Different Strokes

Left: Lena Herzog and Werner Herzog with Whitney Museum director Adam Weinberg. Right: Whitney Biennial curators Jay Sanders and Elisabeth Sussman. (All photos: Linda Yablonsky)

MINUTES INTO ITS INSIDER OPENING last Tuesday night, the 2012 Whitney Biennial was already confounding expectations. “It’s not about spectacle,” observed dealer Barbara Gladstone. She was one of nearly two thousand invited guests peering at a show that favors the small gesture and the slow reveal over the monumental, the market-pleasing, and the logic-defying chaos of past editions.

“Radical,” said some in the initially flummoxed crowd. “Thoughtful,” ventured others. I also heard people call it “provincial,” “weird,” and “biennial-light.” But the most accurate term for what curators Elisabeth Sussman and Jay Sanders had wrought from the show’s fifty-one artists was different.

Even gaining entry was more orderly than usual. Despite the presence of a sidewalk picket line set up by artist-led Occupy Wall Streeters protesting corporate sponsors like Sotheby’s and Deutsche Bank, VIPs such as Parker Posey and Carrie Fisher could sweep through their own entrance unnoticed by the hoi polloi lined up at another. Here, as in every other world where the bread of many is buttered by the few, there were VIPs and very VIPs. As the 7 PM reception got underway, I found Whitney board cochair Brooke Garber Neidich in the lobby, saying good night to MoMA PS1 director Klaus Biesenbach. “I came in with the 5 PM group,” Biesenbach said.

Left: Artist LaToya Ruby Frazier. Right: Writer Jed Oelbaum with Abigail Czapsky and artist Kai Althoff.

If he was hoping to escape a mob, he needn’t have bothered. Congestion was never an issue at this event, partly because the show’s open-plan installation gave it a lot of breathing room—and a look more akin to the Independent Art Fair rather than any past biennial. What’s more, many works chosen for the show are live theater or dance performances and films that weren’t on the schedule that night, leading some people to call this the first “durational” biennial. “Where’s the Mike Kelley?” asked collector Beth Swofford, unaware that even though the museum had dedicated the whole biennial to him, the recently deceased artist’s “Mobile Homestead” videos, made two years ago in Detroit, wouldn’t appear till May. “But that’s what I came here for!” Swofford protested. “You have to keep coming back,” Whitney director Adam Weinberg told all and sundry. “There’s always more to see.”

As artist Georgia Sagri began a forceful performance on the fifth-floor mezzanine based on the principle of “no work,” dancers in Sarah Michelson’s company began going through their paces in the biennial’s main performance arena on the fourth floor—six thousand square feet of unobstructed space so white it made the Whitney’s darkened “Cyclops” window look like the gate to heaven. “I love movement in space,” said collector Eileen Cohen as she took one of the white chairs in the white bleachers set up on one side of the white floor, painted for the performance with a Dogville-style blueprint of Marcel Breuer’s design for the building. “I really love movement in space,” Cohen said, “especially Sarah Michelson’s. I could stay here all night.”

So could Dawn Kasper, if only the museum would let her. The Los Angeles–based artist has moved the contents of her studio (and, apparently, her life) into a third-floor gallery, where she was nearly lost amid the jumbled furniture and the piles of books, tapes, art supplies, and whatnot of her installation, This Could Be Something if I Let It. For the opening, she invited the all-girl art band Lady Noise to entertain. “That’s Kathleen Kim,” Kasper said, pointing to the group’s violinist. “She’s also an immigration lawyer. So cool!”

Left: Artist Nicole Eisenman with Litia Perta. Right: Artist Sam Lewitt with dealers Richard Telles and Miguel Abreu.

The trance-inducing music, and Kasper’s cymbal dropping, attracted a number of listeners, including British artist Haroon Mirza. “This is like Jason Rhoades meets Cabaret Voltaire,” he quipped. But the work that seemed to hypnotize everyone was laid directly on the floor near the elevators, where Sam Lewitt had placed tiny electric fans and audio speakers in gelatinous, bubbling rectangles of an unstable magnetic fluid sometimes used in electronics. No one knew quite what to make of this matmos, but its slightly threatening strangeness suggested the invention of a new form of art, or at least something no one had seen before—outside of a science fair. “This is interesting,” said Artists Space director Stefan Kalmár. “It’s goo, but it’s really good goo.”

That was when I started hearing people say they liked the show, and the encomiums kept on coming. “I like that it looks dirty but isn’t,” architect Charles Renfro said, gazing over the Lewitt, Nicole Eisenman’s monoprints, and Tom Thayer’s suggestive cardboard and cut-paper puppet theater. “The whole show is deceptive,” he added, “but in a good way.”

