Down and Out at 75th and Madison

Left, Kate Levant's "'eyenter, "integr intra' impression" (2012) at Whitney Museum of American Art. (all photos by Hrag Vartanian for Hyperallergic)

I left the 2012 Whitney Biennial with a feeling of leadenness that no amount of free coffee (available at Monday’s press preview, and many thanks for that) or Werner Herzog’s video ode to beauty (“Hearsay of the Soul,” 2012) could alleviate.

It wasn’t a good day. On the front page of The New York Times, on either side of a color photo of a young Darfurian refugee, two stories were headlined: on the left, “Afghan Uproar Casts Shadows on U.S. Pullout,” with the subhead, “Security Plan in Peril: Rage at Koran Burning Puts Joint Training Efforts at Risk”; on the right, “Santorum Makes Case for Religion in Public Sphere.”

As Afghanistan reasserts its historical role as the Graveyard of Empires, blowing apart the house of cards the United States has built over the course of a decade at the cost of an unknowable number of lives and untold billions of dollars, an implausible presidential candidate – a former senator booted out of his incumbency in 2006 by 18 percentage points – aggressively campaigns for sectarianism in a foundationally nonsectarian political system.

The first Whitney Annual, the precursor to the Biennial, took place in 1932, the year Franklin Delano Roosevelt defeated Herbert Hoover and set the United States on a course of recovery from the Great Depression that ultimately aspired to world hegemony. This year, well, you know where we are.

Also on Monday, Hyperalleric editor Hrag Vartanian reported on a letter from Arts & Labor, a working group of Occupy Wall Street’s Arts & Culture Committee, calling on the Whitney to end the Biennial in 2014.

The letter declares that the Biennial has outlived its function, citing the “absorption of contemporary art into museums, the rise of a speculative art market, and the need for artists to obtain advanced degrees to participate in the current system [which] have changed how art is produced and exhibited.”

Joanna Mallinowksa, "From the Canyons to the Stars" (2012) on the second floor of the 2012 Whitney Biennial.

It also indicts the museum’s “system of wealthy trustees and ties to the real estate industry … embodied both in the biennial’s sponsorship – represented most egregiously in its sponsorship by Sotheby’s, which has locked out its unionized art handlers — and the museum’s imminent move to the Meat Packing District, a neighborhood where artists once lived and worked which is now a gentrified tourist destination that serves the interests of the real estate industry.”

The complexity of a cultural offering as sprawling as the Biennial cannot be easily parsed into progressive and regressive elements, but Arts & Labor’s points should not be blithely dismissed. The evidence at hand, for one, is troubling.

Walking into the Biennial felt like arriving at a party, but much, much too early. An awkward silence hovered among the too-wide spaces between the objects. There was no electricity in the air. Everything seemed to turn inward, except for a few large pieces that appeared stranded and helpless in the middle of the floor.

Yes, I’m anthropomorphizing. But the lack of discourse among the artworks was indicative of aesthetic choices that underscored each piece’s individual interest over the dialogue it could engender with its neighbors — even if it popped up, like Lutz Bacher’s, in various parts of the museum. (And if such a dialogue were intended, the overly expansive exhibition design — meant, according to the press release, “to make visitors conscious of the space around them as well as the art within that space” — worked against it.)

Whether such disquieting alienation is a spiritual or philosophical problem, or whether it’s at bottom a matter of economics — as Arts & Labor might assert — or curatorship — as legions of critics will now debate — is again one of those complex puzzles that can never be distilled into a single, or even dominant, factor.

But what we do know is that this is the Whitney Museum of American Art, and, putting aside for a moment the Biennial’s recent attempts to achieve a more international scope, the museum’s self-identification as an engine of our own history creates the expectation that it will somehow mirror the national mood. An impossible prospect, perhaps, given the lead time such a large and expensive exposition demands, but also, perhaps, the reason why the Biennial hardly ever fails to disappoint.

This year the ground moving under our feet is particularly seismic. The Arab Spring, the Occupy movements, economic chaos in the Eurozone and laughingstock Republican presidential candidates here in the US have thrown the machinations of power into high relief. It’s an urgent time, and we implicitly burden art with the responsibility of reflecting, if not clarifying, that urgency.

LaToya Ruby Frazier discussing her "Braddock Series" at the 2012 Whitney Biennial.

Which brings me to LaToya Ruby Frazier, an artist I’ve singled out in two previous surveys — the New Museum’s first Triennial (The Generational: Younger Than Jesus, 2009) and the most recent edition of MoMA PS1’s Greater New York (2010).

