Meet Iconoclastic Bushwick Curator Brittany Natale

Brittany Natale used to call her dad “Jekyll and Hyde.” “He’d go on a drug binge, come home, do the craziest stuff,” she says. “Lock my mom in the closet, or beat her.” A “bad Long Island City kid,” as she puts it, growing up he bounced from job to job, all of them in New York City — his penchant for the town being the lone taste his daughter would come to share.

This month, the 26-year-old curator and Queens native funnels her lived experience through “The Darkest Side of Paradise: Navigating the Modern-Day Drug Culture,” a collection of visual art on view through mid-April at the Wayfarers gallery in Bushwick. Work by young coastal artists such as Juliana Paciulli and Matt Starr joins with that of more established New Yorkers, like the Long Island City–based Priscila De Carvalho, whose graphic canvases can be found around the city. The show is characteristic of Natale’s curatorial style, inspired by her personal life but broadened to speak to larger concerns. One of the points of particular interest here: opioid addiction in the heartland, a theme also leveraged by Donald Trump on the campaign trail as a sign of lost American greatness.

Natale is a curiosity, a “good girl” in a sea of conflicted ones, says Bianca Valle, the alt-model-slash-photographer whose naturalistic portraits were part of “Mood Ring,” Natale’s previous Wayfarers exhibition, which ran in the fall of 2016. Natale’s shows tend to feature young women, often fellow New Yorkers, but they aren’t, according to Valle, the “usual culprits” — those “certain girls who have their moment, and they’re involved with several things, and people hear their name quite often.” Good girls, Valle says, work for love, not fame, an impulse she sees as a rarity in a “young female art world” polarized toward the limelight. “What’s beautiful about Brittany is she puts these shows on without incentives. She doesn’t care if ten people come or a thousand people come.”

Wayfarers is an enigmatic part of the Bushwick art scene, partly by design. Its sign’s font and style mimic that of a tire shop down the street, a symbol of a hope to blend in, though the gallery’s very presence suggests change. Natale embodies this split desire, at once “savvy and informed about the art world and contemporary developments, but [with] a populist approach,” says George Ferrandi, Wayfarers’ owner. Since joining the gallery last year — she answered an ad posted online, and curates for free; she makes her living in marketing — Natale has attracted record numbers and press with buzzy shows like “Teen Dream” and “Weekend With Bernie,” the latter a fundraiser she co-curated for the would-be Democratic presidential nominee that brought in hundreds of visitors. Echoing Valle, the Wayfarers proprietor also credits a certain abstemiousness for Natale’s feats: She doesn’t drink or smoke, for one. “She’s really good, and she has no social life,” said Ferrandi, jokingly.

Instagram, it would seem, suffices for letting the id out, and Natale is at ease on hers: flashing a peace sign at a show’s opening night, exiting a homeless shelter following a volunteer shift, protesting at Trump Tower. In person, she’s more vulnerable, almost jittery. She apologized repeatedly for talking too much about a life Horatio Alger might have rubbed his hands at: hours spent lost in watercolor projects and Mazzy Star songs on the floor of her mom’s old bedroom, dreaming of an adult life in the borough over the bridge, whose skyline a friend had drawn on her wall. She’d been shuttled to her grandma’s home in Queens after a series of domestic dramas: Her parents split and her mom moved to Pennsylvania, leaving Natale, by then old enough to choose who to stay with, to opt for her drug-addled dad — though really she chose New York City. “He’ll never leave,” she says now, matter-of-factly. When her dad’s neighbor called her grandmother, worried that he’d started pimping girls out of his apartment, Natale found herself in the informal custody of her gran, who couldn’t drive or attend to her in the way she needed.

The phrase “straddling two worlds” came up, too perfect not to invoke. World one: Manhattan at its finest, where a great-aunt Natale adores and still visits lives in walking distance of the Met. Her mom’s side is full of artists, all women, their careers stunted by marriage and professional hurdles. One aunt worked for Christian Dior. Another played piano at Carnegie Hall. Her mom went to Parsons, and her grandmother painted watercolors. When it was time for college, her mom warned against art school — too cutthroat — so she went to Marymount College. Eventually she transferred, to the Fashion Institute of Technology, where she studied marketing. The goal was only to get back to the city. FIT is a state school; it won based on cheapness.

Today she manages her mental health through talk therapy, nutrition, and spirituality. Panic is always with her, a semi-controlled companion, most often creeping in while she’s on the train, which represents confinement as much as escape. Her dad worked for the MTA — he still does — and she killed many a teenage night at a train depot in Queens while he cleaned cars. She had her first panic attack in high school, at fifteen: She left health class to splash water on her face. “I couldn’t breathe. Nothing felt right,” she told me. “I went to the nurse’s office and just lay on the floor, telling her, ‘I’m dying, you have to call 911.’ ”

Internal strife makes for rich art. Panic, or addiction, or sadness — all so hard to explain in words, or to understand unless you’ve been there yourself. Off the canvas, they split victim from viewer. They isolate, trick. A panicking person looks fine but is not: is dying, or dead, losing breath, thinking the thoughts. That classic feminine sin, of being dramatic, gets thrown around. A panicking person might even accuse herself of it. (And she is likely a woman — a recent study out of Cambridge University suggests that women are twice as prone to anxiety.)

After that memorable first bout of panic — she thought it was a heart attack — Natale realized her physical pain came from an emotional source. “Everything wasn’t working anymore. I remember sitting on the nurse’s office floor and having that realization, like, ‘OK, my mom’s not around anymore. My dad’s not around. I live with my grandmother and she doesn’t drive, so she can’t pick me up from school.’ I don’t even think she had a car. All those experiences and emotions that I didn’t process eight months earlier, that’s when I processed them.” Her openness almost seems like an affect, a part of the art. She tells me it is, in a sense. She wants to take down what she calls “the ‘I’m fine’ culture”: Even as we self-destruct in interesting and tragic and novel ways, we like to say we’re fine. “Everyone is totally cool 100 percent of the time,” she laughs, when “the real answer is, ‘I am getting my period, and I just had a panic attack on the M train.’ ”

‘The Darkest Side of Paradise: Navigating the Modern-Day Drug Culture’
1109 DeKalb Avenue, Brooklyn
On view Sundays, 1–5 p.m.
Through April 16


ART ARCHIVES CULTURE ARCHIVES Datebook Museums & Galleries

Raymond Pettibon Transcends His Punk Roots

On the New Museum’s lobby wall, high above the elevator bank, Raymond Pettibon has painted an inscription of sorts to be read by all who enter: “I have been rewriting ‘that modern novel’ I spoke of to you…On th’ whole it is a failure, I think, tho nobody will know this, perhaps, but myself…iyt is a simple story, simply told. And yet iyt hath no name.” This particular story may not have a name, but it does have a title — “A Pen of All Work.” In this buzzing, illuminating exhibition — Pettibon’s first significant survey in New York City — the current tale’s told across 800-plus drawings, as well as a selection of paintings, videos, zines, album covers, posters, and flyers. (A triumph of the show: proving that even a mind-bogglingly prolific artist isn’t un-surveyable.) Here, think of the tens of thousands of works he’s created over three decades as an ongoing narrative — and think of Raymond Pettibon as one of the great American novelists or, more precisely, a novel-ist, a storyteller in a form of his very own design.

