separation between this work and A.L. Steiner’s installation Cost-Benefit Analysis (2014), which centres on the artist’s body and the information it produces and feeds to image platforms, or, for that matter, Michel Auder’s Untitled (I Was Looking Back to See if You Were Looking Back at Me to See Me Looking Back at You) (2014), a three-channel video installation from his archive of video footage of everyday life. The broad lesson is that media and technology are at the centre of ‘reality’ as it is lived – that they mediate our and others’ perception of ourselves and structure real life at its most mundane – yet the ways in which Adnan or Auder gather, shape and process historical information have little in common, and a more sustained curatorial reflection on the distance that separates them would have been helpful. The somewhat indiscriminate presence of a myriad number of ‘social’ conditions – everything from the Lebanese Civil War in the 1970s and 80s to the politics of contemporary information society – had the unintended consequence of diluting and rendering almost illegible the sense and import of the specific histories and politics that were being invoked. We have come to a point, it seems, where the old slogan that ‘everything is political’ has the paradoxical effect of depoliticising art in the aggregate. There are too many hollow nods here to the notion that the meaning of all this work is ‘political’ without much reflection on the sense of the term or how, for that matter, art might be able to re-imagine and re-invent what we tend to understand as politics.

I was taken, however, by the skilful orchestration of process, text and theatricality in Universal Declaration of Infantile Anxiety Situations Reflected in the Creative Impulse (2013), a video work by the collective My Barbarian (Malik Gaines, Jade Gordon and Alexandro Segade), which was raucous and impious in a way that is diametrically opposed to Lucien Castaing-Taylor, Véréna Paravel and the Sensory Ethnography Lab’s compelling 87-minute documentary film about the US fishing industry, Leviathan (2012), which dispenses with traditional film form and wants you to see, feel and experience its subject as intensely as possible. Although they are quite different, they present a sharp disagreement about the possibilities of video art or the essay film that could have been more precisely delineated.

My Barbarian (Malik Gaines, Jade Gordon, and Alexandro Segade), Universal Declaration of Infantile Anxiety Situations Reflected in the Creative Impulse, 2013, video, colour, sound, 30min, still. Courtesy the artists and Susanne Vielmetter Projects, Los Angeles

Some choices, too, are not convincing. I’m not sure why David Foster Wallace’s notebooks for his last novel, The Pale King (2011), are included in Grabner’s selection. Is it because of Foster Wallace’s lists of character names and pencil doodles are examples of process that allow us to discover how it extends into published writing? Similarly, two floors down, we are treated to Sekula’s sketchbooks of doodles. While I can appreciate the curatorial interest in minor works, his completed investigations into photography, history and labour also have something to add to the conversation about process, and they might have been more compelling in themselves. The broad licence to attend to the most minute of minutiae that has emerged in the last decade under the banner of archival practices runs the danger of fuzzy thinking, and one needs to insist on the distinction between the archive and mere archaeology. The ‘archival impulse’ that Hal Foster identified a decade ago resists rather than makes common cause with the positivism of archaeology, which treats all things as valid evidence for the reconstruction of a historical time and place and uncritically valorises anything and everything as ‘data’. Instead, it reflects a far more melancholy ‘failed futuristic vision’– one that concerns not the past but the impossibility of deriving the future from it.4

Related to the letterpress aesthetic prominent on Comer’s third floor, in particular, is art-criticism-cum-art in Travis Jeppeson's 16 Sculptures (2014), in which Jeppeson ‘inserts’ his voice via headsets into canonical works such as Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty (1970), overlaying these works with recordings of his writing and enacting, he claims, a ‘subjective, embodied encounter with art objects’. As someone who has also explored the limits and potentialities of art writing, I’m sympathetic to Jeppeson’s conceit. But I’m not sure that phrases like the following, ironic or not, achieve his goals: ‘When we write the object (and here, the definitionality of what’s being said matters, for we are not channelling classical exchanges of phenomenological wankery) we transliterate the resonant hallway of psychology... ’.5 Less fussy and rather funnier is Jeff Gibson’s elevator installation Metapoetaestheticism (2014), which presented Google-sourced taxonomies of consumer items, from sunglasses to prime meats, overwritten in art-mag talk – with phrases like ‘bumptious timidity’, ‘popular abjection’ and ‘immaculate conceptualism’ on screens mounted in the elevators. Angie Keefer’s thoughtful essay on art and value, ‘Futures’, in the catalogue is truer to the notion of a subjective encounter with objects, and her video installation Fountain (2014), an animated waterfall of commodity index futures, succeeds in subjectivising its ‘object’ by actually making it an object.

Triple Canopy, Pointing Machines, 2014, Installation view, ‘Whitney Biennial 2014’, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 7 March–25 May 2014.

