PRINT May 2012

David Rimanelli

View of “Whitney Biennial 2012,” Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 2012. From left: Richard Hawkins, Ankoku 10 (Index Labyrinth), 2012; Richard Hawkins, Ankoku 9 (Index World of Flower), 2012; Richard Hawkins, Ankoku 1 (Introduction), 2012; Kai Althoff, Untitled, 2012; Kai Althoff, Untitled, 2011; Kai Althoff, Untitled, 2011; K8 Hardy, #1–#7, 2011; K8 Hardy, Appurtenance A-1, 2011. Photo: Sheldan Collins.


IN PAINTING AS IN LIFE, Forrest Bess was a man who acted on his visions in an extremely direct way. In addition to creating a body of small, seemingly abstract paintings that faithfully replicated images he saw behind his closed eyelids, Bess engaged in at-home self-surgery, making an incision in the underside of his penis with a razor blade and creating a new orifice. Bess’s dealer throughout the 1950s and ’60s, Betty Parsons, declined to exhibit his medical research into androgyny, alchemy, and immortality alongside his paintings as the artist had requested. But in the current Whitney Biennial, organized by Elisabeth Sussman and Jay Sanders, Bess’s paintings are shown for the first time with his letters, drawings, and proud photos of his altered genitals, in a show-within-a-show guest-curated by Robert Gober, whose own work has long featured disarticulated body parts.

Bess was convinced that “the scrotum is the doorway to heaven,” as he explained to Meyer Schapiro, and his actions in pursuit of this belief enabled him to enter a “world within [him]self,” making paintings that are both oddly visceral and hermetically opaque. In his catalogue essay, Gober describes Bess’s self-surgery as designed to permit the “acceptance” of another penis. Acceptance is an unusual term for sexual activity, suggestive of benign passivity, innocence, but here at the Biennial the word seems apt. Sussman and Sanders’s embrace of individual subjectivity is deployed in an open, airy installation, and the museum itself acquires this aura of acceptance—an openness to interior vision. In a show that valorizes the directness of unmediated personal expression in service to a world within, Bess, who died thirty-four years ago after being institutionalized for schizophrenia and alcoholism, can be seen as the senior and signature artist.

The exhibition avoids works that are designed to be imposing, but the modest scale of the visual art creates its own kind of statement: This is the Anti-powerful Biennial. Here, acceptance describes a mode of insertion for work that is idiosyncratic, personal, even perverse, an acceptance of previously sidelined subjectivities into the body of the museum. The host of what has been called the “artists’ Biennial,” the museum becomes progressive in a new way, providing a haven for a scaled-down, DIY aesthetic. Salvation from institutional callowness and complicity comes from the confluence of the artists’ absolute integrity and the deeply researched historical interests through which they, and the museum, remain insulated from the grasp of the marketplace.

Which are meeker, more sincere: Matt Hoyt’s tiny tools or Andrew Masullo’s relentlessly cheerful little paintings, Elaine Reichek’s painstaking embroideries or Luther Price’s disintegrating films? Perhaps Kai Althoff’s homage to the fluid seductiveness of Jewish masculinity hung on translucent silk curtains is the show’s most grandiose artwork; it’s exceptionally beautiful and weird in a German-Catholic-homo sort of way, and you can see how, in the moments where the more dangerous confluences of personal proclivities begin to surface, the curators’ premise allows for a kind of Huysmans-esque inventiveness. Nick Mauss’s velvet-appliquéd faux-Guerlain installation takes advantage of the museum’s collection, combining a borrowed Marsden Hartley with the opulent design of Christian Bérard in a free-form accumulation of aesthetic riches. Freedom’s just another word for bookishness in this Biennial. Richard Hawkins’s studies of bathhouse butoh—are they naughty and nice, leather and lace, rice and beans?

It is enticing to imagine K8 Hardy’s randy fashion show performed on a catwalk designed by Oscar Tuazon, whose own deformed architecture of crushed glass and metal inhabits the ground floor—and lies right across from John Knight’s discreet yet obtrusive (is this art or “work”?) drain spout. Knight’s presence, like that of Andrea Fraser, nostalgically recalls an era when institutional critique investigated the collusions of art institutions with capital more directly, implicitly presenting the institution’s authority as well-nigh invincible, and thus a fair target. This Biennial shows us an institution that appears less sure of its moment, wary of accusations, and hopeful of avoiding too many protesters. The museum thus presents itself as a home for artists; viewers spontaneously encounter artists in performance (but this time they are much friendlier than Chris Burden or Vito Acconci). Look! All Dawn Kasper’s things are here in the gallery—priced out of her studio, she lives and works in the museum! And they cultivate honeybees on the roof! Soon the Whitney will replace all its board members with kindergarten teachers.

Oscar Tuazon, For Hire, 2012, steel, acrylic, wood, glass, plastic, fluorescent lights, tile, dimensions variable.

