Adam Weinberg, the director of the Whitney Museum of American Art, was candid in his opening day remarks when he commented that the Biennial had in the past been thought of — or was criticized for not being — a representative snapshot of American art. He said that for this year’s Biennial, the museum had tagged three outside curators (Anthony Elms, Michelle Grabner, and Stuart Comer) with the intent that each would assert an individual point of view and bring to the fore a distinct set of artists.
The tastes of the curators can be readily intuited from their selections, arrayed more or less separately on the three floors of the museum. One noticeable leitmotif, however, is the presence of text throughout the exhibition. Whether in the form of spoken words, words on canvas, books, artists’ and writers’ notebooks, zine-like publications, or handmade accordion books, this biennial features an abundance of printed, painted, performed, and distributed text. Text may account in part for the subdued feeling of the Biennial as a whole, in particular on the floors curated by Elms and Comer, in contrast to the more visually oriented floor curated by Grabner.
Of course, the presence of text in visual art is hardly new. Religious painting of all kinds and throughout the ages incorporates text, as did history painting when in vogue. The collages of Cubism and Dada, as well as the parole in libertà of the Futurists, renewed the practice of using words in pictures. Pop Art incorporated text in, for example, the thought bubbles of Roy Lichtenstein’s paintings. Text-based conceptual works, performance art scripts and present-day institutional critique have continued the evolution of using text in visual art practices.
Andrea Fraser, Joseph Kosuth, Jenny Holzer, Lawrence Wiener, Mel Bochner, and Ed Ruscha are among the many artists who have explored this terrain. The 2012 Biennial, curated by Chrissie Iles and Jay Saunders, emphasized performance, including theater, complete with scripts, and recited text in the dance pieces. The continuing growth of video art has necessarily propelled the use of the spoken word. This Biennial represents then perhaps not a dramatic turn, but rather concentrated attestation of the prevalence of the word in visual art.
Even on the fourth floor, curated by Grabner, text abounds. The exhibition of novelist David Foster Wallace’s notebooks is the kind of literary display one might expect to see at the Morgan or the New York Public Library, giving an author’s readers the chance to see the writer at work, doodling and making notes. David Diao’s two paintings “Home Again,” based on the hapless journey of a Barnett Newman painting; and “40 Years of His Art,” a blowup of an invitation to a fake retrospective devoted to Diao at the Museum of Modern Art) consist primarily of words. Philip Vanderhyden reconstructed Gretchen Bender’s lost 1988 work, “People in Pain,” which features movie titles glowing through vinyl.
David Robbins refers to writing in several ways in his works on display: a bookcase, a writing desk, a totem pole of signage, and titles and subtitles in his videos. The fictional artist persona Donelle Woolford, a creation of Joe Scanlan, presents two paintings of the words of an art/sex joke on the theme of detumescence. Peter Schuyff’s “Sans Papier” invokes writing in absentia: an extensive assortment of carved pencils, but no words. Ben Kinmot’s Sshhh includes not only words but also, through the display of a rubber stamp, the act of printing. Text is also present in some of Karl Haendel’s pencil drawings, Phil Hanson’s trippy oil paintings, Tony Lewis’s large-scale graphite drawings, Laura Owens’s painting and Ken Lum’s sign assemblage “Midway Shopping Plaza.”
Comer’s and Elms’s floors also teem with text. Etel Adnan’s ink and watercolor accordion-fold books combine the artist’s painting practice with her writing. Lisa Anne Auerbach’s diagram “(Untitled Psychic Banner),” made of wool and words, hangs near her gigantic printed magazine. Julie Ault’s curated show-within-a-show “Afterlife: a constellation” includes a book by Martin Beck; a heliogravure by Danh Vo of Barbara Bush’s wedding announcement; text-heavy drawings by Martin Wong; words by implication in the desk by Martin Kinmot titled “The wings are in the paper drawer,” as well as text in the work of David Wojnarowicz and in James Benning’s handpainted wooden sign “After Howard,” which is a plea for peace. The complexly titled “N.A.F.T.A. #16A/B “’N.A.F.TA…’ Returns to Tijuana’/’T.L.C….’Regresa a Tijuana,'” by Fred Lonidier is a construction of ink-jet prints mounted on panels, documenting through text and photographs, much in the manner of a print magazine, the renovation of a shipping van for the presentation of a roving art exhibition.