The question of publication comes into focus in the text-heavy panels recounting the history of small publishers such as Semiotext(e) and the Brooklyn-based online magazine Triple Canopy, in the section curated by Comer. I was happy to see Comer take up the role of ‘publication’ in contemporary art, but the wall of Semiotext(e) covers that greets visitors or Triple Canopy’s reproductions of a selection of de-accessioned works originally from the collection of an early Whitney donor – the Garbisch collection of American naïve art – did not do justice to the issue. The installations seemed flat, both tame and overly studious, and without knowing the history of what are, perhaps, far more obviously important magazines such as Artforum, Aspen, Arts Magazine and October, the specific role that Semiotext(e) and Triple Canopy play is both misrepresented and fails to come into relief. What is lost, to my mind, is a recognition that these publishers operate, in effect, as parallel museums (paramuseums?) that are at odds with the archaeological premise of the museum and the biennial. Such publications do not collect things or works. They interpret them out of time, without setting artworks into the service of the production of a cultural moment.

The value of the artwork and its role in the production of critical practice is also present in the distinct funereal streak that cuts through the show, though it feels more like a symptom than a clearly articulated thought. There is Julie Ault’s Afterlife: a constellation (2014), devoted to the work and lives of Martin Wong and David Wojnarowicz, who both died of AIDS. There is Joseph Grigely’s archive of material about Gregory Battcock, an art critic and writer who was murdered in 1980. There is also Richard Hawkins and Catherine Opie’s curatorial effort on behalf of the 1980s-era work of the late Tony Greene. (As well as Gretchen Bender, Horwitz, Foster Wallace, Sekula and Malachi Ritscher, who immolated himself to protest the Iraq War in 2006.) There is a valid desire here to recognise the contributions of artists who have not received their due. Yet Zoe Leonard’s transformation of a large room of the Marcel Breuer building into a camera obscura by using one of its signature windows to project an image of the outside world onto a long wall inside the museum – almost an act of burial – was somehow more compelling. By turning the museum itself into a camera, and thus into a technology of death, as Roland Barthes famously described photography, Leonard evokes the tomb-like quality of museums that institutions like the Whitney or the contemporary art museums springing up everywhere nowadays have rushed so far away from. Death has always been implicit to the museum as a cultural form – so I’m thankful to Leonard and the curators for recalling this dimension of it, for locating us in relation to the historicity of the museum as a form. Does the archive as an impulse point to a beyond of the museum, thus announcing its death at the moment when the Whitney is moving downtown? It certainly feels like there’s a lot of mourning going on here, so I would hazard that some of it is for the museum itself (in 2015 the Whitney will leave its current Upper East Side location to take residence in the West Village in a building by Renzo Piano). The fear, I suppose, is that this move will crystallise a shift in the position of art from ritual object in Breuer’s temple of high culture to merely one more element in the broad palette of lifestyle that Chelsea and the Meatpacking districts in New York have come to represent in 2014. Yet doesn’t the ideal of process ultimately point to precisely this valorisation of lifestyle – of style as an end in itself?

Zoe Leonard, 945 Madison Avenue, 2014. Installation view, ‘Whitney Biennial 2014’, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 7 March–25 May 2014. Photograph: Bill Jacobson Studio. Courtesy the artist, Galerie Gisela Capitain, Cologne; Murray Guy, New York; and Galleria Raffaella Cortese, Milan.

There are days when I think that contemporary art has adopted the genre system that governs that other large economy of spectacle, Hollywood. Just as the latter has Romantic comedies, suspense thrillers, teenage vampire musicals, etc., art has developed post-Minimalist neo-expressionist craft-obsessives, Warholian appropriation-ironists, gender-bending body artists, gay and straight media-orgasmatics, eco-tragedians, melancholy confessionalists and so many others who inhabit the spectrum of our post-medium condition. Certainly, one picture that you can take away from this biennial is that of an art world that has devolved into sectarianism. One might compare the present moment to the first and second centuries of the Christian era, when all sorts of sects, tribes and groups vied for public recognition in the vast arena that was the Roman Empire, in which case the defence of medium-specificity may well be much like the institution of the old-law synagogue. If the analogy – as far-fetched as it may seem – holds, we might have another century or two before there’s a Council of Nicea moment and the church establishes what is and isn’t heresy, or a Constantine moment, when a ruler decrees one of these sects the official religion of the land – which means, I suppose, that we should enjoy our pagan temples while we still can.

  1. Catherine Wood, ‘At the Still Point, There the Dance Is’, Whitney Biennial 2014 (exh. cat.), New York and New Haven: Whitney Museum of American Art and Yale University Press, 2014, p.85.

  2. Yve-Alain Bois, Painting as Model, Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1993, p.243.

  3. See Rosalind Krauss, A Voyage on the North Sea: Art in the Age of the Post-Medium Condition, London and New York: Thames and Hudson, 2000.

  4. Hal Foster, ‘An Archival Impulse’, October, No. 110, Fall 2004, pp.3-22.

  5. Travis Jeppeson, ‘The Object’, Whitney Biennial 2014, op. cit., p.91.