Andrea Fraser struggles with contradiction. Her despair—people are talking about how she’s unhappy. She is photographed in tears; she presents a graph of income equality, and as she is writing her essay for the Biennial’s handsome catalogue, Occupy Wall Street is spreading across America. She wonders: What does she really have to offer? I do worry that Fraser doesn’t have enough fun with her art materials, and remind myself to send her a pastel kit. However, I, too, found that depression overtook me after seeing this exhibition. Despite the esteem it places on personal agency, this Biennial manages to excise aggression from its range of expression. The potential for reciprocity or dignity offered by violence, outlined by Baudelaire in such works as “Let’s Beat Up the Poor,” is noticeably lacking in this context. “Spleen” and aggression are personal, after all, and the lingering sense that this Biennial so often prefers self-contained investigations and diminutive, labor-intensive objects raises questions that complicate the positive response the show has received. Masochism is, of course, an indispensible form of pleasure, but self-mutilation does not generally threaten others in a direct way.

Sussman’s Whitney Biennial of 1993 was vigorously disparaged for its overtly didactic tone, confrontational political content, and perceived absence of visual pleasure. Over the past two decades, capitalism has grown more sophisticated in its ability to absorb critique and deflect dissent inward, and such messy situations can now be averted. In their oft-cited text The New Spirit of Capitalism, Luc Boltanski and Ève Chiapello describe the “artistic critique” of the 1960s, which celebrated creativity and self-determination, as unwittingly enabling a new form of capitalism, which exploits these very properties in turn. Artistic or revolutionary demands for personal freedom, along with the development of globalization and new technologies, have helped to reconfigure the workplace from a dull yet stable universe of repetitive tasks into a series of evolving projects where no position is secure. Within this hyperaware networked environment, signs of aggression are either costly or immediately recuperated as mere stutters in the system. Indeed, Sam Lewitt’s continuously morphing ferrofluid piece on the third floor is an almost perfect embodiment of this invasive, shape-shifting manifestation of capitalism.

The dominant presence of film and performance work in the Biennial also reflects this atmosphere of perpetual change. Films by Frederick Wiseman and Wu Tsang and a performance piece by Georgia Sagri promise to unsettle viewers, yet the force of time-based projects, even when confrontational, critical, or incisive, comes to an end when the lights go up. The immediacy and imminent disappearance of these experiences hail the viewer, as Louis Althusser put it, insisting on adaptation to the world they present. In keeping with the network of experiences that compose the exhibition, each address will soon be silenced, only to be replaced by another. The physicality and stillness of paintings, photographs, and sculptures bear witness indefinitely; such works have a quality of permanence, an insistence and rudeness that makes them more intrusive than ephemeral experiences. If this Biennial presents the artist as marginalized, introspective, without power, the structure of the show, which insists that viewers return repeatedly to partake of its appearing and disappearing actions, ultimately makes the institution itself the central figure.

Despite the show’s adherence to an off-the-grid sensibility, fame and documentary practice are paired in dialectical subtexts throughout the exhibition via the inclusion of filmmakers such as Wiseman, Werner Herzog, and Vincent Gallo (who includes six full-page head shots of himself in the catalogue, in case you didn’t recognize him). The play between the populist glamour of film and the desire to bring added realness into the artifice of the art museum creates an internal commentary that destabilizes the experience of viewing these works. Walter Benjamin’s hope that audiences’ approach to the new medium of film would be that of “testing” is revived here. But so is the museum’s hope to appeal more broadly to popular audiences. Photographer LaToya Ruby Frazier’s work plays off Ryan McGinley’s ad campaign for Levi’s, pairing his photos of hardworking, freedom-loving white trash with black-and-white photos and commentary from pissed-off residents of Braddock, Pennsylvania, location for the “Go Forth” photos of Levi’s-clad model workers. But it is the Levi’s slogan “We Are All Workers” that most closely echoes the slogans of protesters who occupied the Whitney’s second-night opening without incident. Kate Levant, in a more physical deterritorialization of the destruction of the American infrastructure, has imported the remains of a burned-out house from Detroit to the museum. It’s a small world after all.

Mike Kelley, Mobile Homestead, 2010–. Installation view, Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, 2010. Photo: Corine Vermeulen.

This Biennial does all the right things. Everyone says so. So why am I depressed? If Boltanski and Chiapello’s contention is right—that the challenge to bourgeois security posed by the “artistic” demands of the ’60s for radical liberation and authenticity has proved uniquely compatible with a new phase of capitalism, a capitalism through which individuals are embedded within networks that turn these very freedoms into competitive mechanisms—then in a very real way, every creative gesture provides new opportunities for future exploitation. The now-old story of the infinitely capacious co-optation of aesthetic subversion by the culture industry has been similarly updated, as the strategically deployed pessimism of institutional critique is absorbed into the alterna-worlds of individual agency.

In his catalogue essay for the exhibition, Mike Kelley talks about Mobile Homestead, 2010–, the project that would become his last artwork:

As public art, intended to have some sort of positive effect on the community in proximity to it, it is a total failure. . . . Yet, in the beginning, I never intended the work to have any positive effect. Turning my childhood home into an “art gallery/community center” was simply a sign for social concern, performed in bad faith. . . . But perhaps the failure of the Mobile Homestead project now, after being filtered through the institutions of the art world and community services, is successful as a model of my own belief that public art is always doomed to failure because of its basic passive/aggressive nature. Public art is a pleasure that is forced upon a public that, in most cases, finds no pleasure in it.

The element of bad faith that Kelley describes, and the willingness to make immoderate, even extravagant investments in bad faith, are the indispensable defenses art offers us against the exploitation of our deepest selves.

David Rimanelli is a contributing editor of Artforum.