Be Here Now: Eccentric Historicism Emerges at the 2012 Whitney Biennial

The best contemporary art exhibitions feel like events and discoveries. The 76th Whitney Biennial has these qualities. Rather than elicit an acquisitive “I want this,” the show makes you say, “I was there.” This Biennial suggests that right now is a great moment to be alive—and it comes as some relief that someone is saying this about American art (and perhaps by extension about American life?) in the spring of 2012.

The installation strips away excess and opens up structures, literally and metaphorically. On the Whitney’s fourth floor a signature, trapezoidal Marcel Breuer window hangs over a vast, airy expanse: walls have been removed, creating an open, loftlike workspace at the heart of the exhibition. Charles Atlas, Michael Clark and others will create performances here for the duration of the show: at the press preview, Sarah Michelson’s dancers walked over a Masonite floor plan of the Whitney, as if suggesting that a subtle shift in the balance of power between artist and institution had been effected.

Accessible behind this space, Wu Tsang’s GREEN ROOM is an environment where the performers prep. With the pleather chairs and uneven lighting of a dive bar, it reveals the behind-the-scenes workings of the exhibition’s ongoing performances: the stretching, costuming and downtime of the dancers. On the same floor, an animatronic piece by Gisèle Vienne, Denis Cooper, Stephen O’Malley and Peter Rehberg makes audible the inner dialogue between a boy and his doll. The show’s curators, Jay Sanders and Elizabeth Sussman, make every effort to reveal hidden structures, down to their catalogue, which, by listing every appointment pertaining to the exhibition’s organization, renders the social architecture of the curatorial process evident.

(Full disclosure: in 2004, I collaborated with Mr. Sanders on a not-for-sale exhibition of books. That same year, I organized a 22-person exhibition that included drawings by Nick Mauss, an artist in the Whitney Biennial; his work was not for sale.)

On the second floor, a parallel theme emerges: artists’ desires to assemble forgotten histories. Matt Hoyt’s collections of painstakingly handcrafted “found” objects tread the line between fiction and documentary. LaToya Ruby Frazier speaks to the loss of history experienced by residents of her native Braddock, an industrial town in Pennsylvania. By evoking the documentary practices of Jacob Riis or WPA photographers she challenges gentrifying images of a Levi’s ad campaign with the town’s actual loss of jobs, hospitals, and resources for disenfranchised populations.

Werner Herzog’s video installation Hearsay of the Soul reaches further into history, positing little-known 17th-century Dutch printmaker Hercules Segers as “the first modernist” with five slowly changing images set to swelling opera music. Richard Hawkins’s excavation of Butoh dance founder Tatsumi Hijikata’s letters and notebooks show the dance form’s roots in the symbolism of visual artists like Odilon Redon and Gustave Moreau, Hans Bellmer, Pablo Picasso, Willem de Kooning and Francis Bacon. An enormous installation by Kai Althoff, its soft-sculpture angels and shaped canvases set against a shimmering backdrop of hand-woven panels, resurrects turn-of-the century German and Austrian Expressionism, reimagining figures like Schiele and Klimt as central to a contemporary canon. And sculptor Robert Gober, who has figured in multiple Biennials, presents the largely overlooked works of American painter Forrest Bess, which hover between abstraction and Symbolism. In The Hermaphrodite (1957), a thickly-painted, red-speckled, oblong shape bisects a silhouetted figure; the title speaks to Bess’s obsession with gender, including the self-performed surgeries in which he created a hole at the top of his scrotum to attempt to balance male and female energies. All these artists present secret aesthetic histories in which the artist works as translator, researcher and archival historian.

The third floor continues this eccentric engagement with history: Liz Deschenes’s photographs echo the optimistic modernism of Breuer’s windows, while Jutta Koether’s paintings reimagine Nicolas Poussin’s The Four Seasons in gloriously gestural pink and green canvases installed on glass walls. Nick Mauss’s installation partially recreates a sketch by gay, 1940s French set designer Christian Bérard; hanging inside are pieces by Marsden Hartley, Ellsworth Kelly and others, from the Whitney’s and Smithsonian’s permanent collections. The work overall is a meditation of the Proustian power of art to bring an obscure history to life in the present moment.

Other artists use the museum as living space or laboratory. L.A.-based Dawn Kasper has installed what she calls her “nomadic studio” —and much of her messy bedroom; she’ll occupy it during the show’s opening hours. Open-ended projects like Sam Lewitt’s Fluid Employment, in which ferromagnetic liquid is poured over a variety of mechanical objects every two weeks, will evolve over the course of the show. Works tend to inhabit spaces rather than hang neatly on walls: Tom Thayer’s fabulous gallery of assemblages evokes the Whitney’s own Alexander Calder Circus (1926-31); delicate surrealist toys or objects, hung on strings and with a somewhat sad demeanor, populate his room.

Much of the art here is made on the premises. Tucked away on a mezzanine is a performance space featuring theatrical stage props. During the press preview Georgia Sagri walked on blocks, wearing a glamorous gown with a nude female body printed on it, dancing and mechanically repeating spoken word phrases. On May 20, queer photographer K8 Hardy will present a fashion show staged on Oscar Tuazon’s M.C. Escher-esque staircase.

The Biennial’s film program, curated by Ed Halter and Thomas Beard, runs the gamut of what constitutes cinema in America today, from video diaries and found footage to revisionist Westerns and urgent reportage. It includes contributions from two influential artists who passed away this year: Mike Kelley (his explorations of Detroit’s history) and low-budget guru George Kuchar.

Not everything here works with the chemistry of the show. Moyra Davey’s mail art photographs had none of the punch of her previous images of pennies. John Kelsey’s slick inkjet prints mounted on aluminum tracking the jarringly ironic terms “Depesrsion” and “Impoetnce” [sic] felt dialed-in. Andrea Fraser’s contribution leans heavily on sociologist Pierre Bourdieu: A pained, self-effacing catalogue essay about structures and relations in the art world, informed by Occupy Wall Street, it is, despite its dreariness, a useful snapshot of the afterlife of institutional critique during the past two years. Yet it also embodies the dead-end of becoming so engaged by history as to become unable to make new work. Nicole Eisenman’s paintings were terrific, but seemed to have emerged from an entirely different cultural moment than much of the work in the show.

Artists have always engaged with the history of art, and all great work opens onto previous works. But it takes a wise curator to make space for artists’ passionate uses and abuses of the past. This Biennial thankfully can’t be summed up by those overused curatorial buzzwords: collectives, narrative, re-evaluation of painting, performance, critique. Instead, it demonstrates that if you let smart, articulate artists into the museum, and give them unfettered space for their obsessions, wonderful things will happen. If there is a single phrase to describe this show, it would have to be a new one. I’d suggest “eccentric historicism,” heir to equal parts institutional critique, rampant nerdiness, Foucauldian interest in the archive and the college radio station’s ardor for obscure B-sides.

Lutz Bacher’s The Celestial Handbook, a series of 85 framed photographs of galaxies scattered throughout the Whitney, may best exemplify what is going on here. The Biennial is a constellation of what initially look like 51 individual points lost in space, but which, upon closer inspection, reveal themselves to be complete universes. Each has its own logic, materials, physical laws and chemistry, histories and languages. These are ready for our discovery and open to our capacity for wonder.

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