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Whitney Biennial 2012


by Emily Nathan
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Jay Sanders and Elisabeth Sussman, the curators of the 2012 Whitney Biennial, Mar. 1-May 27, 2012, took the podium at yesterday’s press-packed preview for less than two minutes. After gratitude-laden intros by museum director Adam Weinberg and chief curator Donna De Salvo, in-house curator Sussman was concise. “Jay [Sanders] and I share a common problem,” she beamed -- “we know exactly what we want to do, and we want to do everything all the time.”

Sussman then gave the mic to her young colleague, an independent curator and former director at Greene Naftali Gallery, who quickly added that they mustn’t forget the Whitney’s invaluable “AV [audio-visual] department” before signing off. Not bad for an exhibition that bills itself as being all about “duration.”

This year’s edition of the Whit’s signature event (founded as an annual in 1932, just two years after the institution opened), features 55 artists and collaborative teams. And despite the curators’ promise of a little bit of everything, it seems airy and laid back, not overtly political, remarkably rich in materials, light on painting and low in technology (net art is noticeably absent). On the whole, it’s visually entertaining as well as thought provoking, an appealing combination of conceptual and accessible.

The exhibition includes a figurative Marsden Hartley canvas and a series of painted tableaux by Jutta Koether (b. 1956), an “immersive installation” by Nick Mauss (b. 1980), a wealth of primitivist drawings by Nicole Eisenman (b. 1965), photographs by LaToya Ruby Frazier (b. 1982), a giant version of Marcel Duchamp’s bottle-rack sculpture made of synthetic animal horns by Joanna Malinowska (b. 1972) and, in the lobby gallery, an open architectural structure (to be used as a set for performances) by the Paris-based design artist Oscar Tuazon (b. 1975).  

Several works come from hip downtown galleries like Clifton Benevento, Reena Spaulings, Bureau and Hudson’s venerable Feature Inc., and music has a strong presence. The New York artist Lucy Raven is slated to present several performances on a player piano (a demonstration of the “digitalization of analogue processes”) and Berkeley-based artist Lutz Bacher has installed a Yamaha organ that issues random sounds under the direction of an electronic “brain.” “It’s possessed,” Bacher declared.

Installed in its own room on the same floor is Werner Herzog’s Hearsay of the Soul, a hypnotic room-sized music video. Faint and dreamlike, it features a five-channel digital projection of primordial etchings by Dutch Golden Age printmaker Hercules Segers intercut with footage of a musician playing A Una Rosa, a hauntingly beautiful hymn sung in the Wolof language of Sub-Saharan Africa. Enchanting, but is Herzog really an artist?  

Unconventional uses of space abound, especially on the fourth floor, which features a 6,000-square-foot, bleacher-flanked stage for the biennial’s rotating “season” of performances, its surface currently hand-painted with Marcel Breuer’s 1964 blueprint for the museum. The show kicks off with four weeks of on-site rehearsals by choreographers Sarah Michelson and Michael Clark, which are open to the public; later performances include works by Charles Atlas, Red Krayola and K8 Hardy.

Around the back is a functioning dancers’ dressing room, visible through a wall of white latticework, as well as a “green room” installation by the popular drag artist Wu Tsang (b. 1982), which is modeled on a Los Angeles bar called The Silver Platter, locally recognized for offering work to Latin LGBT immigrants since 1963.

Transparency is a theme here -- see Kai Althoff’s hand-woven, rainbow-striped gauzy curtain that bisects the second floor -- and many of the commissions are created “on premises, during the course of the biennial, before viewers’ very eyes.” Take Dawn Kasper’s This Could Be Something If I Let It, for which she has brought her bed and rather too many of her possessions into one of the galleries, where she plans to work and live.

This kind of thing is nothing new (Marina Abramovic did it in Sean Kelly Gallery in 2002, for instance), but Kasper (b. 1977) was overheard explaining that homelessness was her inspiration (rumor has it that the museum does not actually allow her to sleep there). The result is an in-progress mess strewn with piles of books, framed collages, clothing and audio-visual equipment, but the artist’s presence infuses the whole floor with life.

Other on-site events include a gallery on the fifth-floor mezzanine inhabited by the celebrated provocateur Georgia Sagri (b. 1979), who for her preview of Working the No Work perversely did nothing, instead recording and then broadcasting her own voice as she informed the press that there would be no performance. Sagri has transformed the space into her own Pee-wee’s Playhouse, decked out with floor pillows and pink costumes hanging from hooks on the wall. She explained that these are actually textile prints of her own naked body which she will wear throughout the exhibition, “hiding my naked body within my naked body.” I suppose that’s called “meta.”

In the name of sexuality, sculptor Robert Grober has curated an exhibition of mystical paintings by Forrest Bess (1911-1977), the Outsider Artist and fisherman who suffered from visions and had elaborate theories about physically uniting both genders, eventually performing surgery on his own genitals to become a pseudo-hermaphrodite.

Bess’ longtime New York dealer, Betty Parsons, is said to have repeatedly denied his requests to exhibit his “medical” theories alongside his art, but Gober has no such qualms, and his show features graphic Polaroids in a glass vitrine documenting the late artist’s self-surgery. Despite the photos, and the long wall captions interpreting Bess’ imagery in terms of his troubled psychological state, the colorful, charmingly simple paintings don’t seem any more visceral or scatological.

The biennial has a striking abundance of what might be called craftwork, including the embroidered conceptual-art samplers of Elaine Reichek (b. 1943) and a room filled with delicate puppets and  magical sets made out of paper by Tom Thayer (b. 1970). A kind of toxic landscape by Sam Lewitt, which is installed on the gallery floor like a series of tidepools and features small, spiky hills of “ferromagnetic” liquid, looks like a kid’s science project that has exploded.

Apparently in the name of low-tech, the biennial has been devoted to the memory of underground San Francisco filmmaker George Kuchar (1942-2011), whose rarely seen, off-color, off-kilter flicks were frequently made with his students, and the recently deceased Mike Kelley (1954-2012), whose rag-doll esthetic and theater of the abject don’t really seem to have a place here.

As usual, the show also includes a film and video program. It is curated this year by Sanders and Sussman in collaboration with electro-experts Thomas Beard and Ed Halter, the co-founders of Light Industry, Brooklyn’s preeminent venue for film and electronic art (which recently joined with the online magazine Triple Canopy to settle down in Greenpoint). On the roster are Herzog, Kelley and Kuchar, as well as younger artists including Michael Robinson (b. 1981) and Laida Lertxundi (b. 1981). Unlike past biennials, each filmmaker has been given a week-long run in the museum’s second-floor film and video gallery, with multiple screenings scheduled every day, and most artists are slated to speak about their work on the weekend of their run.

So, to sum up? This is one biennial you actually need to see.

“Whitney Biennial 2012,” Mar. 1-May 27, 2012, Whitney Museum of American Art, 945 Madison Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10021

EMILY NATHAN is assistant editor at Artnet Magazine. She can be reached at Send Email