Spread the Love

Left: Whitney Biennial curators Christopher Lew and Mia Locks. Right: Puppies Puppies. (Except where noted, all photos: Linda Yablonsky)

DESPITE AN AGGRESSIVE ATTACK on the arts from the current White House, our museums remain sanctuaries of civilization. Wednesday night’s opening of the Whitney Biennial proved that. Unexpectedly, it also unfolded as a model of democracy—and difference.

After seventy-eight attempts by Whitney Museum curators to survey recent art made in America, this was the first to see its (usually giant) opening postponed by a blizzard. It also marked the first biennial in the museum’s two-year-old Meatpacking District building. And it was the first—maybe ever—to win just about universal approval.

Traditionally, the Whitney’s signature show is cause for complaint. People doubt that the art on view is art. Or they find it boring, or white-male-privileged, overly beholden to market forces, or irrelevant. Not this time.

Left: Whitney Museum director Adam Weinberg. Right: Novelist A.M. Homes with artist Celeste Dupuy-Spencer and novelist Scott Spencer.

As organized by curators Christopher Lew and Mia Locks, the 2017 edition doesn’t give curmudgeons nearly enough to satisfy their need to hate. That’s all about assuming a superiority of knowledge or taste. These days, the perpetually destabilizing world of alternative facts has reduced many in the art world to grabbing at straws.

Isn’t art supposed to upset the applecart? This biennial rights it. That’s unusual.

There’s no gender or generational imbalance here. On Wednesday night, the thorny entanglements of blue-chip galleries and museum trustees didn’t come up. Nevertheless, faces in the crowd did not reflect the show’s racial diversity. Most were white. That said, the evening did not have the taint of insider privilege either. Indeed, most of the usual art-world attendees appeared to have stayed home. I spotted the Eisenbergs, the Horts, and Beth Swofford, but most first-line collectors were absent, as were a host of big-name dealers.

Perhaps that was because the top dogs were treated to a Sotheby’s-sponsored preview on Monday. More probably, many people couldn’t amend their calendars after the snowstorm forced the canceling of Tuesday’s invitational opening; canceled flights kept away out-of-towners.

Left: Curator Valerie Smith and artist Jon Kessler. Right: Artists Lucy Raven and Tala Madani with dealer Pilar Corrias.

This was not a bad thing. The hastily combined guest lists for Tuesday and Wednesday resulted in a more even-keeled, demographic spread than it otherwise might have been. By itself, that made for a stronger statement of community—a welcome development in the face of brutal opposition from the White House. The following day, the Trump administration announced its intention to defund not just art but nearly everything in American life except war.

Leave it to the nerve-working but maybe brilliant Jordan Wolfson to make the point with his VR entry to the exhibition, where he enacts a brutal hate crime with excessive violence and no emotion whatsoever. I didn’t have the stomach to watch all of it. Others in the crowd, like dealer Mike Egan, found it not only tolerable but fun.

All in all, the atmosphere at the Whitney was unusually congenial and lacking in rivalry or snobbery. Whitney director Adam Weinberg’s biggest worry on Wednesday seemed to be Pope L.’s large pink cube of misinformation, which is outfitted with dozens and dozens of slowly desiccating slices of baloney. No one is likely to say the exhibition is full of it. And, Weinberg said, “At least it doesn’t smell as bad as it did during installation. A good sign!”

Left: Artist Asad Raza. Right: Artist Jordan Wolfson and dealer Jeffrey Deitch.

Despite, or because of, a certain emphasis on three-dimensionality—particularly Samara Golden’s show-stopping realization of the high-rise disease that developers are spreading throughout New York—painters were quick to compliment other painters.

“I like how aggressive they are,” primo biennial artist Dana Schutz said of KAYA, aka Kerstin Brätsch and Debo Eilers, whose collaborative project is devoted to reframing the painted canvas—in this case by hanging it behind resin shower curtains and attaching it to hardware ripped from their shared studio bathroom. In the adjacent space, fart-happy paintings by Tala Madani made for a delicious synchronicity, but Brätsch was quick to enthuse about the paintings of Henry Taylor, and not just because of their topicality. “I love the way they’re painted,” she said.

