From New York: The Whitney Biennial 2012

By Daily Serving March 29, 2012

Thumbnail: Forest Bess. The Noble Carbunkle, 1960; oil on canvas; 30 x 49.5 in. Private collection; courtesy of Amy Wolf Fine Art, New York.

As part of our ongoing partnership with Daily Serving, Art Practical is pleased to bring you Madeline McLean's review, “The 2012 Whitney Biennial: A Rehabilitated Production, which you can also read here at Daily Serving.


The beginning of March sees New York erupt in an art world flurry with the seventy-fifth Whitney Biennial igniting the itinerary for the next couple months of art fairs, large-scale exhibitions, auctions, and not least of all, the parties that accompany such events. Presented by Elisabeth Sussman and Jay Sanders, who formed a fortuitous curatorial duo, the 2012 Biennial shone brighter than the previous Biennial in 2010 for many reasons. Sussman, curator/Sondra Gilman Curator of Photography at the Whitney, and Sanders, a freelance curator, writer, and dealer for New York’s Greene Naftali gallery, not only pared down the number of exhibited artists, but also incited a dialogue that is both timely and urgent.

This year, the Biennial acts as a platform – or even a forum if you will – for comprehending the expanded fields of contemporary art in relation to performance, film, literary, multi-media and curatorial praxis. Whereas the Biennial in 2010 acted as an acknowledgment of a benchmark – that being the year 2010 – taking its thesis from the roots of retrospection. It looked towards the history of the Whitney Biennial since its inception in 1932, in honoring the structure and legacy of the Biennial, while also commenting on the political and social structures of rehabilitation that were propagated from certain instances such as the presidential election of Barack Obama. Unfortunately – and probably at the fault of an overly expansive thesis – the 2010 Biennial fell flat, quite simply, and was remarkably unmemorable for me. However, the 2012 Biennial this year not only commands more cohesiveness in both content and intention, but its presentation of works from fifty-one artists – a list edited more so than any Biennial to date – granted a substantial significance to the curation as a whole production.

The 2012 Biennial, poignantly dedicated to the late Mike Kelley who passed away earlier this year, presents artists at all points in their careers, in a vast array of media from painting, sculpture, photography, installation, music, theater, film and dance. Not only did curators Sussman and Sanders instigate the notion of the “expanded field of the arts”, but they very much emphasized the connective points between one practice to another, or similarly one profession to another. As quoted in the 2012 Biennial press release, both Sussman and Sanders remarks that, “[…] a number of artists are functioning as researchers and curators, drawing on the histories of art, design, dance, music and technology. Artists are bringing other artists into their work – a form of free collage or reinvention that borrows from the culture at large as a way of rewriting the standard narratives and exposing more relevant hybrids”.

One of the most noteworthy aspects of the 2012 Biennial is the 6,000-square foot performance arena designed on the fourth floor. Complete with viewing bleachers, this space is dedicated to musical, dance, theatrical (et al.) performances through the end of the Biennial. Performances directed by choreographers such as Michael Clark and Sarah Michelson, as well as various musical acts such as the experimental rock band The Red Krayola and soprano singer Alicia Hall Moran, turn the fourth floor space into a theater of expansive talent, blurring the boundaries between context and vocation.

Werner Herzog, Hearsay of the Soul

Werner Herzog. Hearsay of the Soul, 2012; four-channel digital projection of twenty etchings by Hercules Segers with music by Ernst Reijseger; installation view, Whitney Biennial 2012. Courtesy of the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.

Dawn Kasper, This Could Be Something

Dawn Kasper. THIS COULD BE SOMETHING IF I LET IT (from the series Nomadic Studio Practice Experiment, 2009– ),  2012; three-month durational performance and multimedia installation; installation view, Whitney Biennial 2012. Courtesy of the Artist and the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.

In relation to the subject of context, Dawn Kasper will transform a back gallery on the third floor into her personal studio and living space, entitled THIS COULD BE SOMETHING IF I LET IT (2012). Reminiscent of John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s Bed-Ins during the Vietnam War era, albeit not necessarily in activist intent, Kasper speaks about the dichotomy present relating to the immediacy of human connection in an otherwise very intimate space, such as a bedroom or artist’s studio space.

The unparalleled presence of film and thus the artistic dialogue centered within filmic studies is a noteworthy supplement to this year’s Biennial. The film program, co-curated by Thomas Beard and Ed Halter, strives to point out the significant advances in film and video within the past decade in conjunction to those in contemporary art. From short, experimental video pieces such as Hearsay of the Soul (2012) by Werner Herzog and selected works from George Kuchar’s Weather Diaries (1977–2011) series, to lengthier features such as The Oath (2010) by Laura Poitras (who was nominated for an Emmy, an Academy Award and an Independent Spirit Award for her post-9/11 film My Country, My Country (2006)), exemplify the vast conglomeration of video art and film. And what is a Biennial dedicated to Mike Kelley without a substantial serving of Mike Kelley? Three of his films from the series Mobile Homestead (2010–11) present a vignette of Detroit’s civil history as the narrative to his public art project in his hometown. With the film and performance programs initiated this way, viewers can return several times to attend the array of performance acts, which insures an extended interaction with the public, a relationship to whom an institution is always beholden.

Some of my personal favorites were photographs by LaToya Ruby Frazier in her Homebody series (2010) in which she dons her deceased grandfather and grandmother’s personal (and intimate) items, such as pajamas or blankets, in their abandoned apartment as an act of lamentation. Sam Lewitt’s installation entitled Fluid Employment (2012) made from poured ferromagnetic liquid elucidates the medium’s immaculate traits in its imminent usage in electronic devices such as hard drives. The peripheral retrospective curated by artist Robert Gober on Forest Bess (1911–1977) – which, in the very act of his curation, acted as a perfect extension to Gober’s own practice – was astounding in content. Exposing the enigmatic and mentally unstable modern artist Forest Bess, Gober paints a character sketch of Bess by virtue of paintings, extensive wall texts, archival letters (exchanges between his New York dealer Betty Parsons) and photographs. If a large painting of a unicorn didn’t attract me enough, it was certainly the psychosis that manifested itself in hermaphroditic self-mutilations that sealed the deal for me. Installations by Lutz Bacher, Cameron Crawford and Luther Price’s handmade and manipulated film slides are not to be missed either.

Conclusively, the 2012 Whitney Biennial was a concisely edited and masterfully conceptualized project. A well-grounded understanding and use of the various spaces within and around the museum give Sussman and Sanders a virtuosic credit. I am relieved to see that a spotlight has finally been shown on both performance and filmic arts, in all of their realms and sub-categories, especially in a biennial setting. Several members of the Whitney staff exclaim the serendipitous team that Sussman and Sanders made in numerous paragraphs in the press literature and it is clear when experiencing the materialization of their collaboration. This is a biennial that has me delighted in saying that I will return several times.

The Whitney Biennial 2012 is on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art, in New York, through May 27, 2012.

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