It’s hard to overstate how much Frazier’s photographs differ from the Biennial’s other offerings. They stop you in your tracks because they simultaneously reach backward and forward in time, seizing proprietary rights to the documentary image while critiquing and ultimately departing from it.

As she said to Time Magazine:

We all remember [Dorothea] Lange’s photograph of the migrant mother but how many of us remember her name? … I felt social documentary can only go so far and I started to think, “What if the subjects of the Depression-era images photographed themselves?”

Frazier’s images — consciously retro in their gelatin silver and photolithographic prints — cannot exist apart from a community: her family and neighbors from her hometown of Braddock, Pennsylvania, a devastated steel town outside Pittsburgh.

Her photographs and handwritten narratives chronicling the closure and razing of Braddock’s only hospital are of a piece with her performance-inflected series of self-portraits wearing, as indicated on the wall label, “the pajamas and shrouded in the blanket of her deceased step-great-grandfather, who suffered from the chronic occupational illnesses endemic to steel workers.” In a statement on her website, Frazier has referred to her mother, her late grandmother and herself — also victims of chronic diseases — as “one entity.”

While the Biennial seeks to extend the boundaries of visual art by including, again from the press release, “painters, sculptors, photographers, choreographers, writers, filmmakers, and musicians” who are exploring “particular ideas of politics, economics, subjective identities, and technological change,” the self-enclosed aesthetic of many of the works inhibits their ability to enhance each other or to resonate beyond the confines of the exhibition.

This feels like a cultural lag. As direct democracy movements like OWS infiltrate the conversation, the desire for community and common purpose (an impulse played out in art world terms by the alternative Bushwick scene) — with its attendant sense of emotional connection — has taken on a life of its own.

A view of Sam Lewitt's "Fluid Employment" (2012) and, right, "Fluid Employment (Little Attractions)" (2012)

Frazier acknowledges that her documentary-style, activist art is a constructed reality, replete with emotional freight. The feelings aroused by her work, or by a formally dissimilar piece such as Sam Lewitt’s “Fluid Employment” (2012), open up their worlds to us, staking out a set of shared experiences while leaving their associations open-ended.

Frazier’s photographs take her hometown’s distress head-on while recalling, at a glance, the Great Depression, the Civil Rights Movement, the industrial contraction of the 1970s and the malign neglect of the inner city from the Reagan era on.

Lewitt’s installation — a whimsically repulsive floor sculpture described by its wall label as “ferromagnetic liquid poured bi-weekly over plastic” with magnetic elements and electric fans — feels funky and new, but also harks back to Process Art and the BP oil disaster, which began (during the run of the 2010 Biennial) when the offshore drilling platform, Deepwater Horizon, exploded in the Gulf of Mexico.

Not to make a facile comparison between the Biennial and The Ungovernables, the New Museum’s current Triennial, but that globally focused though nimbler exhibition conveys an altogether different feel — not least because its smaller gallery space and scaled-up artworks create more of an interaction among the offerings, regardless of their intrinsic quality or interest.

Moreover, its premise of dissolved boundaries possesses a much broader application to the current state of art than a national biennial ever could, even with the Whitney’s latterly loose definition of “American.”

If, as Arts and Labor notes in its letter to the museum, “Biennials were born in the nineteenth century, in an era when many nations were young” in order to “showcase their greatest cultural products and achievements,” our nation is no longer young, and we have long come to regard the notions of “cultural products and achievements” with skepticism.

The art of Frazier and Lewitt couples the viewer’s need for an emotional connection — which becomes especially acute in uncertain times — with a dark, recalibrated concept of beauty. It may not represent the ever-elusive national mood, but it engages the self-image and self-deceptions of a media-driven consumer culture whose economic, social and political underpinnings are rapidly eroding.

After leaving the exhibition, I began to wonder if the emblematic artwork for the 2012 Biennial is not one on display at the Whitney at all, but rather Danh Võ’s installation on the fourth floor of the New Museum’s Triennial.

As a vision of America overrun by Super PACs and riven by economic disparities straight out of czarist Russia, the Danish-Vietnamese artist’s “WE THE PEOPLE” (2011) — hammered-copper shards of a full-scale facsimile of the Statue of Liberty — cuts to the bone: glittery, fragmented and unrecognizable.

The 2012 Whitney Biennial continues at the Whitney Museum (945 Madison Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) until May 27.

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