Pettibon was born Raymond Ginn in 1957, his now-surname once just a funny nickname given to him by his father after the football player John Petitbon. Ray Ginn: a bummer of a homophone during the Reagan era, which is exactly when he began to make a name for himself as an artist. His older brother, Greg, was the guitarist for the seminal punk band Black Flag, and Pettibon first became known for designing their iconic logo and creating their album covers, in addition to flyers for a raging music scene that included Fear, the Circle Jerks, the Minutemen, and more. Although his became some of the most iconic images of the era, Pettibon himself was more ambivalent about punk than legend would have it. Sir Drone, his comical, clunky video from 1989, stars two of SoCal’s best loved Mikes — artist Kelley, and Minuteman Watt — as aspiring musicians holed up in a dingy Hollywood apartment, writing crap lyrics, ham-jamming on electric guitar and bass, and trying to come up with a band name. (Two options: “Chairmen of the Bored” and “The Men From P.U.N.K.L.E.”) “I play real. I play myself,” Kelley defensively whines when Watt suggests that he learn some real chords. Through Pettibon’s lens, self-expression without craft just sounds like a lot of self-important noise.

This isn’t to say that Pettibon didn’t share in the spirit of the age. Like Kelley and others of his generation, he digested what the world fed him, only to spit it back out with equal parts tenderness and bile. Like any great writer, Pettibon is first and foremost a great reader, a mapper of the subcutaneous, that which lurks beneath the skin — of bodies, of myths, of systems political and cultural and otherwise — and even beneath images themselves. (He sometimes reproduces photos and scenes taken from television or movies or news or cartoons; other times, his visions are all his own.) His drawings are intense and uncomfortable and hilarious because they’re the products of a clear-eyed angst. Strange scenes, with an immediacy and indeterminacy akin to stills pulled from an unknown film, feature druggies, hippies, punks, roof jumpers, ocean surfers, world leaders, baseball players, superheroes, cartoon characters, mushroom clouds, soldiers, torturers, hearts (as in bloody organs, not frilly valentines) — each upended somehow, each punctured. In Ray’s world (most of his work bears the title “No Title”), Gumby’s got a boner; Superman’s a fascist; a fetus holds a sign that reads “Legalize Abortion”; Ronald Reagan’s asshole portends our future; Nancy Reagan inspires sexual fantasies; a father, son, and grandson swing side by side from a tree.

No title <i>(The war, now...)</i>
No title (The war, now…)

What has always distinguished Pettibon from certain of his predecessors — from Honoré Daumier to R. Crumb — is the way in which he sets words and images together, and apart. Text doesn’t simply describe or clarify image, and image never simply illustrates the text. Rather, they graze each other — at once marking and feeding off each other, charging the space between them, making meaning an oddball, almost offhanded thing. What more genuinely American gesture than to entwine visual and verbal cultures? “Paint the All Unutterable” he inked in 1990. It follows then that one must also utter the un-paintable.

“For a Long Time I Used to Go to Bed Early,” Pettibon quotes from Proust in a 1999 drawing, the phrase written across from the head of a wailing baby. Is the baby the reason the speaker isn’t sleeping? Or are these words “spoken” by the baby? Or or or? These pairings are like funny acts of ventriloquism, voice throwing, only who’s the dummy — who’s the mere mouthpiece — and who’s the author is to some degree muddy, muddled. In many cases, the words are Pettibon’s own, but in some, as above, they’re borrowed scripts. On display in “A Pen of All Work,” in two vitrines, are clips the artist/novel-ist has cut from books and newspapers and kept as source material, to quote from or to revise as he sees fit. Balzac, Shakespeare, and James Joyce are just some of the writers who appear throughout his work. As it turns out, Pettibon’s a true literary sort after all.

One of the revelations of this exhibition (for this viewer at least) is this plasticity of Pettibon’s voice — or rather, the fact of his many voices, his ever-shifting “I.” This artist/novel-ist is present too, always, if more complicatedly so, burrowing beneath many skins. In a self-portrait from 1990, he presents himself in a black-and-white drawing with a tear streaming from his left eye. Written below: “My Heart Tells Me That You Will Not Listen to My Words and This Is the Cause of My Tears and Cries.” We (the “you”) are now the subject of his heartbreak too, though we’re reading Pettibon’s words loud and clear.

Raymond Pettibon: A Pen of All Work
The New Museum
235 Bowery
Through April 9



How The Whitney Houston Biennial Help To Push Feminist Art Forward


In New York’s abundance of art fairs and gallery shows, male artists have always tended to outnumber female artists. One show this Spring, however, sought to change this gender imbalance: The Whitney Houston Biennial. The exhibition, which was founded two years by curator and painter Chritsine “C.” Finley, has since doubled in the size of the space and the number of artists included. This year’s show features over 160 female-identified artists.

“For the first version, I imagined that if I was tapped as the curator of the Whitney, I would show three floors of women artists,” says Finley. “When I told this to my friend, the artist Eddy Segal, she immediately made a joke and said, ‘The Whitney Houston Biennial!’ We laughed like crazy but I also realized that I had to do it. We created such a wonderful platform for highlighting female artists, I knew we needed to keep going. I am already arranging for 2019!”

By this year, when Finley staged the show at a building on West Broadway, the original concept had evolved. Every inch of available wall and floor space was covered in art within the gallery space. From the salon-style hung paintings, drawings and photographs to the various video pieces and small installations, the show created a sense of organized chaos. It features a mix of painting, drawing, screen printing, video and found object works that require more than just a walk through. While it appears to be light-hearted, the exhibit (produced with the help of as a vital deconstruction of the contemporary art world. Amidst the sea of art fairs, including the current Whitney Biennial (which gave Finely’s version its name), the show had a lot to offer.

The range of works touched on topics including body image, race, intersectional feminism and more. In addition to the works themselves, each artist was also asked to include the name and description of a woman pioneer who inspired them.

“So on the wall text next to each piece we have Joan of Arc, Beyonce, Sappho, Patricia McCormick, who’s a female matador, and many more,” said Finley. “Their stories are included in the exhibition which is a new element for this show.”

"Midnight Work" by Chanel Matsui Govreau
“Midnight Work” by Chanel Matsui Govreau

One video, entitled “Midnight Work” features the work of artist Chanel Matsunami Govreau. Also known as Queen Gidrea, Govreau is a performer, photographer and mixed media artist explores issues of gender, race, and identity within her work.

“Midnight Work” is an edited version of a dance class the artist took on Waacking. This style of dance, developed during the 1970s in LGBTQ club spaces, emphasizes making hand and arm gestures to the beat of the music. The video itself is focused on the women who participated in that particular class, with close up shots of their faces, exaggerated looks and hand gestures.

Govreau’s experience as a self-identified queer woman exploring these charged socio-political spaces within the context of this performance and others, is a complicated meta deconstruction. As a kind of intersectional feminist gesture within the video itself, this is taken a step further in the person that Govreau chose as her pioneer, noted feminist and critical race scholar, Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw. Crenshaw has also been credited with the development of intersectional feminism.