Lonidier also contributes 32 t-shirts with printed text. Joseph Grigley, in another show-within-the-show in a separate room, has displayed on the walls and in vitrines the archive of handwritten and printed documents from the artist and critic Gregory Battcock, which he discovered a dozen years after Battcock’s still-unsolved murder. Poet Susan Howe shows delicate letterpress misprintings of overlapping texts. In the basement, a massive vitrine holds Matthew Deleget’s “Zero-Sum,” a collection of 42 art publications he pulled from the trash or bought from discount bins.
The inclusion of Semiotext(e), a distinguished independent press known for theoretical and literary works, and the magazine Triple Canopy as participants is a clear nod to the primacy of the written word in the curators’ minds. These choices are significant departures for the Biennial. The “artists” are no longer persons or collectives, but rather literary publishers. Semiotext(e) presents 28 new books for the show, which are attached by Velcro to a wall unit. Visitors are allowed to read them on site but not take them home. For those who, in this already heady environment, still feel the need for an exponential increase in the level of abstraction and distance from the fetish of the art object, two video monitors play conversations with French theorists Paul Virilio and Gilles Deleuze.
The wall text for the Triple Canopy display provides a clue to the overall orientation, referring to “the recent, remarkable collapse of the difference between objects and information.” Words in these works function in different ways, sometimes becoming purely visual or aural elements while at other times actually meaning something. Besides the text in these works, there’s also a lot of explanatory matter on the walls, not to mention the text in the videos, and the live performances of My Barbarian, Robert Ashley and others.
Despite Weinberg’s caveat about the representational capacity of the Biennial, it is difficult to resist reading the writing on the wall and looking for significance in the selections for the show. Though it is not so strange for curators to search for less well-trampled fields, it is odd to see so much text in an institution primarily devoted to the visual. In part, it is a testament to the strength of conceptualism, which often expresses its ideas through words, whether as performance scripts or the display of language. Seen as the product of institutional critique and neo-Marxist ideology, the turn toward text may be a way of avoiding the embarrassment of the art object, its ignominious role in the exchange system of art commerce and the competition for social status that is intricately expressed through the acquisition and disposition of art. The curators’ enthusiasm for text may also indicate an increasing academicism in art, almost as insider’s joke, as in Diao’s and Woolford/Scanlan’s paintings.
Another possible reason for all this reading and writing in the Biennial may be the penchant for outsider art that was also characteristic of Massimiliano Gioni’s 2013 Venice Biennale. Text may be becoming an outsider art form, an increasingly arcane, (dare we say) even moribund type of cultural expression in a mediatized culture dominated by the image. Gioni’s show was noteworthy for favoring the archive as art, a view shared by the Biennial’s curators, which naturally leads to the collection and display of texts.
Since this Biennial includes a number dead contributors, such as David Foster Wallace who killed himself in 2008, Malachi Ritscher who in 2006 burned himself to death to protest the American war in Iraq and Robert Ashley who died of natural causes only days ago, it is tempting to look at the text as monument, the effort by artists of all disciplines to leave some mark that will outlast them. This Biennial may also be seen as a eulogy for the Whitney in its present location.
Regardless of the interpretation, the display of so much text in a museum setting raises the question of how it can be received in this context. Who, after scrutinizing the vitrines and objects devoted to Ritscher, will read the sixteen-page handout on his life, including the two pages of footnotes at the end, move on to listen to Travis Jeppeson’s several recorded texts relating to sculpture, and then devour translations of Jean Baudrillard and Henri Lefebvre provided by Semiotext(e)? This practical consideration may account for the chilly experience of the Biennial. It’s hard to get to know this show without getting into a long-term relationship. Reading takes time.
The 2014 Whitney Biennial continues at the Whitney Museum of American Art (945 Madison Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through May 25.