Visitors to the Upper East Side last night who live their lives in utter ignorance of art and the art world must have wondered: Was the Whitney Museum hosting a Rolling Stones concert? A line of eager visitors stretched down Madison Avenue, and turned the corner onto 74th Street. A closer look would have revealed protesters, Teamsters, unfurling banners–the locked-out art handlers from Sotheby’s. No, this wasn’t a Stones concert at all. It was the Whitney Biennial! New Yorkers are into this sort of thing; it was the night’s hot ticket.
The line really wasn’t so bad. Those who had to stand outside were given chocolate-chip cookies. The artist Nicola Tyson received one, as well as a horn blast in the face by one of the Teamsters.
“We were just wishing that the protesters would play nice music,” Ms. Tyson said of her wait, theatrically popping her ears. “Much as I agree with them.”
Once you got in, you were well taken care of. The museum’s genial director Adam Weinberg stood at the entrance, personally greeting all comers with a hearty handshake. And in that first half hour, you could actually get a drink at the downstairs bars without having to navigate a roiling sea of people.
The smart approach–and the one The Observer took–was to fortify oneself with a glass of wine before braving the galleries upstairs. And then, like most, we packed like sardines into the museum’s sizable elevators, went straight to the top floor, and worked our way down.
The upper reaches of the museum belonged to Georgia Sagri, the performance artist who was, at least when we arrived, very–and vocally–unhappy. A TV monitor in the room where she was trying to perform was making unwelcome sounds. Also, people appeared to be using cell phones. She reprimanded them. One woman exited the room, with the words, “I’m sorry to have offended.” Then again, this was performance art. Was that part of the show? Apparently not. Ms. Sagri then did some jerky dance steps to the recorded sound of a cough, and barreled into the wall behind her so hard that one of her arms turned entirely red. Here was an endurance exercise even more strenuous than the Whitney Biennial opening!
Ms. Sagri’s room was getting crowded. Collectors like Susan and Michael Hort had arrived to take in the performance. The Observer zipped out, seeking calmer quarters, and found them in Wu Tsang’s GREEN ROOM, an installation that also functions as a changing room for the Biennial’s performance acts. It was chill here. People seemed disinclined to leave. But there was so much more to see. We sighed and pressed on, and encountered a jarring juxtaposition: the Gilbert and Georgian DJ act Andrew and Andrew, both outfitted nattily in identical brown suits with purple shirts and bow ties, deep in conversation with L.A. artist Dawn Kasper, who has moved her very messy studio–and, for the opening, herself–into the museum.
Filmmaker Werner Herzog, whose work is in the biennial, arrived on the third floor with his blond wife Lena in tow, introducing her with a German word that seemed to connote “sweetheart.” Apparently it was also his first Whitney Biennial as an attendee.
“I don’t go to museums because I don’t like art,” he said, and refused to elaborate.
Brendan Dugan of the Karma bookstore wandered the second floor with the bearded artist Eli Hansen, who wore an unironic blue hat with a tractor on it. Mr. Hansen’s brother Oscar Tuazon is featured in the biennial, on the ground floor. Mr. Tuazon likes to work right up until the last minute, they said, and the Escher-esque stair piece wasn’t finished until last week and only arrived at the museum on Friday. Mr. Tuazon apparently had to hire a group of “cowboy truckers” to transport it from L.A. in one day. When told that that wasn’t possible, Mr. Hansen conceded the point and said it might have been more like a day and a half.
“The drugs or the insanity that must have fueled getting there, or even the characters who can do that for you,” Mr. Dugan said. “These people are part of the work and it’s something that Eli and Oscar embrace.”
“I don’t think it’s a technical term,” Mr. Hansen said, of the cowboy truckers. “I meant more renegade truckers. Not everyone’s going to do that for you.”
But there were Andrew and Andrew, prowling the second floor galleries.
“I’m sort of interested in these,” said Andrew, pointing to a work that aped a Ryan McGinley photograph. “It started off as sanctioned art and then Levi’s co-opted it and then you have another artist who has co-opted that.”
As he spoke, a tan Whitney supporter named Rochelle Ohrstrom floated over and began literally rubbing elbows with the other Andrew. She then tried to engage the first in similar shenanigans and the Andrews were game, trying to rub back, but by then she’d transitioned into a fist bumping kind of motion and that threw them.
“I usually,” said the shorter Andrew. “Well, okay.”
“The etiquette book I was raised on was pre-fist-bump, actually,” said the other, bumping.
“Tell me your names,” said Ms. Ohrstrom.
“Were these costumes pre-planned?” asked her companion Ray Frias, an older man with a pocket square.
“No, this guy’s been following me around all night,” Andrew said, pointing at the other Andrew. “It’s crazy.”
“Are you an artist?” Mr. Frias asked.
“Well in terms of the costume, you probably are,” Mr. Frias said, reasonably.
“Art is…” tall Andrew began.
“Deconstruction.” Mr. Frias guessed.
“…Pointless,” Andrew finished. “No, art is pointless. There’s no point in making art because it just goes in a gallery or goes in a museum.”
“Will you take a picture with me?” Ms. Ohrstrom asked. “This is going to be great for my Christmas card.” They obliged.
But then Chuck Close arrived, making the Andrews look like a sideshow.
“It’s the show everyone loves to hate,” Mr. Close said of the Whitney Biennial in general. “The press and everyone else is quick to trash it, but 10 or 15 years later everyone looks back and says, ‘Hey, that was a pretty good show.'”
Some had to make their own art, like the painter Richard Phillips, sporting his standard leather jacket.
“I actually had this experience on the fourth floor, it was down the back alleyway behind the performance space and there was a black door and it was very mysterious,” he said. “It was locked but then it opened and when I opened it i saw all these nude performers, changing into their outfits. And I was like, ‘Is this an installation?’
“I had to walk all the way around to the other side to realize that, no this was just the performers getting ready for the next show,” he grinned. “I though it was an amazing installation.”