Seat of Heritage" by Francena Ottley
Seat of Heritage” by Francena Ottley

“This is for You,” a video piece by Francena Ottley, also takes on issues of race and identity, and features the artist doing various friends hair in an apartment setting. The video is accompanied by a sculpture entitled, “Seat of Heritage,” a children’s sized chair covered in braided hair. The works seemed to be referencing the larger complicated history of African American  hair and the representations of it but it is the artist’s investigation of these topics that give it more meaning.

The DIY feeling of the Biennial is reminiscent of the Armory’s “Spring Break Show” but seems to be angling to do something more. There is scrappiness and hard edge  that produces a larger sense of urgency. Perhaps it is in the overwhelming volume of work, the setup of the show, or the larger political climate we are currently in, but the Biennial underscores many of the voices, works and artists that often go unrecognized and this show is helping to give them vital recognition.

By creating a larger sense of community which does speak directly back to feminism in general and also third wave feminism specifically, Finley has curated a show in which women’s issues are at the forefront. Seeing the works of Justin Vivian Bond alongside those of emerging art students is encouraging to say the least; however, there is still a lot of work to be done. As Finley noted, plans are already underway for the 2019 biennial and it will be exciting to see what the next phase in this this exhibition will bring.



From Instagram Ads to Livestreams, Brooklyn Restaurants Get Creative with Video

Whether or not you view food as an art form and chefs as knife-wielding virtuosos, there’s no question that restaurants place a heavy emphasis on aesthetic expression. From dish plating, to interior design, to waitstaff uniforms, and even the menu fonts, everything at your favorite spot is tailored to convey a specific spirit that they hope you’ll find appealing. The same is true on social media, where they pepper our feeds with lusty shots of new dishes and prized ingredients. But photographic food porn can only get you so far these days, and a number of Brooklyn restaurants have taken to experimenting creatively with video and multimedia in an effort to strengthen their public identities and draw in customers.

Local restaurant commercials have been around for ages (south Brooklyn’s classic roast beefery Roll-n-Roaster has done some particularly fine work), and there’s no shortage of quirky viral content out there, like the Dos Toros team’s cheeky music videos. But with social media as important as it’s ever been, restaurateurs like Josh Ku and chef Trigg Brown of boisterous modern Taiwanese canteen Win Son have joined other enterprising business owners in debuting content directly on these platforms. Last summer, they recruited their friend Robin Comisar, a director at content studio Ghost Robot, who they tell the Voice is “a huge fan of Tim and Eric and the like.” The resulting #ad — a cringingly funny lo-fi commercial made of fake test footage — features a magic trick gone wrong and Ku acting his normcore best. The whole thing is fifteen seconds long and ends on a lingering closeup of Brown’s much-discussed fried chicken bun. It’s racked up nearly 2,000 views on Instagram.

A video posted by Max and eli (@thesussmans) on

In December, brothers, chefs, and cookbook authors Max and Eli Sussman turned a running inside joke about 80s sitcom Perfect Strangers into a promotional video for the flagship location of their first joint project, Samesa. The small but plentiful market and restaurant, an ode to the Syrian, Iraqi, and Lebanese food they grew up eating in Detroit, already had its share of fans, but the Sussmans wanted to do something special to commemorate the occasion. Without their beards, “I think Max looks like cousin Larry, and I think I sort of look like Balki Bartokomous,” Eli tells the Voice. So with the help of friend, director and editor Whit Conway, they filmed (and Conway lent his vocal talents to) an extra-cheesy spoof of the show’s opening credits that explains what Samesa and the Sussmans are all about in charmingly retro fashion. The entrepreneurial duo even got some family members in on the fun. To date, nearly 3,000 friends and (perfect) strangers on Instagram have also watched it.

Olmsted's livestream
Olmsted’s livestream

Live-streaming is the next frontier for video, so it’s no surprise that Olmsted, the ambitious Prospect Heights restaurant that melds chef-owner Greg Baxtrom’s experimental yet approachable and affordable cooking with farmer-owner Ian Rothman’s idyllic vegetable-and-livestock-filled back garden, would be leading the charge. “It seemed cool that a guest could be sitting in the dining room watching Greg plate their dish on their phone or be at home and have a viewing glass into what is going on,” says general manager Max Katzenberg, referring to the camera Baxtrom had installed. The tiny Raspberry Pi-connected setup is positioned over the restaurant’s kitchen pass, providing an aerial view of the back-of-house action. Tune in after 6pm on any given night and you might find the countertop cluttered with colorful dishes as the tickets pile up, a flurry of hands darting back and forth while the chefs add their finishing touches. Better still is Olmsted’s YouTube channel of archived broadcasts, most of which run for the entirety of dinner service, making them roughly four hours long — well within Lord of the Rings: Extended Edition, and Andy Warhol territory. While I haven’t watched one all the way through, there’s a definite arthouse quality to viewing the uninterrupted transmissions, whether they’re of the balletic choreography and numbing repetition of the plating process from a fixed angle, or just 40 minutes of a gatorade bottle and a dish towel at the end of the night.

Pushing this streaming premise to its quirky, albeit logical conclusion is Live On Air, a decades-long dream realized by restaurateur Joe Barbour. The Brooklyn native took inspiration from 1998’s psychologically biting Jim Carrey drama the Truman Show, in which the actor plays a man who discovers that his whole life has been a semi-scripted TV show. Barbour’s Louisiana-inspired cafe and performance space features a small soundstage in one corner and cameras set up in the dining room and kitchen. While you won’t necessarily have your reality shattered digging into kale salads and fried chicken and waffles at the Park Slope spot, eating here does come with a very specific disclaimer at the bottom of the menu that gives the restaurant permission to photograph, broadcast, and use your “likeness, mannerism, and voice without compensation or credit.” Feeling camera shy? The note implores you to “inform a member of our staff immediately.”

One thing Barbour got exactly right was the timing. This is a restaurant that could only exist today, in a climate born from our constant collective selfies, snaps, and periscopes. Live On Air amounts to something akin to a safe space for extroverts, where local artists perform as part of an ongoing collective series and diners are encouraged to join in the fun with a 10% discount offered to those who livestream their dinners. Waitstaff are part of the action too, settling into the corner studio’s directors’ chairs to host impromptu discussions or sit for interviews with Barbour, who posts all of these interactions and more on the restaurant’s social media pages. There’s less of a voyeuristic quality than that of Olmsted’s uninterrupted stream, but though Barbour’s yet to launch any careers, the next viral hit could be right around the corner.


Kirk Hayes’s Ridiculous Figures Keep Painting Unreal

At some point during Abstract Expressionism’s heyday, Ad Reinhardt — or perhaps it was Barnett Newman, they were both hardcore painters — quipped, “Sculpture is something you bump into when you back up to look at a painting.” To appreciate the matrix of composition, subject, texture, surface, color, and whatever other kitchen sinks go into a serious painting, one must take up multiple viewpoints and distances. A truly engaging painting can induce a reverie that pulls you within nose-distance of the canvas, as you revel in the ridges of a meaty brushstroke, before sending you drifting backward to bring the entire composition into focus.

