Category Archives: Whitney

Zoe Leonard

My favorite thing I saw at The Whitney was Zoe Leonard. By far. It’s rare when I see an artist whose work is this much my kind of thing but in gallery after gallery I found myself just nodding my head and appreciating just how much this was my jam.

I’ve encountered her photography before at SFMOMA where her Analogue portfolio was used in conversation with Janet Delaney and Eugene Atget as a way of documenting the changing city as it develops and redevelops. I liked it then but I like it even better seeing the same portfolio with the rest of her work.

For a medium which is often about a fraction of second* Leonard’s work consistently comes back to issues of slow evolution. Windows in buildings that have been bricked up and painted over. Trees which have grown around man-made infrastructure.** In this context Analogue becomes more about change as a natural evolution in the city instead of reflecting any explicit moment of time and development.

*Garry Winogrand’s quip answer of “around 1/125th of second” in response to being asked “how long did it take you to make that photo?” is the go-to snark here.

**Both of these are subjects I’ve found myself drawn to as well.

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Her photos of Niagara Falls coupled by the two huge installations of postcards extend the slow evolution theme beyond what happens in-camera and adds elements about how humanity has documented the evolution over a century of time. That Niagara Falls is moving upstream by like a foot a year coupled with the sheer number of photos of the falls means that the archive of postcards that Leonard has assembled is working on numerous levels with regard to evolution.

In addition to the basic level of how each photo shows a moment of Niagara Falls’ erosion, they also show both how our views of the falls have changed in popularity and how our printing itself of postcards has changed.

As a print geek I could just look at the evolution of printing technology and stare at this wall for hours. But it’s fascinating to see how certain views are popular and what vintage of postcard they seem to be mostly composed of. It’s also a wonderful demonstration of how even with dozens of different views, each photograph feels like a trope.

I also love the Fae Richards archive where Leonard and Cheryl Dunye have created a fictional archive of photographs and ephemera for a black actress. If you didn’t know it was fake you’d swear it was real since the degree of accuracy in the materials is astonishingly good. Without any obvious tells for being fictional it’s able to comment on all kinds of things in how women evolve as they age, how actresses evolve as they age, how black women evolve as they age, how black people evolve as they age, how the roles that Hollywood puts people into changes as they age, how society has changed over the past 70 decades, etc. etc.

This is, again, a piece where I appreciate the craft both because of the craft and the way that craft enables so many things to see and take note of. You can seize on any thread and follow it through. That there are so many threads to follow is just amazing to see and stretch your brain with.

Not everything on display shows evolution. Unfortunately. The most powerful piece in the exhibition for me was I Want a President precisely because it shows how little things have changed in two-dozen years. The entire poem is a punch to the gut.

It hurts to read it. It hurts to recognize how this is how liberals felt after the 1980s yet the supposed left-leaning political party has failed to really address any of this during my entire lifetime of being eligible to vote. It hurts that every single fucking line outlines the things that gave us our current disaster in office. It hurts that every single fucking line describes the people that that current disaster will kill through his policies.

Notes

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One of Leonard’s pieces is a sculpture of blue suitcases to which she adds another suitcase each year she lives. While I appreciate the concept of a piece where the artist’s mortality is a defined part of the concept, I just wish there was a bit more information about whether the suitcases get reordered each year or each installation. It doesn’t look like a chronological view of suitcase fashion over Leonard’s lifetime (I noted the absence of any roller bags) so I couldn’t help wondering if there was some method to the ordering.

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The installation of Kodak books, while an interesting comment on the evolution of mass-market photographic education, was another highlight of my visit because I got to watch another visitor cross the DO NOT CROSS tape, ignore repeated warnings from the security guard to move away from the art, and blithely pick up a book. It was only after she picked it up and the guard’s tone changed from “stay away from the art” to “YOU ARE NOT ALLOWED TO TOUCH THE ART” that she sheepishly put the book “back.”

Actually, that wasn’t the highlight. The highlight was getting to watch the guard call in the art handlers to have them repair the installation. Which meant that I also got to see how the piece is actually assembled.

It turns out that each pile of books has a hole drilled through it and there’s a post keeping everything together. The topmost book has a hole only drilled part-way through and so masks the construction.

