Tobi Haslett

  • slant July 17, 2019

    The Tear Gas Biennial

    WARREN B. KANDERS DIDN’T EARN HIS PLACE as vice chair of the board at the Whitney Museum of American Art through his good taste alone. He has also used some of his estimated $700 million fortune to make tax-deductible donations to support exhibitions at the museum. What successful enterprise has made this generosity possible? Thanks to the collective, years-long effort of activists, students, and reporters to bring everyday brutality to light, we could tell you quite a lot about Kanders’s company Safariland, which does a brisk trade supplying batons, handcuffs, holsters, and body armor to police


    Curated by Susan Cross

    “The fragile, the forgotten, the flawed, the fugitive”—with this alliterative litany, Cauleen Smith announces the themes and preoccupations of her work. This summer, Smith will fill MASS MoCA’s first-floor galleries with video, textiles, a written manifesto, works on paper, and a selection from her “In the Wake” series of hand-stitched banners that dotted the infamous 2017 Whitney Biennial. At the heart of this swirl of mediums and messages will be an immersive installation composed of projections and still lifes—furniture, statuettes, foliage—that summon the appalling


    MELANCHOLIA IS BORING. No matter how violent the anguish or extravagant the sense of loss, to be melancholy is to be locked in a single, insistent, freezing feeling. The melancholic is obsessive; obsession stalls the self. Torpor, irritation, and relentless self-reproach are the only moves available to the gloom-addicted psyche. But that gloom is crossed with pleasure—a cynical relief. Walter Benjamin lambasted the poet Erich Kästner for his luxurious devastation, that air of “left-wing melancholy” that saps the political will. Catastrophe didn’t galvanize Kästner so much as feed his princely


    WE CANNOT LIKE HER—her greed, her pomp, her fraudulence; her repulsive servility and inflated pride. There she is on The Apprentice in 2004, playing the villain. There she is on Frontline in September 2016, going for a kind of luxurious sadism. Her words are rich and theatrical as they come rolling out of her mouth: “Every critic, every detractor,” she says with relish, “will have to bow down to President Trump.” Frontline cuts to close-up as she breaks into a smile: “It’s everyone who’s ever doubted Donald, whoever disagreed, whoever challenged him. It is the ultimate revenge to become

  • Mark E. Smith

    YOU CAN TELL how a trombone sounds by looking at its shape—just as you could see, in the scowl and bitter rictus of Mark E. Smith, the slashing vocal intensity that came pouring out of that face. Years of listening have nailed his words into my head: brittle consonants and yowled vowels, a spray of polysyllabic elocution cut abruptly short by something funny, something wounding, and thus moving, bristling, ragged with need.

  • Tobi Haslett

    AIMLESSNESS IS A HAZARD OF BIENNIALS. The Whitney’s current edition is so twitching and distractible that it risks flattening itself into a vast, paratactic prairie. Time, in the art world, advances in mincing two-year increments, furnishing us with new batches of objects but seldom a new idea. Curators, then, saddled with the absurd task of “capturing the moment,” resort to the eclectic. But in the right hands, eclecticism can itself be spun into an expedient little point.

    “This Biennial,” proclaims the opening wall text, “arrives at a time rife with racial tensions, economic inequities, and

  • film December 09, 2016

    Object Lessons

    “MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN” is the rhetorical equivalent of tear gas—a bit of blinding toxin to spray at the livid crowd. But behind the flash and menace of Trump himself, his advisors have begun to undertake other, subtler operations on our shared language, delivering, in their interviews and slogans, more insidious tweaks to speech. Steve Bannon, chief strategist and cofounder of alt-right Breitbart News, has proclaimed that he’s no racist, but an “economic nationalist” whose princely sympathies reach beyond the white working class to the minority poor. So his rapacious political project has

  • film November 01, 2016

    What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?

    OFFICIAL LANGUAGE acts upon politics the way gangrene shrivels a foot: It freezes while it poisons. Take “constructive ambiguity.” Behind the bland opacity of Kissinger’s phrase—with its haughty procession of Latinate syllables—is the childish wish to stop the world. It was in the name of “constructive ambiguity” that in 1975 Kissinger lied to Syria’s Hafez al-Assad (father of Bashar) about a peace agreement between Israel and Egypt, shattering the alliances within the Arab world that threatened American power. A devious tactic, yes, but in the service of a facile belief: that it’s actually

  • film July 19, 2016

    Primary Colors

    THIS YEAR, the People (poor things) shall choose a new president. The attendant Grand Guignol will entail the usual insults to our collective intelligence. Now is the time for brayed assurances, spurious commiserations, mawkish appeals, winking threats, plagiarized bromides—a whole sloppy revue of cheap, bullying speech. And the stakes have been raised especially high this time, as Nixon’s “silent majority” finds its mouthpiece in a billionaire chauvinist who grasps—with an acuity that eludes the liberal elite—the sense of bitter abandonment that churns within the white working class. So this

  • film March 24, 2016

    Sound and Vision

    GODARD HAS ALWAYS made an art of his petulance. For as long as anyone can remember he’s been the stroppy malcontent, spitting rebuttals to Hollywood and the state, to the middling film industry and its slack-jawed forms. Hence his late-1960s dalliance with Maoism, his retreat into agitprop, and his decision (shocking at the time) to shirk the mantle of “auteur” and cofound the Dziga Vertov Group, a collective that, from 1968 to 1972, would inflict upon us the most ruthless works of his career.