Kirk Hayes’s paintings at Horton Gallery occupy a realm somewhere between the trompe-l’œil earnestness of William Harnett’s hyperrealistically rendered sheets of paper in The Artist’s Letter Rack (1879) and the tragicomic sumptuousness of the bulbous-headed smoker lying about in Philip Guston’s 1973 Stationary Figure (both pictures are on view at the Met). At first glance, the cartoonish figure in Hayes’s painting Death Mask Sitting With Cigar (2016) appears to be collaged from coarse paperboard or thin painted wood sheets glued to a heavy wood panel. The figure is lying down, not sitting, and its head is covered with white goo. Perhaps it depicts a plaster cast in the making, since three yellow breathing straws jut out from the covered face, throwing soft shadows. Or maybe, considering the absurdity of the image, the man has been leveled by a thrown cream pie.

Get up close and personal and add to the enigma of the title the fact that everything — including the paper straws — is crafted from oil paint applied with uncanny verisimilitude. Even the exposed wood-grain ground of this roughly four-foot-square concoction is a trompe-l’œil image atop an actual wood panel. Suddenly reinforced is the fact that all representational painting is false, a distillation of three-dimensional existence into 2-D illusion. Abstraction dreamed of liberating us from such lies through the unassailable materiality of drips and stains; Hayes instead confounds perception by painting portraits, complete with shadows, of the abstract shapes constituting his absurd collages.

Hayes (born in Fort Worth, Texas, in 1958) initially builds a collage out of various materials, which he then meticulously re-creates in paint on panel, after which he destroys the original collage. In other words, he starts with the facts, transforms them into a deception, and then destroys the evidence. When you perceive scabby pieces of masking tape posing as Band-Aids on ludicrously pink flesh, strands of hair fashioned from wire, or pushpin holes in a sky-blue board with splintered edges, what you’re actually seeing is virtuoso paint application.

Yet before you lose yourself in the fascinating journey across these remarkable surfaces, stay a moment before the bold compositions, which echo Guston’s depictions of characters who wear their melancholy like overcoats. With scorch marks on the ground and a blackened pall across the horizon, Humanity Insanity (2016) offers a sardonic vision of a postapocalyptic landscape. A swollen hand, its scarred fingernails like wandering eyeballs, reaches out from a dark hole to caress a flattened flower. The faux wood-grain ground confronts the viewer like a construction fence, yet the black pit (in which we glimpse the top of a mangy bald head) upends notions of illusionistic space, a painted doppelgänger of the physical cutout form glued to the wood in Hayes’s original collage. Where Harnett was imitating life, Hayes doubles down by obsessively depicting artifice.

As Met curator Kelly Baum notes in an essay on Hayes, trompe-l’œil painting got its start in Europe in the 1550s but only took hold in America in the nineteenth century, when, “thanks to scientific developments as well as the proliferation of lies, humbuggery, deceptions, and frauds, American citizens increasingly came to doubt the reliability of vision.” The 1800s gave us not only Harnett’s photorealistic still-life paintings and such ebullient frauds as P.T. Barnum’s “Feejee Mermaid” (a monkey’s head stitched onto a fish’s tail) but also — according to a consensus of historians — a parade of inept, immoral, and corrupt presidents, ranging from Zachary Taylor in 1849 through Ulysses Grant in 1877 (with only Abraham Lincoln breaking the streak). Perhaps there is a correlation between fraudulent leadership and art that bamboozles the eye. Whatever the reason, Hayes’s bewitching imagery has converged with our historical moment like a gorgeous train wreck.

Kirk Hayes: Old Artist Pissing at the Moon
Horton Gallery
113 East 29th Street
Through April 15



Joan Mellon Flies High at Carter Burden Gallery

The painter Joan Mellon recently told me that, for her, painting was a conversation with her materials and surfaces. Indeed, her abstractions can evoke the sense of a searching, back-and-forth discussion — not to mention the occasional heated argument.
In Flyin’ High (2015), that exchange appears to have included agreements, reconsiderations, digressions, and, finally, altered points of view (one of the many ways that painting bests politics). The scale — two and a half feet square — speaks to the reach of hands gesturing in lively debate. It seems the angled pale-peach bars in the foreground intended to flatly divide the image into three planes, but background rectangles of green, orange, gray, and yellow — roiled by solvents dragged through the paint — disagreed. Another small bar of peach sings out from the adulterated orange patch, engendering a sense of the volume of a tenuous cube. This on-the-fly framework, implied beyond the canvas’s borders, warps the barely contained color fields into a gorgeous bedevilment of color and contrast.

Mellon (born in Brooklyn, in 1944) embodies a native New Yorker’s feistiness. Local History (2015) is roughly an arm-span wide and head-to-gut high, the reach of wary boxers feinting punches. Runnels of aqua dash across a burgundy field but are abruptly staggered by mashed-in brushstrokes, the drips a reminder of implacable gravity always trying to flatten us. There is a hard-won, luminous animation to these sagging striations — they are down, but definitely not out.

Many “isms” have reigned during Mellon’s lifetime: minimal and conceptual, as well as art of the land and the performance space, and the new’s and neo’s of figuration, expressionism, and pop. But, steadfast over the decades, she has let passionate form and color do her talking, no explanations necessary.

Reflections: Joan Mellon
Carter Burden Gallery
548 West 28th Street, 212-564-8405
Through March 23


What Makes Art “American” in 2017?

Howling Dogs isn’t so much a video game as a genre-mash, redolent of choose-your-own-adventure books, an unwritten Black Mirror plot, a poem, a depressive spiral, a manic flight. You “enter” its “rooms” via hyperlinks leading to pages of text. The construct starts you off in a cell that gets dingier by the day, your only escape temporary: a series of dreamy virtual realities accessible via hardware. You can pretend to be a Joan of Arc type on a pyre or an empress learning to die. But like a sad person self-medicating with drugs or sex or work — the game is a commentary on trauma — you cannot escape your recursive state. When the v/r fun ends, you’re back in the cell (the page describing it, that is), locked in a reality you badly want to leave.

The game’s creator, Porpentine Charity Heartscape, is an unlikely entrant into a hoary museum. And yet this week Heartscape steps into her glitziest gig by many miles, as one of 63 chosen artists showing at the 2017 Whitney Biennial — the first at the museum’s dramatic new site. The 29-year-old Oakland resident is known best in the furthest reaches of the internet. Off it, the trans artist — in the tradition of LGBTQ kids kicked out of their homes, as she was — battles chronic homelessness. She wrote Howling Dogs in under a week soon after starting hormone therapy, in a friend’s barn; by phone, she says the hormones leached into the work in a “furnace-like process,” full of “temperature shifts…feverish sweating and chills and reds and blues and oranges flushing through your body. It’s like when you’re taking metal and tempering it into a different shape. It was a molten experience, and that sweat a lot into the work.”

This year’s Biennial curators, Christopher Lew and Mia Locks.
This year’s Biennial curators, Christopher Lew and Mia Locks.

Her presence is a signal, a promise kept, by curators Christopher Lew and Mia Locks. When the thirtysomethings were announced as this year’s gatekeepers of American art, much was made of their youth and backgrounds. Lew, a 36-year-old Brooklyn native, sports a mohawk, looks like a kid, and is Chinese American. Philadelphia-born Locks, also preternaturally youthful, also Asian American, is 34. They are the latest reps for a museum forever locked in a battle with itself, to change its own game every round. Every few years headlines surface about curators different from, and seemingly more exciting than, their predecessors: non-Whitneyites for 2014; an embattled alum for 2012 (Elisabeth Sussman, whose then-infamous, Anglo-skewering 1993 curation job has since become the stuff of myth); an odd couple for 2010, in the form of a Gen X’er (Gary Carrion-Murayari) and a 53-year-old (Francesco Bonami).