Jerry Saltz drew me over to a Marsden Hartley portrait of a prizefighter that Nick Mauss had chosen for the outside wall of his contribution—an eclectic selection of historical American artworks installed within his trompe-l’oeil re-creation of a 1930s room at Guerlain in Paris. “Those are the best nipples in the Whitney,” Saltz said, admiring the Hartley. Personally, I’d vote for those in Wu Tsang’s fourth-floor tranny-bar videos.

Left: Dealer Daniel Buchholz with artist Richard Hawkins. Right: Dancers for Sarah Michelson.

Heading down to the second floor, I passed Warhol Foundation president Joel Wachs going up, all smiles. “The Richard Hawkins collages are just great!” he exclaimed. “And the Kai!” he said, hurrying upward. Kai Althoff, he meant. The natty artist was standing near his hanging screen of loosely woven metallic thread. Its glinting panels divided the floor, veiling K8 Hardy’s faux fashion photographs and assemblages on the wall behind it. “It’s not all here,” Althoff said of his entry, which also includes paintings and a fabric sculpture of a legless, seated torso. The rest, he said, hadn’t yet arrived.

It didn’t matter, at least not to Philippe Vergne. The Dia Foundation director, who cocurated the 2008 Biennial with Chrissie Iles, was beaming with pleasure. “It’s a real, curated exhibition,” he said. “I’m happy about it. It’s very poetic, which is what I like.”

Truth-to-power firebrand LaToya Ruby Frazier dressed for the occasion in a bejeweled, low-cut, translucent silver number that starkly contrasted with the dozen photolithographs spelling out her “Campaign for Braddock Hospital,” the most aggressively social-conscious works in the show. Frazier was definitely on a mission: to counter Levi’s ads that picture her hometown, the depressed—and distressing—Braddock, Pennsylvania, as an ideal American landscape, rather than a former steel town abandoned by a hospital corporation that left many (including her own family) unemployed, sick, and dying. “These corporations are contributing to the demise of the population,” she said.

I could still feel the heat of her outrage as I headed into the lobby, where my knees went weak when I found myself before a personal hero: filmmaker Werner Herzog, who is making his debut as an artist in this biennial. “I didn’t want to be in it,” he said, clutching a glass of wine. “I didn’t think this was the right context for me.” Introducing his wife, Lena, he said, “She convinced me.”

Left: Casey Spooner and Michael Stipe. Right: Dealer Carol Greene and artist Jacqueline Humphries.

The whole evening was beginning to feel like a waking dream. Cushioned by all the warmth and good feelings generated by the curators’ refusal to bow to fashion, I floated into Bill’s Gay Nineties, a grungy onetime speakeasy in midtown. Hidden in plain sight, it was an apt choice for an afterparty that dealers Carol Greene and Daniel Buchholz held for the biennial’s new underground.

“It’s torturing me,” said dealer Richard Telles of the show. “It really makes you think.” Lewitt was clearly glad to be in it. “You have to approach it without the optical stains that other shows put on your retina,” he said, while dealer Miguel Abreu offered more insight into Lewitt’s mind. “He actually spends all his time reading,” Abreu said.

On this night, however, the revelers spent all their time drinking, and by 11 PM the place was filled to capacity with bending elbows and shining faces. Was this New York? Where did all the competing egos and jealous gripers go? Perhaps home to rest up for the biennial’s remaining talks, plays, screenings, classes, and dance concerts—and, no doubt, the many afterparties yet to come.

Left: Artist Dawn Kasper. Right: Artist Jutta Koether and dealer Miguel Abreu.

Left: Artist Georgia Sagri. Right: Cheril Hardy and artist K8 Hardy.

Left: Whitney Museum curator Scott Rothkopf. Right: Artist Nicola Tyson, curator Clarissa Dalrymple, and artist Ryan Sullivan.

Left: Artist Chuck Close. Right: Dealers Jay Gorney and Lucy Mitchell-Innes.

Left: Young Kim with Whitney Museum curator Chrissie Iles. Right: Dealer Alex Hertling with curator Pati Hertling.

Left: Collectors Michael, Susan, and Jaimie Hort. Right: Curator Sylvia Chivaratanond with Dia director Philippe Vergne.

Left: Warhol Foundation president Joel Wachs. Right: Whitney board cochair Brooke Garber Neidich with MoMA PS1 director Klaus Biesenbach.