Carpet design

Controversial design, fuzzy renewal of abstraction –

The most significant aspect of this year’s Whitney Biennial is its exhibition design. For the first time since 2016, the fifth floor of the museum has been restored to its pristine state designed by Renzo Piano, forgoing walls in favor of a field of fragmented, Tetris-like half-walls arranged without order or pattern discernible, linked by city. and views of the Hudson River. The sixth floor, on the other hand, is a mournful maze of black walls and black carpeting: a “dark video hallway”, as my friend put it. It’s a mess. But bless this mess; it’s the biennial postponed because of a global pandemic, following Black Lives Matter protests, and on the cusp of what looks like another world war. With “Silent As It’s Kept”, curators David Breslin and Adrienne Edwards look into the broken mirror of the past three years, putting together shards to figure out what just happened and where to go from there.

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If you take the stairs, climbing past Rodney McMillian’s wonderfully homoerotic painting, eighty feet high, stretched on a column, titled tree (2021-22) – the first thing you see on the fifth floor is Dyani White Hawk’s shimmering geometric composition, which she and her assistants created from thousands of glass beads. wopila | Line (2021) refers to a long-standing Lakota quillwork tradition. It also references geometric abstraction (Kenneth Noland and, later, Frank Stella come to mind), but White Hawk seeks to show that abstraction has long been an integral part of art and culture. indigenous, even if the history of art has not been able to recognize it as such. A selection of photographs from Mónica Arreola’s ongoing San Pedro Valley series depicting hollow concrete buildings is mounted behind the truss that supports White Hawk’s work. They look like modernist cubes, but they’re not theory but austerity – they’re buildings in Tijuana, where the artist lives, that were left unfinished following the 2008 financial crisis. d’Arreola et de White Hawk initiates one of the central explorations of the exhibition, on how contemporary abstraction and politics feed in new ways.

A colorful artwork primarily includes squares, circles, and other shapes in a quilt-like arrangement.

Ralph Lemon, Untitled2021, oil and acrylic on paper, 26 by 40 inches.
Courtesy of Ralph Lemon

The works on the fifth floor compete with architectural noise, and they don’t always win: the majestic paintings of James Little and Ellen Gallagher look less grandiose than usual, more like gimmicks and less like portals. The only painter who seems to escape this fate is Leidy Churchman, who presents a delightful three-panel rendition of Monet’s Water Lilies, and that’s because she’s literally been rolled across the gallery on her pretty little claw wheels. Works in other media seem more at home in this chaos, including Jason Rhoades’ scaffolding piece, Sutter’s Mill (2000), which is partly in regards to misplaced construction work. Ralph Lemon seemed to know the joke the most: his works, paintings of circles and other arts and crafts-like shapes, are irreverently affixed inside his wall segment with thumbtacks. He also embellished his museum label with one of his works, obscuring some of the text. This is the revenge of performance studies on the museum: curators’ selections seem to cosplay like works of art, embarrassed to be discovered like this, hung in a museum.

If the exhibition design is the most controversial thing about this biennale, then the Whitney is probably breathing a sigh of relief. It’s not like his other problems have evaporated: the museum’s union handed out pamphlets during the VIP opening, drawing attention to their stalled negotiations, and objectionable figures can still be found to the museum’s board of directors (a recent room in vanity lounge rounds the remaining questions). The curators do not wink at these explicitly political questions, but, in a higher reference to politics, rather cite the “identity” Biennale of 1993, even including five artists who were part of it. But few of the works on display this time reach the incendiary level of Daniel Joseph Martinez’s signature project from that earlier era, in which he remade the museum’s usual admission labels by replacing the Whitney acronym with excerpts (and sometimes whole) of the sentence, I CAN’T IMAGINE EVER WANTING TO BE WHITE. His work in the current biennale, like most other contributions, seems to have mellowed; Three reviews . . . is a series of undated photographs in which the artist disguises himself – in the manner of Hollywood prostheses – as various science fiction characters, in an exploration of “post-human” futures, as if he were swapping politics human for a more planetary vision.

Other works upstairs (in this funereal train station your eyes must adjust to) are more explicitly concerned with social justice. Alfredo Jaar’s video, 06.01.2020 18.39 (2022), is so cheesy that I was almost embarrassed to watch it, but it is certainly effective, if not authoritative, in its mode of installation: black and white images of protests following the death of George Floyd , in which helicopters circle overhead, operates in a black box where massive fans replicate that intense wind. Many nearby projections are offset by a prominent Cy Gavin painting, Untitled (Hic), 2022, stubbornly abstract, a quivering orange mass on the black wall. The couple echoes that of White Hawk and Arreola, suggesting that some impending abstraction rests at the center of the videos’ social unrest.

But abstraction. Is there a more elaborate word in the history of art history? Abstraction is back. . . again, after an excess of figurative painting in recent years. It’s a bold claim negotiated in relatively traditional terms, though this time it’s resurrected by new practitioners and revitalized by performance and Black studies. Stella’s 2021 repetitions of James Little’s 2021 – from his series of “black” paintings – are intended to disturb “oppositional figure/race background hierarchies”, as Zakiyyah Iman Jackson writes in the catalog, which may have something to do with it. something to do with how whiteness produces race as a “difference” from its “ground.” The surprising hatched canvases of Denyse Thomasos recall the burning sites of the academic study of darkness: prisons and the holds of slave ships. It’s abstraction, but at the service of rendering the stories and interiorities of marginalized subjects.

Which brings us back to the central abstraction of the exhibition: design itself. A small dark room on the sixth floor that Edwards and Breslin call an antechamber is something like a climactic curatorial abstraction: a room of unattributed objects. Inside is, allegedly, Thomas Edison’s last breath, displayed as a test tube in a display case; a Barely There soundtrack by Raven Chacon of what could be someone breathing; and close to silence, an unattributed black monochromatic relic, placed high on the black wall opposite the Edison Flask, which you have to strain your eyes to see. This last piece is presented without a wall tag, an inarticulate center symbolizing grief or loss, in a bold and chaotic display.