Lew and Locks signify, perhaps, the most committed departure yet, anomalies as they both are in a world still sheltered from first-gen, non-European tastes. Lew, a staffer at the Whitney for almost three years, met Locks at his previous job, at P.S.1, where the pair shared a desk in the MoMA offshoot’s open-plan office. He’s not a practicing artist, but he grew up in the museums of the city — MoMA, the Whitney, the Met — and shared with his deskmate the love of a viewer. “We never collaborated, but we were always working in tandem,” Locks says, describing what sounds closer to a friendship than a business relationship. “We’d go see shows together, stuff we were excited about.”

Rafa Esparza performing building: a simulacrum of power, Los Angeles, 2014.
Rafa Esparza performing building: a simulacrum of power, Los Angeles, 2014.

When the Whitney tapped Lew, he went with his gut in selecting a partner. Wary of the “forced marriage” rut curatorial duos often find themselves stuck in, he chose “someone I wanted to be on the road with, Airbnb’ing with.” If the approach seems looser than expected for one of the biggest art events in the world, it’s maybe predictable for a museum going hard on the path of reinvention. This will be the first Biennial at the Whitney’s buzzy new Renzo Piano–designed home, which has shifted an institutional center of gravity from the midtown museum block to the Chelsea gallery scene. The lineup suits that downtown trajectory. Better than a third of the artists showing this year were born in or after 1980 — four of them in or after 1990. To compare, post-1980 babies were far scarcer in 2014: Out of more than a hundred artists, they numbered eleven (none in that edition were born in the Nineties).

So Lew and Locks got to play out a buddy-comedy art film. En route to Berlin, they lunched in Amsterdam with Jo Baer, the Seattle-born octogenarian paintress, whose minimalist canvases Locks fell in love with at a viewing in London. A rare “studio visit” with the anonymous artist Puppies Puppies played out in an L.A. dive bar, where the three huddled around a laptop looking at images of art. “The waitress who was serving us was like, ‘Is it pornography?’ ” Locks remembers. Lew chimes in with a stab at what the server might have been thinking: “Why are you in an old punk bar in Los Angeles looking at art?”

Lyle Ashton Harris, Lyle, London, 1992, 2015.
Lyle Ashton Harris, Lyle, London, 1992, 2015.

Aily Nash, a curator for the New York Film Festival who helped Lew and Locks build the show’s video offerings (the duo relied on a team of supplementary curators from the moment the process began, in 2015), says she was surprised at how “casual” it all felt. She invited the two to her home in the Hudson Valley one weekend, where the three spent a day and a half curled up on her couch, watching videos she was into at the time. “It felt like the right thing to do, to have them come up. It wasn’t like we were always meeting at the museum,” she says. “They’re lovely, and they made the experience informal and friendly.”

Lew, she says, fumbles his way to the light: “He goes on an instinct, not knowing exactly why something is interesting, but kind of being able to sense innovation or newness.” It’s a characterization Locks echoes. She calls her partner a good “early talent scout.” Meanwhile, he says she holds the flashlight. “Mia will say, ‘Why is this interesting? What’s going on here?’ She makes us take that time to process it,” Lew says.

Ajay Kurian’s Childermass installation, 2017.
Ajay Kurian’s Childermass installation, 2017.

Working with “a shared brain” made it easier to “hunt around in the dark,” he adds. Ergo the inclusion of Heartscape, rooted in a 2014 New York Times article on the Gamergate controversy that rippled through the outer rings of gaming sites. That article, with its lengthy look at the fringe pioneer, stayed in Lew’s mind, and at one point he found himself, as if possessed, making “Mia play a lot of video games, or at least attempting to. I didn’t know why.” Locks — “the opposite of somebody who’s played video games” (“the last one I played was Duck Hunt,” she says) — became equally enthralled. Together they formulated a theory, on humanism. Heartscape’s games, directional forces in the indie gaming world, are “intentionally circular,” Lew says, “frustrating.” Enter a Heartscape creation and expect to feel a simulation of mental distress. “They’re about issues of trauma and PTSD. It locks you into something, the way depression does. It enacts [depression], in a sense.”

Interactiveness became what Lew calls an “accidental schematic.” Not in the Disneyfied sense (à la Rain Room), but a quieter sort. The building will be a participant. Built for “transparency,” as Lews describes it in the Biennial catalog, the museum will absorb installations, even in corners not associated with art. A room-size structure of adobe bricks by Rafa Esparza will offer new space in the lobby gallery for artists at his invitation; above the admissions desk will hang a piece of signage by Park McArthur, while an “exciting but troubling work” by Ajay Kurian winds up the central staircase, commenting on “upward mobility.” Fight in an Elevator, by Dana Schutz, links viewer to work and vice versa, via a cram of subjects meant to vivify the canvas itself — to “embody the claustrophobia an image may suffer if it had feelings,” as one reviewer put it. Schutz’s blurring of thing and person, feeling projected and feeling felt, led Lew and Locks to ask the Brooklyn-based artist to create a new Fight in an Elevator. This one will teem with both insects and political allegory. It’ll also, they promise, be funny.

Celeste Dupuy-Spencer, Fall With Me for a Million Days (My Sweet Waterfall), 2016.
Celeste Dupuy-Spencer, Fall With Me for a Million Days (My Sweet Waterfall), 2016.

The show’s start and end fall on either side of a major shift. “When we started, we were in the fall of 2015,” Locks says. “The presidential election wasn’t on the radar. There was an openness.” The artist list gelled before the election, but angles of interest sharpened afterward. “The lens shifted,” Lew says. “It’s not like we radically shifted gears, but what we were doing felt more urgent.” Issues at hand aren’t likely far from any American mind: “mass shootings, violence, complexity around immigration and the economy,” Locks says. “Moving through the landscape and having conversations with artists sculpted the conversation for us, about what issues are at stake and what’s happening in the world. And the role of art. Much of the way artists are thinking and working right now is partially about tackling those issues, and also about modeling new ways to do so.”

Locks cites a “collective” sensibility, seen in the empathy of Heartscape’s and Schutz’s work. This she distinguishes from “collective action, or even a formal [art] collective.” Her and Lew’s interest is in its broad meaning, against isolation. She contrasts earnestness with irony. Recall our near past: a collage of selfies and, in a trash heap somewhere, a pile of Time magazine Person of the Year issues, the gimmicky 2006 ones with a reflective surface as the cover. In the age of Trump, Locks argues, in a catalog Q&A, artists are no longer into “just trying to make it alone,” having come to favor “the communal and collaborative endeavor” and not “career as much as…the things a community needs.” Earnestness also stands in contrast with the predictability biennials typically get called out for — in 2014, the critic Jerry Saltz memorably judged most of the Whitney’s to be “dead art” — but this year’s catalog teases the absence of what has come to be central: the “slick, pop” cadence of biennials worldwide.

Carrie Moyer, Glimmer Glass, 2016.
Carrie Moyer, Glimmer Glass, 2016.

