Every two years the Whitney Museum hosts an art slaughterhouse. Critics sharpen their knives, come down from the hills, and the blood flows. The curators are cut for their choices, the artists are sliced up for any number of reasons from careerism to poverty of spirit, even the opening night crowds are critiqued and given the razor’s edge. Finally, the success of a Whitney Biennial depends less on how much it is liked (for it is never much liked) than on how little it is hated. “Better than last year…but” is considered a rave review. And to be fair, the 2012 edition fared better than any in recent memory.
The Whitney Biennial’s benefits as an event are many; it allows everyone in the art world to feel self-important and superior, to use their knives not just to cut down poor art (which is often in abundance like low-hanging fruit) but also to seek revenge for never having been chosen, to draw blood in long running vendettas, to whine about the status quo in the arts. And if you are an artist seeking attention, you use your knife to trim the wick and light a candle in hope that you will be chosen two years hence.
However, the Biennial (messy and battle scarred as it is) serves as more than just being an art world piñata. It does, in fact, launch some younger artists’ careers and revive those of the older set. It allows us to see curatorial points of view with more risk, freedom, and ambition than these beleaguered professionals are usually allowed. And it’s compact compared to its commercial twins, the art fair theme parks.
Thanks to Carol Vogel’s article on the upcoming Biennial in The New York Times (November 14, 2013), we have a snapshot of what is to come in 2014. The 2012 show was pulled together by Whitney staffers. This time around a different set of eyes and interests will come from three outside curators (but not outsiders): Stuart Comer, the Chief Curator of Media and Performance Art at the Museum of Modern Art; Anthony Elms, an Associate Curator at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia; and Michelle Grabner, a Professor in the Painting and Drawing Department at the Art Institute of Chicago.
Vogel reports that the biennial — the last in the Marcel Breuer building at Madison Avenue and 75th Street — will include the work of just over 100 artists and collectives, more than twice the number of the 2012 Biennial. And as with the previous edition, there is no overarching theme. Each curator chose a floor and divided up the artists. As it has been in the past, the selection of artists includes a multigenerational mix, including some whose careers span the decades (Robert Ashley, Sheila Hicks, Louise Fishman, Sherrie Levine); dead artists (Sarah Charlesworth, Gretchen Bender and Tony Greene); and a hefty dose of emerging artists. There will also be more artist collectives or collaboratives than ever before, a reflection of a growing trend.
In selecting the artists for 2014, certain trends are inevitably starting to emerge. The Whitney curators Elisabeth Sussman and Jay Sanders, who determined the 2012 show, have said that there will be a focus on artists involved in a multiplicity of disciplines. For instance, there will be writers who paint, painters who are also poets, filmmakers who create sculptures, and photographers who draw.
But most interesting sign of things to come is Vogel’s comment that one of the stronger threads in the upcoming biennial’s weave is that, “Craft seems to be part of the equation too. Lisa Anne Auerbach, a conceptual artist based on the West Coast, has knitted sweaters; artists including Shio Kusaka, John Mason and Sterling Ruby have made ceramic works. There will also be textiles by Ms. Hicks, tooled leather wall pieces created by Carol Jackson, and woodworking from the sculptor Alma Allen.” This is also part of an accent on material and materials (my, how things have changed), as was evident at this year’s Venice Biennale, and there will be an emphasis on archival materials. The archive of critic Gregory Battcock was obtained and the show will have vitrines showing all kinds of Battcockian ephemera in search, perhaps vainly, of an epiphany.
The two choices for ceramics (and there might be more) are actually quite inspired from a polemical point of view. John Mason, who is now in his eighties, has been given his due as a sculptor (the focus that the Getty’s Pacific Standard Time placed to his art last year gave him a well-deserved moment in the sun) and a leader of the American ceramic movement (although he would be happy to jettison the latter titles). He is a ceramist with an exquisite modernist aesthetic and impeccable, even exceptional craftsmanship. He is one of the gods of the ceramic world.
Sterling Ruby is, by comparison, the most disliked artist in that world, but who cares when he is the golden boy of the fine arts? Ceramists find his ceramics inept, ugly, tasteless, and childish, which, if you think about it, could not be a better set of adjectives for someone trying to get into the fine arts these days via the kiln. One can layer those four adjectives on a large number of the hot, new younger artists with a seamless fit.
My feeling is a little more nuanced. I feel that his ceramic work is neither as good as the fine arts realm believes it is, nor as bad the ceramic world argues. The word “rude” fits his clay very well. Ill-mannered, rather than ill-made. There is no respect for the material’s conventions or its elders. Another word I would use to describe his work is “raw” as in meat, or a wound. And I am finding it more and more difficult, as I encounter this work, to dislike it as much as I did in the beginning, with the exception of his pieces made up of multiple exposed coils, which was a tired cliché long before it was found by his fingers.
The presence of these two artists is a good enough starting point for me to commit to the two-to-three-hour wait for the show’s opening night. Why bother? I always go again later but I would not miss “the” night. My motivation is to support friends who are exhibiting, but it’s also the awesome spectacle; a bubbling stew of preening art world egos, seasoned with equal parts envy, resentment, fear, loathing, relief, celebration, and, in the background, two distinct but different noises, deal making and knives being sharpened.
Garth Clark is Chief Editor of CFile.
Above image: Sterling Ruby, Basin Theology/ Hinomaru, 2013. Courtesy of the artist and Xavier Hufkens, Brussels.