Incomplete History of Protest

Toyo Miyatake (1895–1979), Untitled, 1944

The Whitney also had an exhibition featuring protest artworks in its collection. This was much better as it both allowed the museum to address its own role in protests in the past as well as to position itself politically in the current climate.

It’s not a greatest hits exhibition but instead features a number of pieces that, despite all being dated, still hold significant relevance to today’s issues.

That the first room started off with photos by Toyo Miyatake and Gordon Parks immediately put me at ease. Miyatake is frequently overlooked and few of his photos are even online.* With the way the USA is putting Latino migrants in concentration camps and trying to round up Muslims refugees I’ve seen Ansel Adams and Dorothea Lange’s photos of Japanese Internment hit the web every couple of weeks. I’ve only seen one Miyatake and he didn’t even get a photocredit.

*It’s great that the Whitney has seven of them on their website.

So it’s fantastic to recognize his photography as protest and resistance instead of just documentation. And it’s just as important to do the same with Gordon Parks’s and Louis Draper’s work. These aren’t just photos documenting the community. They’re a statement of resistance and protest and I can’t help but see #BlackLivesMatter as the subtext of Draper’s photo of Fannie Lou Hamer or Colin Kaepernick in the subtext of Parks’s photo of Muhammed Ali.

The photos are 50+ years old. The struggle is even older. Yet the same issues are still going on today.

Faith Ringgold (b. 1930), Hate Is a Sin Flag, 2007.

What I like best about this exhibition though is that Whitney points the lens at itself—both in how it’s curated its exhibitions in the past and its place as a tastemaker in the art world. It’s refreshing to see a museum critique its power and how its used, or abused, that power in terms of which artists it champions and what kind of political statement it’s willing to make with art.

I get the sense that for much of its life, The Whitney, while not representing The Establishment,* was instead like much of academia and the art world and still only accessible to people with connections and as a result, wasn’t as cutting edge as it thought it was. Owning up to that legacy is an important first step in recognizing why many communities and artists don’t trust museum institutions in general and becoming a museum which is accessible to everyone.

*Hence all the complaints about non-representational painting also on display in this section.

Ad Reinhardt, NO WAR, 1967

I’m also fascinated by all the discussion about art’s role and how it should, or should not, be involved in politics. Much of the protest art on display is heavily anti-War and colonization and while I appreciate the sentiment, I was also reminded of Taryn Simon’s work—specifically her photograph of the CIA’s art gallery and how the US used modern art of the type championed by The Whitney and MoMA as a form of cultural imperialism.

It’s a weird thing to recognize how the complaints to The Whitney about too much Abstract Expressionism and not enough representational paintings result in the same goals as Ad Reinhardt’s No War list.

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The huge gallery of Vietnam War protest art is very good but also gave me an uneasy feeling. I love seeing all the posters. I also couldn’t help but notice how heavily they emphasize US war casualties as the singular reason to not be involved.*

*Of all the posters on display the ones by Women Strike for Peace are the only ones which consistently mention civilian casualties as being a reason to be against the war.

To be clear, I totally understand why this is the case. It’s the most-immediate and selfishly most-important reason to not wage war. My uneasy feeling comes from the realization that, given the increased use of drone warfare, focusing on US casualties was entirely the wrong reason to be against war. 50 years later and we’re still casually killing civilians in other countries. There’s just not nearly enough outrage or protest about it because the US bodycounts are so low now.

Guerrilla Girls (active 1985–), Guerrilla Girls Review the Whitney, 1987

Moving on into the 80s and we get to another round of The Whitney critiquing itself—this time with the Guerrilla Girls.* This wasn’t as pointed as the previous critiques since it involved pretty much every gallery in New York City as well. But as before it’s a welcome thing to see an institution critique itself.

*Every time I see Guerrilla Girls pieces hanging in a museum I do a quick count of the other artists on display in the gallery. Since The Whitney’s room was on feminist art it avoided the trap of having Guerrilla Girls pieces up in a room which is predominantly male artists.

There was also a gallery of AIDS-related artwork. I’m beginning to see the answer to my question from a few years ago when I realized and wondered how museums would deal with the intensity of the AIDS epidemic. This room is especially effective and was a major punch to the gut in its combination of anger and despair. I don’t have an image of AA Bronson’s portrait of Felix Partz up because I can’t bear to look at it again. It’s a brutally effective piece that forces us all to think about whose deaths we’re complicit in.