Of course, contemporary art arrives dying, or half-born, by the rule of time. Currency is a fallacy, Lew argues. “We’re all blind to the present. You can’t back up and look at the moment we’re in, trying to connect certain thoughts, when the context doesn’t exist yet.” It’s an admission hard to imagine from curators past — being unable to bottle time. But ours is a strange one. The president tweets policy, and what is urgent veers by the second. Information arrives in a flash and fades just as fast. It’s perhaps most timely, then, that Lew’s mission statement echoes the language not of the gardener but of the predator, who chews and moves on: “to digest something quickly,” he says, “to synthesize the moment as it’s unfolding.” Or, to quote Mark Zuckerberg, another catabolizer of the present — done is better than perfect.

Read more from our coverage of the Whitney Biennial:

The Bold Groups Tying Art History to Political History at the Whitney Biennial

A Brief History of the Whitney Biennial



The Bold Groups Tying Art History to Political History at the Whitney Biennial

Even before they enter the museum, visitors to the 2017 Whitney Biennial may spot, as they peer toward Renzo Piano’s industrial edifice from Gansevoort Street, a monumental object perched on the terrace. It has the form of a large melon, is inscribed with mystical markings, and sits at the center of a concrete circle like the statue in a traffic roundabout. A creation of the art collective GCC, it is inspired by an actual melon that appeared one day in the United Arab Emirates, where police destroyed it, documenting the process on social media, to neutralize its supposed occult force. Its reincarnation in one of the world’s most prestigious exhibitions suggests that state power couldn’t kill the magic.

There are three proper collectives — GCC, Postcommodity, and Occupy Museums — in this year’s Biennial, and while their targets and styles differ, all scramble the signals of power and, in some way, liberate a terrain. While GCC, comprising eight Arab artists in scattered locations worldwide, takes on the Gulf states and their rituals of power, Postcommodity, whose three members have Native roots and work in the Southwest, addresses the U.S.-Mexico border and its politics. Their room-size video installation in the Biennial turns footage of a segment of the border, with its fencing and wires, into a sped-up, swirling experience.

At the same time, Occupy Museums — most of whose five members call New York home — dissects the art world itself, spotlighting its exploitative economics and institutional hypocrisies. Titled Debtfair, their installation in the Biennial follows a call they made to artists who face heavy debt (from student loans, credit cards, and so on) to share their experience of financial anxiety. Thirty works of the resulting “indebted art” are installed, literally, in the Whitney’s walls, in a section where the plaster has been cut away, leaving the studs exposed. Nearby, a video projection shows some 500 other works from the open call in rotation, and kiosks invite visitors to contribute their own thoughts.

Art collectives, which began appearing in the Biennial in the 1980s, have a long history in contemporary art, one that resists generalization. Still, it’s fair to say that they frequently stake out some kind of oppositional stance. To organize cooperatively is often itself a political decision. In interviews, for instance, members of each collective asked to be quoted under the group name, giving their project a single public voice.

KAYA’s Swarm Living Is for Bodybag Onion Braid, 2015.
KAYA’s Swarm Living Is for Bodybag Onion Braid, 2015.

The Biennial’s curators, Christopher Lew and Mia Locks, point out that the show includes other experiments in collaboration: KAYA, a project of Kerstin Brätsch and Debo Eilers, incorporates a woman named Kaya, a family friend; the adobe rotunda by Rafa Esparza exhibits works from other artists in his Los Angeles circle; Milwaukee-based John Riepenhoff’s effigy-like “art handlers” each hold up another artist’s work.

The collectives, however, speak directly to power and hierarchy, through their themes, the scale they achieve by operating as a group, and their often painstakingly deliberative processes. “It’s not just the art that they make, but how they work and how they negotiate change,” says Locks. “It’s not only about content, it’s about method.”

GCC formed in 2013; its members are Nanu Al-Hamad, Abdullah Al-Mutairi, Aziz Al Qatami, Barrak Alzaid, Khalid al Gharaballi, Amal Khalaf, Fatima Al Qadiri, and Monira Al Qadiri. (Several are American citizens or work in the U.S., thus qualifying them for the Biennial.) “We didn’t mean to start the collective, it just happened,” the group says. “We found a kinship amongst ourselves and our ideas.”

Their approach quickly earned them a raft of exhibitions, including one at MoMA P.S.1 in 2014. Involving sculptural objects, video, decorated interiors, and performance, their installations spoof and scrutinize the rituals of power, such as summits, ribbon-cuttings, hotel lobbies, banquet halls, speeches, photo ops, and monuments. The name is sardonic; the better-known GCC is the Gulf Cooperation Council, the regional grouping of states. “Our first opening was not very busy, because some people believed it was an actual Gulf Cooperation Council event,” the collective says. “We found this flattering.”

Postcommodity, whose members are Raven Chacon, Cristóbal Martínez, and Kade L. Twist, places its 2007 founding in the tradition of community organizing; they cite as one mentor a Native organizer in Minnesota, Syd Beane, himself a disciple of Saul Alinsky. Another inspiration is the acequias, centuries-old, community-maintained irrigation ditches in Native and Mestizo communities in New Mexico. “The way we are as a collective reflects the ways we were raised,” says Postcommodity. “Sometimes things we do are super challenging, but there’s also something familiar about it.”

Postcommodity, still from A Very Long Line, 2016.
Postcommodity, still from A Very Long Line, 2016.

In 2015, working with communities in Douglas, Arizona, and Agua Prieta, Sonora, Mexico, Postcommodity put up a spectacular land-art installation titled Repellent Fence. It consisted of 26 hot-air balloons tethered in a line that crossed the border and stretched far off on either side. Each was yellow with a red-and-blue circle pattern — “medicine colors” of the Indigenous communities who pre-date the border and its politics. The Biennial video installation is a byproduct of this work. Its spinning fence and drone-like soundtrack are intentionally jarring. “That disorientation becomes a metaphor for how things can be at the U.S.-Mexico border,” Postcommodity says. “In the transborder system, politics and economy and culture and relationships can become very confusing.”

For Occupy Museums, the relationships to clarify are the ones that structure the art industry in a time of rampant inequality. “More than an art history, it’s a political history that drives us,” says the group, which includes Arthur Polendo, Imani Jacqueline Brown, Kenneth Pietrobono, Noah Fischer, and Tal Beery. They came together amid Occupy Wall Street, in 2011. “We see ourselves as a group that came directly out of Occupy,” they say. “That lays the groundwork for our decision-making and the basic ethics that underlie the group.”

Having begun with guerrilla actions, Occupy Museums lately has entered museums by invitation thanks to Debtfair. Each edition highlights specific creditor categories: The thirty artists with works here have debts with JPMorgan Chase (a Biennial sponsor), Puerto Rican banks, or student loan servicer Navient. The collective argues that art market speculation, the high cost of art school, and precarious daily life for the 99 percent are linked. “The rise of the art object as an asset class is connected to the rise of artist debt. The same person collecting your artwork is the person collecting your debt payments.”

As working artists with debt of their own, the Occupy Museums members say raising the issue helps reduce anxiety. “Debt makes people feel alone, stranded, and scared,” they say. “We’re trying to organize artists as debtors, then push back against banks and make the whole system fairer.” Behind all art lies labor, their installation reminds viewers, and labor today is precarious. “It’s not just that being an artist is difficult,” the collective says. “It’s that artists are embedded and entangled in a system that financializes their struggle.”

Read more from our coverage of the Whitney Biennial:

What Makes Art “American” in 2017?