That was nice. In fact, everyone was pleasant, gracious, interested, excited. Even in a good exhibition, one expects a little grumbling. Not that selective, opening-night crowds are ever all that critical. Maybe they were just relieved that no Russians interfered. And that they could let the artist who calls himself Puppies Puppies speak for them. He, or perhaps an actor, held the torch for free expression, standing throughout all five hours of the opening, dressed as the Statue of Liberty.

Anicka Yi’s Fantastic Voyage, a 3-D video into the biological swamp, was a big favorite, mobbed by friends and admirers, as were Jon Kessler’s techno-smart sculptures, visual essays on the refugee crisis and a planet of quickly disappearing species, including the human. Louise Lawler, soon to be the subject of a major retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, took a special interest in Lyle Ashton Harris’s multiscreen personal photo diary and was curious about the annotated paintings Frances Stark had made of musician Ian F. Svenonius’s 2015 book Censorship Now!!, which speaks to the dark moment we’re in. Dealer Gavin Brown, eschewing conversation, read every single word on the spot.

Left: Artists John Riepenhoff and Frances Stark. Right: Bobby Jesus on a Jessi Reaves ottoman.

Ironically, though Svenonius railed against a creeping loss of humanity, this gallery became one of the opening’s primary social spaces, possibly because the huge ottoman by Jessi Reaves in the center of the room invited much hanging out. Reaves wasn’t the only one to make sculpture of furniture. Kaari Upson’s sexualized couches also made a play for attention, though they didn’t provide people reeling from Wolfson’s nearby video any chance to sit down and recover.

For that, they had Reaves, whose functional furniture-sculptures dotted the show. But they couldn’t beat the oxygenating pause offered by Asad Raza, whose indoor arboretum of young potted trees will flower during the exhibition at the same time Pope L.’s meat dries. “Afterward, I want to make a public garden somewhere,” Raza said, delighted by their popularity among the guests. Just goes to show: If you want to keep art alive, bring live art.

And load it with old-fashioned content, as Lew and Locks did. “We wanted to give the artists a chance to push back,” Locks said. And they do. Even with (mostly digital) weak spots, their ragtag biennial is a well-lighted path to a world we’d like to see—clear-headed, familial, vital, sensitive to our “postironic” moment, and indifferent to fashion.

Ultimately, this biennial somehow makes sense of the senseless time in which we live. And that is a notable achievement.

Left: Dealers Bridget Donahue and Ash L'Ange with artist Allison Katz. Right: Dealer Sarah Watson, artist Kaari Upson, and dealer Mike Egan

Left: Artist and dealer Wallace Whitney, artist Samara Golden, and dealer Davida Nemeroff. Right: Whitney Museum curator Donna De Salvo with MoMA chief curator of media and performance Stuart Comer.

Left: Artist K8 Hardy. Right: Artist Amy Sillman.

Left: Artists Anna Betbeze and Keltie Ferris. Right: Artists Boško Blagojević and Kersten Braetsch.

Left: Collector Marty Eisenberg, artist Dana Schutz, and collector Rebecca Eisenberg. Right: Collectors Melissa Schiff Soros and Jill Brienza with artist Jill Magid.

Left: Dealer Sophie Morner and artist Nicole Eisenman. Right: Dealers Hannah Robinson and Martin Coppell.

Left: Dealer Sylvia Kouvali. Right: Dealer Andrea Rosen.

Left: Artist Matt Mullican Right: Ford Foundation director Dareen Walker, Studio Museum director Thelma Golden, and dealer David Beitzel.

Left: Dealers John Corbett and Jim Dempsy with Dr. Mark Epstein and artist Arlene Shechet. Right: Artadia executive director Carolyn Ramo and NADA director Heather Hubbs.

Left: Artist Raúl de Nieves. Right: Artist Julien Nguyen (center). (Photos: David Velasco)

Left: Artist Justin Beal and dealer Jane Hait. Right: Artist Chemi Rosado-Seijo. (Photo: David Velasco)

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