Carl Pope (b. 1961), Some of the Greatest Hits of the New York City Police Department: A Celebration of Meritorious Achievement in the Community, 1994.

Speaking of deaths we’re complicit in, the galley about power is also a major punch in the gut that feels distressingly modern. That Carl Pope’s trophy case (one award per incident of police violence) is 24 years old is an absolutely appalling indictment of how fucked up the policing system continues to be.

The other pieces in this room are similarly timely and the only thing which marks them as being dated is the absence of the new horrors that have occurred since the piece was made. Everything else is still relevant.

That so much of this exhibition is still relevant today shows both the importance and impotence of protest art. Did any of these pieces change things for the better? I’m not so sure. But the fact that they exist and show that we have to continue voicing our opposition to things is notable. As is the way they demonstrate how much of a mistake it was for people to sit back and think that things have gotten better since we fought all those battles in the 60s.

The Whitney

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After I visited ICP I took a walk to The Whitney. I’ve only been to it once before—in 2002 when it was in the Marcel Breuer building. I’ve been meaning to check out its new digs for a while and I’m happy I finally got around to doing so.

The new building is nice but also kind of weird. It feels less like a museum and more like an office building with gallery spaces. A lot of this is because there are a lot of offices that you see when you’re navigating the building but there’s also something extremely corporate to exiting an elevator or stairwell and stepping out into a hallway. It’s an odd place to navigate.

It is however located in a nice spot on the river at the end of the High Line with wonderful views from either end of the hallway. The windows overlooking the river can be used to frame artwork in wonderful ways and the open-air patios on the other end give you a nice view of the city.

The Whitney has a lot of exhibitions going on. I’ll cover a few in this post since I don’t have much to say about them and I’ll leave the other for their own posts later this week. And if these short comments seem a bit negative on The Whitney it’s because the stuff I liked deserves its own posts.

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The big exhibition is their Grant Wood show. These are clearly the most-crowded galleries and American Gothic remains incredibly popular.

I… I didn’t like most of what I saw here.

It’s weird. The Whitney presents Wood’s work as not only important but good art. And I really don’t buy it. All this idyllic pre-industrial America stuff feels intentionally out of touch—both for today and for when it was painted. Like I can see the appeal in the 1930s as comforting imagery for when everything was falling apart. But to elevate it as high art? I don’t get it.

There’s so much more interesting art going on in the 1930s. Most of it is even saying something since there is so much to talk about.

Wood though? Empty calories. Plus most of the portraits are grotesque. Most of the murals, boring (though I think they’d work okay on a much smaller scale). The landscapes, bizarrely surreal with the super-crisp lighting. (I enjoy some of the most-surreal ones since they bust through the idyllic thing and become menacing and off-putting.) I kind of grimaced through all the galleries.

What I did like? His Lilies of the Alley sculptures. Those were fun and interesting. Oh, and I liked that the wall text on American Gothic made it very clear that the painting was supposed to be of the house, not the couple.

Harold Edgerton (1903-1990), Milk Drop Coronet, 1957

There was also a small exhibition of Doc Edgerton photos. I’ve written about his work before and don’t have much to add to those thoughts. I’ve never seen so many prints though and having them up in an art museum allows me to see them displayed in an art way rather than the way I grew up seeing them as more science/technical imagery.

I always like it when a photo exhibition makes the point that all photography is basically a lie. There’s a tendency to think of Edgerton’s photos as revealing truths that are too fast for us to see. But the real truth is that while they stop motion, nothing they show actually looks the way it is either.

James Castle (1899-1977), Interior with Stove and Wood Box, c. 1931-1977.

I don’t remember anything about the permanent collection from my previous visit to The Whitney so it was nice to see that one floor of the building was dedicated to a more-generic permanent collection show.

Walking through that show though gave me some ideas as to why I may not remember the permanent collection. Lots of Hopper and Americana kitsch meant I walked through these galleries pretty fast.

James Castle’s small soot and spit drawings though did catch my eye. I like them for the craft and how roughly they still show Castle’s hand in them as well as the way they work like my favorite photographs by taking something mundane and finding what‘s interesting in it.