A Brief History of the Whitney Biennial



A Brief History of the Whitney Biennial

Love it. Loathe it. Ignore it. Embrace it: It won’t matter. The Whitney Biennial has long been an undeniable gale force in the unruly landscape of American art, and it’s not about to give up its rightful place anytime soon. Since 1932, it’s been the exhibition that has launched artists’ careers, stimulated collectors’ appetites, provoked rabid distaste, and fueled heated controversies — sometimes all at once. It has by turns delighted and narcotized and outraged critics and audiences alike. It is rarely rated the best show of the year — in fact, it’s long been the art world’s favored whipping post — but it is always a must-see. Why? For better or worse, there are few other museum shows that so consistently, persistently, attempt to take the temperature of the American contemporary moment.

And at this particular moment, when the art world feels so boundless (and often boundary-less), it may come as a surprise to learn that once upon a time in America, audiences, collectors, and curators cared very little about contemporary American art. In the early decades of the twentieth century, any taste for art was largely for the Europeans, from old masters through to the modernists. Paris was the center of the art world, and even here in New York, a young painter or sculptor wasn’t likely to find a gallery in which to show their work. Juried exhibitions — usually crowded, overhung affairs — were the aspiring’s great hope for discovery (and a sale). Socialite and sculptor Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney was one of the few passionate champions of American artists, and recognized the vacuum in which most of them were working. In the late Teens, with the help of her former assistant Juliana Force, she founded the Whitney Studio Club, a space in which artists could gather in the off-hours that later became the Whitney Studio Galleries, a venue dedicated to the exhibition and sale of contemporary art. Over twenty-five years, Whitney amassed a collection of around six hundred sculptures, paintings, drawings, and prints, all by living American artists, from works by the Ashcan School (a social-realist movement including Robert Henri, Everett Shinn, and George Luks) to pieces by Edward Hopper, Stuart Davis, Reginald Marsh, and others. It was only after the Metropolitan Museum of Art rejected her offer to donate her collection (and a sizable endowment for the building of a wing in which to display it) that she, in 1931, founded the Whitney Museum of American Art — a radical declaration about the value of this country’s growing cultural capital. In a foreword to a 1931 catalog for the collection, Force wrote: “This Museum will be devoted to the difficult but important task of gaining for the art of this country the prestige which heretofore the public has devoted too exclusively to the art of foreign countries and of the past.” In 1932, the Biennial was born.

Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney with her sculptures at the Whitney Studio on West 8th Street, November 1919.
Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney with her sculptures at the Whitney Studio on West 8th Street, November 1919.

Times have changed, of course, and so has the exhibition. What follows is a brief history of the Biennial — now in its first iteration in the museum’s newest home, off the High Line — a short version of a much longer story, the next chapter of which is just about to unfold.

1932 The first biennial exhibition of contemporary American art is held at the Whitney’s original home at 10 West 8th Street under the leadership of Force, the museum’s charismatic first director. Participation is by invitation only, and the artists are allowed to choose the work they’d like to exhibit. As Force remarks to the New York Times: “We send out our invitation and each artist wears what he pleases to our party.” “No juries, no prizes” is the guiding ethic. Most of the artworks on view are for sale, and the museum earmarks funds annually for the acquisition of new works for the permanent collection. (The museum takes no commission on any sales; the money goes directly to the artists, and early catalogs print their names and addresses so that buyers can contact them directly.) A number of critics agree that the Whitney’s good intentions have produced a less-than-stellar show.

1937 The Whitney changes to an annual exhibition of painting, in autumn, and sculpture and drawings in the spring.

1941 This year’s exhibition is titled “Artists Under Forty,” as the museum makes explicit its wish to support the younger generation. One hundred and sixty-five artists participate, including, notably, David Smith. No other museums in New York at the time are exhibiting living American artists.

1954 The Whitney moves from 10 West 8th Street to a building on West 54th Street, real estate on loan to it from the Museum of Modern Art, thereby taking its place among the ranks of midtown art world institutions.

1959 To give greater exposure to a greater number of artists, the Whitney begins to hold alternating annuals, featuring painting one year, sculpture and drawing the following. By this point, the roster of artists who have shown has grown to include some of the giants of the era: Mark Rothko, Philip Guston, Yves Tanguy, Louise Nevelson, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Lee Krasner, to name a few.

1965 If once upon a time the Whitney Annual had introduced audiences to new talent, the rise of contemporary art galleries now deflates the museum’s reputation for discovery. As John Canaday writes in the New York Times of this installment’s “rather jumbled” exhibition of painting: “Few people realize that the New York dealers are the real tastemakers in American art. As middlemen between the artists and their patrons, whether the patron is a museum or a private collector, the dealer does the scouting and the filtering that used to be the function of the big competitive exhibitions juried by artists and museum curators…”

1966 The museum moves into a new $6 million building designed by the architect Marcel Breuer on the corner of Madison Avenue and 75th Street. The New York Times reports: “The museum itself may prove to have been the most important — if not the most beautiful — new work of American art of 1966.” With 29,000 square feet of exhibition space, the building allows for larger-scale exhibitions.

1973 The year of the first Biennial as it remains today. Then-director John I.H. Baur jokes that by having a biennial exhibition, “You only get clobbered every other year.” But even the new format can’t protect the show from taking a critical beating. “The show is terrible,” writes Lawrence Alloway in The Nation, blaming the inclusion of too many established artists, all of whom he believes are represented with “average pieces.” Artists on view include Anne Truitt, Cy Twombly, Frank Stella, Richard Serra, and Joan Mitchell.

1977 “This Whitney Biennial Is as Boring as Ever,” goes the headline for Hilton Kramer’s review in the New York Times. Conceptualism seems to be the culprit. Kramer calls out Barry Le Va, given “an entire gallery for his boring bits of wood”; Bruce Nauman’s “boring little stumps of solid steel plate”; and performance relics from Chris Burden, “the reigning genius of this dismal genre.”

1987 “1987 depresses me,” Arthur Danto writes in his review for The Nation of that year’s Biennial. While praising the exhibition for successfully “mirroring the times,” he mourns the state of art in America, which suffers from what he terms “curatorial art.” The rise of art collecting has seeded a rise in professionalism. Blossoming blue chippers Jeff Koons, Barbara Kruger, Richard Prince, and Julian Schnabel are some of the seventy-two artists on view. A telling detail about the consolidation of art world power: One-third of the artists exhibited are represented by four gallerists: Holly Solomon, Robert Miller, Leo Castelli, and Ileana Sonnabend.

Charles Ray’s Family Romance, 1992–93, part of the notorious 1993 Biennial.
Charles Ray’s Family Romance, 1992–93, part of the notorious 1993 Biennial.

1993 The Notorious 1993: No Biennial has ever received as much vitriol — or so radically shifted the cultural conversation — both inside and outside the art world. With the Culture Wars still raging, curator Elisabeth Sussman leads the museum’s assembly of eighty-two artists, many of whom are wrestling with identity politics, racism, homophobia, and other plagues on the American landscape. As Sussman will recall in 2005, “it offended everyone.”