    The editing got brutal; the politics, caustic. Italian militants belt out pledges and manifestos;

  • picks February 05, 2016

    Peter Hujar

    It’s been stamped on the collective retina: a reclining Susan Sontag, 1975, sheathed in a turtleneck, her hands stuffed in her hair, her face crowned with that smirk of effortless intellection. She looks like a sleek, belletristic otter floating on its back. This is Sontag as we’ve always thought of her—sly, a little wistful, possessed of a dark, delicate intelligence that pitches its gaze at something just beyond the frame. Embalmed in her persona, served like some pickled exotic fruit.

    But that embalmment—the aspect that has haunted both the practice and the theory of photography—gathers a

  • picks October 16, 2015

    Tyler Dobson

    Tyler Dobson’s paintings and cotton tapestries smile maddeningly with an uncanny blink—what are they? Each made on and, Dobson—at a safe distance and with the help of invisible labor—has converted digital images into physical objets d’art, pinned like Lepidoptera for the bland contemporary gaze.

    These confected pieces curdle into kitsch, and that’s part of the point. A huge cloth tapestry (Big Baby [all works 2015]) has the word “BABY” inscribed in its center, true to the formal infantilism of its geometry and cloying colors. Folksiness puffs and flakes

  • picks October 02, 2015

    Trevor Paglen

    A fiber-optic cable snakes along the ocean floor somewhere in the Caribbean, strangled by algae. This is one of four photographs in Trevor Paglen’s show, which swirls around the recent NSA scandal and our clicking, buzzing surveillance state. The picture’s title tells us that this cable has been tapped.

    There are four images of the cable and three landscape photographs, all opaquely picturesque. The city seen from the harbor in NSA-Tapped Fiber Optic Cable Landing Site, New York City, New York, United States, 2014, is a quaint little skyline scrawled upon the dimming horizon. A map of that same

  • picks July 17, 2015

    “From the Ruins”

    Abigail DeVille’s Haarlem Tower of Babel, 2012, is a steel tower that has had the top lopped off. It’s in two pieces, both of them choked by rusting metals, broken branches, and bits of cloth and paper that seem to shed like snakeskin. Babel is the centerpiece of a group show curated by Jane Ursula Harris, and DeVille's motifs—assemblage, foliage, the growl of defunct technologies—seep outward like nuclear waste until each piece glows with green-grey apocalypticism. Doom registers in the punch-click of Luther Price’s Light Fracture, 2013, an old-school slide projector casting images of smashed

  • picks June 19, 2015

    “These Are Not My Horses”

    It’s a mirthless irony of our time that the demise of civilization lies in the hands of a few puttering functionaries. So there’s something procedural, something grimly determinate, about the patent insanity of this show. Rochelle Goldberg’s glazed clay fragments sit like clenched guts on a strip of white carpeting, smeared with crude oil and chia seeds, the latter spread evenly on surfaces, mapped methodically on the white fuzz. Chaos inheres within structure and shoots to allegorical heights with Robert Bittenbender’s Broadway Nights, 2015, a lattice of twine, cheap bracelets, and chintzy

  • picks May 22, 2015

    Rey Akdogan

    When Richard Serra erected his seventy-three-ton wall outside New York’s Federal Building in 1981, it was a gash in public space, a twelve-foot-high insult that seared the hide of civic respectability. By contrast, Rey Akdogan’s sculptures hang low to the floor in sharp aluminum stripes, signs of a frosty rapprochement between minimalism and the late-capitalist office. Akdogan’s crash rails, bars that line the blanched spaces through which we so passively pass (hallways, elevators, corners), are painted black or white, some striped with red or orange, some cut with a neat bevel. Behold that

  • picks May 08, 2015

    “The Story of O(OO)”

    Strapped, whipped, and yanked along, this show is a bridled beast, and like its namesake—Anne Desclos’s 1954 S-M novel The Story of O—it gasps with exquisite agony. Jared Madere’s untitled installation is a battered monument to binding and constraint: Branches are stuffed into a hippie dress and topped with a wig, making a psychotic mannequin, a wretched anthropomorphism of fabric and bark. Behind it (her?), Madere has strung up what looks like sagging sails, streaked with blue and patched with cracked mirrors, a picture both glittering and strangely soft—but the whole thing is bolted to the

  • picks April 24, 2015

    Martin Beck

    In the photographs that compose Martin Beck’s Flowers (set 4) and Flowers (set 5) (both 2015), a bouquet sits in various states of completion, quite corporate in its prim pose, housed in a clear vase and floating in a field of black: This is the empty dream-space of stock photography, where portraits twinkle like Platonic ideals. At first, the arrangement is a bustle of white blooms (the better to slice against the black), while later stages burst into yellow, bloodred, and pink. These are not pictures of flowers but of cleanliness, of bureaucratic pleasantness, of the sanitized cheer kept up

  • picks April 03, 2015

    Hito Steyerl

    If barbarism is shoved deep into art, it sits snug as a gun in its holster. Let’s call Hito Steyerl’s work an epistemology of the holster. This survey of her videos since 2004 betrays a preoccupation with casings, coverings, capsules: that is, the thin membrane of criticality stretched taut over so much art discourse. Steyerl’s filmed lectures tickle the art world’s left-ish pieties, as we see her—speaking with pedagogical placidity as she gets all political—deliver the eagerly anticipated theoretical assault. And the artist lecture is itself a kind of casing or effluvium, a foam that forms on