Questioning the Whitney Biennial with Curator Michelle Grabner

It’s 2014, and the Whitney has made a daring move with its Biennial. Michelle Grabner, Stuart Comer, and Anthony Elms are the three non-New York curators chosen to oversee their own floors and present their own interpretations of influential art today. Grabner, Comer, and Elms essentially worked individually, curating each floor as if it were the only one on display. Unfortunately, this tactic created competition amongst the three curators and thus a lack of cohesiveness throughout the show—perhaps a bit like Orchard, an art cooperative created in 2005, in which curators fought for self-promotion. Still, Grabner’s fourth floor featured visually stimulating, standout pieces in the form of large-scale paintings, sculptures and videos.

I was lucky enough to tour the fourth floor with Grabner, who immediately emphasized the significance of the Whitney’s relocation, as well as the fetishization of the current building—which has built its reputation on the traditional values of the sense of “uptown class.” This biennial is the last held in the Whitney’s current Madison Avenue building before its monumental move downtown—where it will be revealed to the public in the Meatpacking district in 2015. The new Whitney clearly hopes to transform the museum’s reputation from stuffy to chic; it is being designed by architect Renzo Piano and will include over 63,000 square feet of indoor and outdoor galleries, exhibit spaces, and an open floor plan consumed by large windows and natural light.

The museum’s move downtown drastically alters the focus on artists from senior citizen legends to hot, young twenty-somethings. But with the Whitney getting a Botox injection and joining the youth bubble, why are practically all of the 36 contributors on Grabner’s floor in their late 50s?

Back on the fourth floor of the biennial, Grabner honestly admits that her primary mission wasn’t to track down young talent, but rather, to adhere to three themes: materiality, abstract painting by women, and affect theory. As a painter herself, as well as chair of the Painting and Drawing Department at the Art Institute of Chicago, Grabner has a reputation as an expert on women painters focusing on abstraction—which she uses to her advantage in her display of large canvases by Laura Owens, Louise Fishman, and Jacqueline Humphries in the largest room on her floor. Each of these works exemplifies beautiful expressionist painting, and they meld together in a whirlwind of color.

Laura Owens’ corner is by far the most thought provoking. Grabner explains that Owens reconfigured a 1970s poster that stated, “When you come to the end of the rope, make a knot and hang on.” In silkscreened layers, Owens reinterpreted this homily by visually slicing the canvas to emphasize the phrase “and hang.” Owens also hid three smaller canvases behind this massive one, establishing a relationship with the unseen. In the Whitney exhibit, this large-scale painting by Owens is surrounded by three Sterling Ruby’s sculptures, painted in red, green, and brown. Grabner described them as “guttural, corporal, and gooey”—they feature odd, cylindrical shapes echoing arteries and intestines. While they come off as a bit grotesque, these basins work perfectly in the space. Another standout in the exhibit is an intimate scene set up by Joel Otterson. He combines fine art and handiwork through the placement of a lace tent paired with two multicolored chandeliers made of thrift-store glass in an alluringly personal corner of the room.

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From left: A painting by Laura Owens, sculptures by Sterling Ruby, and paintings by Jacqueline Humphries – Photo via Artspace

Grabner’s floor fluctuates between boisterously bright and hauntingly quiet, and a hush fills the air as the crowd enters Zoe Leonard’s “Camera Obscura”—a large room devoted to the feeling of being inside a camera. A single prismatic window acts as a lens, projecting the outside world into a dark yet calming space. Whitney-goers breathe a communal sigh of relief upon entering—they have left Grabner’s punchy, visually stimulating rooms and lose themselves in their own bubble of darkness. Brick buildings and birds fill the space, reminding the viewers that art can be soothing. I recollected a similar feeling upon viewing Sol LeWitt’s minimalistic, full-room wall drawings at Dia Beacon (which I viewed in November of this year). I felt uninhibited, transported into a tunnel of delicacy. Both LeWitt’s drawings and Leonard’s Camera Obscura create an calming presence that encompasses the room.

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Zoe Leonard’s Camera Obscura, by Suzanne DeChillo/The New York Times via Inhale Magazine

Upon leaving the Camera Obscura, we were surrounded by more softness—a line-up of Sheila Hicks’ 60-something ceramic vases in shades of navy, tan, and white, a display of David Foster Wallace’s notebooks, and Joshua Mosley’s sweet stop-motion animated video of two men playing a strange sport, resembling the precursor to tennis.

Nevertheless, there are a few duds on Grabner’s floor. Stephen Beren’s photos from his project, “40 Views of Rome display the same landscape, shot at different times of day—which seems a bit boring (It doesn’t help that Grabner continually states that she doesn’t understand contemporary photography). Jennifer Bornstein’s video of naked women rolling around in dirt and fighting one another seems completely out of sync with the rest of the show.  More generally, Grabner’s unwillingness to display young, new artists fills the floor with a hint of security and reserve—a failing that is especially strange considering the huge downtown transition the Whitney is about to undergo. Despite this surpising gap, Grabner succeeds in fulfilling her goal of displaying works that illustrate the three themes of materiality, abstract painting by women, and affect theory. She creates a visually stimulating environment of multimedia work and emotional depth—from large-scale canvases to handmade trinkets, paintings to sculptures, and brash to soft.

The 2014 Whitney Biennial runs until May 25. For more words and images on the fourth floor, check out Hrag Vartanian’s piece for Hyperallergic.

Featured image by Hrag Vartanian

Hannah Gottlieb-Graham is a sophomore studying dance, art history and women’s studies. In her spare time she enjoys writing articles for Surface Magazine and College Fashion, cooking vegetarian cuisine, gallery hopping, shooting film and making her own perfume. Her weaknesses are Wes Anderson and good champagne.
Insta: @sweetsweetnoir

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