It must be noted that many of the critics who panned the exhibition were white men: Robert Hughes, Peter Plagens, Michael Kimmelman, Jed Perl, Kramer. “Four visits to this biennial have left me grouchy,” wrote Peter Schjeldahl in the pages of our very own Village Voice, complaining of the “indifference in so much of the work on view to whether I or anyone else likes it or not.” The public was equally vociferous in their displeasure. Ironically, the exhibition is widely lauded today as what Times critic Roberta Smith deemed it then: “a watershed” that helped launch the careers of Matthew Barney, Trinh T. Minh-ha, Charles Atlas, Sadie Benning, Cheryl Dunye, Karen Kilimnik, and Lorna Simpson.

2000 Amending the Whitney’s original ethic that the Biennial have “no juries, no prizes,” the Bucksbaum Award is announced; the prize gives $100,000 to support an artist in the exhibition “whose work demonstrates a singular combination of talent and imagination and who has already made or promises to make significant contributions to the visual arts in the United States.” Winners are named the museum’s “artist-in-residence, and as such participate in the museum’s many educational programs.” Paul Pfeiffer is the award’s first recipient.

2006 “In the current plethora of biennial and triennial exhibitions, art fairs, and large group shows across the United States and the rest of the world, how can the Whitney Biennial remain relevant?” ask curators of the 2006 offering Chrissie Iles and Philippe Vergne. “There is very little that has not already been seen, digested, and critiqued.” Their answer: “Day for Night,” the first Biennial to have a title.

2012 The Bucksbaum Award is given to Sarah Michelson, the first choreographer/performer to receive it. Other winners include Irit Batsry (2002), Raymond Pettibon (2004), Mark Bradford (2006), Omer Fast (2008), and Michael Asher (2010).

2015 The Whitney opens the doors to its new Renzo Piano–designed building in the meatpacking district, just off the High Line, overlooking the Hudson River. With 50,000 square feet of exhibition space over six floors, and an additional 13,000 over four outdoor terraces, the new architecture echoes the grand ambitions of the Whitney’s original mission: that American art be given a home worthy of its voices and visions. Schjeldhal, writing in the New Yorker, declares the building “ingenious” as “a landmark on the cultural and social maps of the city — and on its poetic map, as a site to germinate memories.”

Due to the museum’s move, the 2016 Biennial is postponed until 2017.

Read more from our coverage of the Whitney Biennial:

What Makes Art “American” in 2017?

The Bold Groups Tying Art History to Political History at the Whitney Biennial



Seeing Things: Hilton Als, Alice Neel, and the Art of Looking

The painter Alice Neel (1900–1984) only started to be recognized as a visionary after her time had passed. Her first major exhibition came when she was already 71 years old, at her alma mater, the Moore College of Art and Design in Philadelphia. An exhibition titled “Alice Neel: The Painter of Modern Life” opened last year at the Gemeentemuseum Den Haag, in the Netherlands, 32 years after the artist’s passing. Neel’s work wasn’t recognized in its time for the same reason it’s so celebrated now: Her expressionistic paintings are less about formal innovation than they are about the cast of characters that inhabit her canvases. She painted neighbors, sex workers, and museum curators with the same generous brushstrokes.

Even though Neel grew up in a straight-laced, middle-class household, she went on to lead a life surrounded by the artists and activists who ignited the social change that would define the century. She developed the foundations of her political consciousness when she moved to Havana with her first husband, the Cuban painter Carlos Enriquez, and her commitment to left-wing politics continued after she separated from Enriquez and moved to Greenwich Village in the Thirties. Though she would go on to paint influential sitters like Frank O’Hara, Andy Warhol, and former New York Mayor Ed Koch, she mostly captured the left-wing writers, artists, and trade unionists she associated with.

The latest exhibition of her work, “Alice Neel, Uptown,” picks up after Neel left Greenwich Village, in 1938. She had labeled the Village a “honky-tonk,” and moved to Spanish Harlem with her lover, Puerto Rican musician José Negron, in search of a new experience. The show includes a selection of pieces made during the five decades Neel lived in Upper Manhattan. (After Harlem, she moved to the Upper West Side.) In that span, she continued her habit of painting the figures in her midst, most of whom were people of color.

What distinguishes the current show are the eyes through which we see Neel’s work. The exhibition is curated by Hilton Als, himself an artist of color whose writings earned him acclaim at a much earlier age than Neel. Als has been on staff at the New Yorker since 1994, and the transgressive poetics of his observations on race, gender, and sexuality have consolidated his name among black and white audiences alike. (Last year, he was listed as a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Criticism.) Though Als’s stature adds an element of star power to the show, the experience is more of a dialogue than a monograph — one in which Neel is as much Als’s subject as Neel’s sitters were hers.

The work in “Alice Neel, Uptown” exists in twofold: There is the exhibition of Neel’s paintings, and then there is the accompanying publication in which her portraits are presented alongside Als’s essays — writings that bring Als, Neel, and her sitters on the same page. As a figure on the canvas, Alice Childress is simply a woman of stature looking expectantly toward a window. But in Als’s description, she’s refracted through memories of Childress’s work as an author and a playwright. In speaking about Childress’s 1973 novel, A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ but a Sandwich, Als says, “I was a kid when I read it, and to this day I can recall the horror and sadness I felt as I poured over those pages; it was like looking at the world I grew up in, when so many boys my age didn’t make it.”

Als and Neel share a philosophy that, by studying and depicting the sitters, the artists would understand more about the world and their selves. The melancholy eyes of the boy in Neel’s Call Me Joe reminds Als of the contemporaries he lost to the AIDS crisis; he writes, “It is important to live with voices, with absences, and I’m drawn to this way of thinking because, as life progresses, there are more and more voids, and they are painful to hold onto without something — some meaning — to anchor the spirit in this spiritless arena of loss.” But Joe’s eyes don’t just reflect the loss of the AIDS generation; they also evoke the tough lessons Harlem boys like him would inevitably learn in life. “I know Joe knew something about loss,” Als notes. “He was colored and male and tender, and how much did that matter in the world?”

Looking at these figures on the white walls of a Chelsea gallery — one that mostly represents white artists — also raises the question: For whose eyes are these faces presented, then or now? (The show’s working title was “Colored People,” nodding frankly to the white eyes viewing its subjects, although Als says it felt too literal in the end.) Neel herself was an educated white woman living in immigrant and black neighborhoods. Even though she was a single mother with her own sets of difficulties, she had the privilege to choose where to live, whereas those she lived with had no choice but to stay where they were. Als, for his part, as a writer who has been embraced for the boundaries he breaks, has long negotiated blackness in white environments, and successfully so. Both Neel and Als observe their worlds with foreign eyes — a position that has benefitted their art, not lessened it.

And it’s here where the true parallel between Als and Neel emerges: They are both essayists in the pure sense of the word. Essayists are active observers, who blend what they see in others with what transpires within themselves, who understand the inner workings of an event because they’re always watching from the perimeter. It’s for this reason that those who get to paint the portrait of the times are often standing on the sidelines — they are the outsiders, foreigners, those who do not blend in comfortably with the social fabric they’re trying to capture. As Als describes in his introduction to the publication: “The essay is not about the empirical ‘I’ but about the collective — all the voices that made your ‘I.’ ” Als and Neel, as the best essayists do, put this dictum into practice, observing and understanding others through the self, and making us understand ourselves through the souls they capture.

‘Alice Neel, Uptown’
David Zwirner
525 and 533 West 19th Street
Through April 22