Photo Essays

Whitney Biennial 2014: Michelle Grabner on the Fourth Floor

by Hrag Vartanian on March 4, 2014

The entrance to the fourth floor of the Whitney Biennial, which was curated by Michelle Grabner. (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic unless otherwise noted)

The entrance to the fourth floor of the Whitney Biennial, which was curated by Michelle Grabner. (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic unless otherwise noted)

During the opening remarks for the 2014 Whitney Biennial, Whitney Chief Curator Donna de Salvo said that this year’s exhibition was “one biennial with three distinct points of view,” so we’ve decided to explore that diversity in perspectives with three separate photo essays of the Biennial — one per floor and curator.

Whitney Museum Director Adam Weinberg addressing the media during today's press conference. (photo by Mostafa Heddays/Hyperallergic)

Whitney Museum Director Adam Weinberg addressing the media during today’s press conference. (photo by Mostafa Heddays/Hyperallergic)

Today, we start with Michelle Grabner’s display on the fourth floor, which was the most tightly curated and coherent of the three.

While Grabner’s introductory wall text was a little off-putting — she “considered the job of organizing the Biennial as being more ‘curriculum building’ than curating,” whatever that means — her selections were attractive, conceptually interesting, and fearless in its integration of porcelain, ceramic, and more painting than we’ve been accustomed to seeing at recent Whitney Biennials.

Detail of Alma Allen, "Untitled" (2013), walnut on aluminum base

Detail of Alma Allen, “Untitled” (2013), walnut on aluminum base

If Grabner’s decision to include rather lackluster notebooks of author David Foster Wallace seemed odd, her general exploration of who is an artist nowadays was quite fascinating. Do Wallace’s scribblings offer us a largely ignored visual dimension to his writings or are they simply the relics of his literary output?

When Philip Vanderhyden re-creates Gretchen Bender’s “People in Pain,” which was originally made in 1988, should we see the result as a collaboration or an homage by one towards the other? And what about Donelle Woolford’s riff on Richard Prince’s Joke paintings? Woolford’s versions highlight the social history of jokes by emphasizing the fact they’re transformed by each teller in a simple gesture of cultural appropriation. The joke is further complicated by the fact that Woolford herself is a fictional character made up by Joe Scanlan, a riff on the idea of the artist itself.

Grabner’s selections also take a serious look at abstract painting by women artists, who compete in the traditionally male-dominated world of American abstract painting by marking their territory through paint. I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen such a boisterous conversation between contemporary female painters in a major museum. Works by Amy Sillman, Louise Fishman, Jacqueline Humphries, and Molly Zuckerman-Hartung, to name a few, are central to this artistic dialogue.

The most haunting work on the fourth floor was Zoe Leonard’s room-sized camera obscura (it was the only work on the floor curated by Anthony Elms and not Grabner). Though the work did not seem like much to the human eye, my camera lens captured a magical view of the outside world projected into the darkened room.

In the coming days we’ll publish photo essays from the other floors, and we’ll certainly discuss the threads and ideas that emerge throughout the Biennial, but until then enjoy our small visual tour of the fourth floor.


Works by Joel Otterson, including “Rags to Riches” (1993–2013) in the foreground, which is made of patch-worked and hand-quilted fabrics.


Dan Walsh’s “Outfit” (2013) and Joel Otterson, including “Rags to Riches” (1993–2013)


Works by Joel Otterson


Left, Amy Sillman’s “Mother” (2013–14), and, right foreground, Pam Lins and Amy Sillman’s “Fells” (2013–14).


Works by John Mason, including “The Wall” (2010) in the background, and various ceramic works in the foreground (1997–2002).


Donelle Woolford’s “Detumescence” (2013), ink, paper, glue, and gesso on canvas


Sheila Hicks’s “Pillar of Inquiry/Supple Column” (2013–14), acrylic, linen, cotton, bamboo, and silk


David Robbins’s “Open-Air Writing Desk” (2013) with his “Bookcase for Concrete Comedy” An Alternative History of Twentieth-Century Comedy” (2013) in background.


Two untitled works by Alma Allen (both 2013)


Detail of Jacqueline Humphries “41/14” (2014), oil on canvas


Sterling Ruby’s “Basin Theology/Butterfly Wreck” (2013)


Reflections in Shana Lutker’s “Protestations!” (2014)


Small detail of Gretchen Bender’s “People in Pain” (1988, remade by Philip Vanderhyden in 2014), paint on heat-set vinyl and neon


Part of a wall of works by Karl Haendel


Ken Lum, “Midway Shopping Plaza” (2014), powder-coated aluminum and enameled plexiglass


Detail of Peter Schuyff’s “Sans Papier” (2004–14), carved pencils and sticks


Detail of Dawoud Bey’s “Maxine Adams and Amelia Maxwell (from the Birmingham Project)” (2012), two pigmented inkjet prints mounted on Dibond, ed. no. 1/6


Ricky Swallow, “Chair Study/Ripple (soot)” (2014), patinated bronze


A view of the display of various notebooks and materials by David Foster Wallace


Detail of David Foster Wallace’s “Interview notes for ‘Federer as Religious Experience’ (New York Times, August 20, 2006)” (nd), two-page manuscript


Porcelain works by Shio Kusaka (all 2013)


Ben Kinmont, “Rubber stamp used for the making of Shhhh [Chatou, 2002–03]; item from the Antinomian Press Archive” (1990–)


Zeo Leonard’s “945 Madison Avenue” (2014) camera obscura

The 2014 Whitney Biennial opens Friday, March 7 at the Whitney Museum (945 Madison Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) and continues until May 25.

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Hyperallergic welcomes comments and a lively discussion, but comments are moderated after being posted. For more details please read our comment policy.
  • tsssr

    Although Zoe Leonard’s work is on the 4th Floor, it is actually curated by Anthony Elms.

    • Hrag Vartanian

      Thanks for clarifying that.

  • Tyler B.

    *Molly Zuckerman-Hartung :)

    • Tyler B.

      Op, looks like you already fixed it. Ignore me.

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