The Whitney Biennial, which opens to the public this Friday, attempts for the 77th time to offer a snapshot of contemporary art in America while simultaneously acknowledging that this is just not humanly possible – particularly in the confines of one brutal uptown structure. The Whitney brought in three external curators to take on this impossible task, giving each their own floor to fill with sculpture, paintings, video, performance, printed matter and big, plush penises (note: only one floor actually includes big plush penises).
These curators are Stuart Comer of MoMA, Anthony Elms of Philadelphia’s Institute of Contemporary Art and Michelle Grabner of the School of the Art Institute in Chicago. This will be the last Biennial in the Whitney’s aforementioned brutal uptown structure, before the museum finds a new home in the Meatpacking district in the spring of next year (these things take money, some of which was provided by first-billed sponsor BCBG).
Biennials can be overwhelming and intimidating, so, we’ve gone ahead and whittled down the Whitney Biennial to 10 must-see contributions from artists living in or connected to downtown Manhattan and North Brooklyn. At the very least, you’ll know exactly where to find the big plush penises.
Gretchen Bender’s piece, a monstrous black sheet of mangled vinyl, dominates a wall on the fourth floor. Entitled, “People in Pain,” it features names of characters and films in neon. Bender, who existed in the scene of conceptual pop artists including Richard Prince and Cindy Sherman, lived and worked in New York up until she passed away at 53 of cancer in 2004. Bender’s first ever show was at the East Village’s Nature Morte Gallery in 1983.
David Foster Wallace
When The Whitney released the almighty list of artists included in this year’s Biennial, reactionary articles across the Internet mused over the inclusion of Infinite Jest author David Foster Wallace. On the fourth floor of the museum, in a Plexiglas display case, one can find several of his notebooks – one of which has an adorable kitten on the cover. When Foster Wallace’s suicide shook the literary world in 2008, NYU held an honest, emotional memorial service for the writer – whose work and life had touched countless prominent individuals in the downtown Manhattan community.
Bad boy Norwegian artist Bjarne Melgaard is the art world anti-hero who contributed the plush penises. His raunchy funhouse installation (which also includes life-size dolls as well as colorful couches adorned with — you guessed it — penises) can be found on the third floor (hang a left after stepping off the elevators). Melgaard, who lives in Brooklyn, once included live baby tigers in his show at LES gallery Ramiken Crucible.
If penises aren’t your thing, perhaps cookies are. Uri Aran, who lives and works in New York (his studio is in Williamsburg), has contributed a mixed-media installation around the corner from Melgaard’s twisted vision. Vaguely put, Aran’s practice employs any material under the sun to say something about contemporary culture while offering some sort of cheeky and skeptical narrative. Unsurprisingly, both Aran and Melgaard are represented by edgy and experimental gallerist extraordinaire Gavin Brown.
Dan Walsh’s paintings are born of meticulously realized geometric repetition. They are pleasing — even mesmerizing — in their flawlessness. When the Paris Review visited Walsh’s live/work space on Kent in Williamsburg, he said he has lived in that space since before the neighborhood began to look “like Miami Beach.”
Ken Okiishi’s wall of Samsung screens playing several of the artist’s films on an endless loop is the first thing that greets you when the elevators open on floor 3. Okiishi’s films are known for deciphering relationships and methods of communications between and within cities. Here one might find an animated commercial for KFC playing next to a clip from an Asian news channel. Okiishi, who lives in New York and Berlin, received his BFA from Cooper Union in 2001.
The performance collaborative My Barbarian will be performing The Mother and Other Plays numerous times throughout the Biennial. A take on Bertolt Brecht’s The Mother, it is a cheeky mash-up of music, improv and occasional audience participation. Gosh these folks are talented; their aptitude for memorization is awe-inspiring in and of itself. Though My Barbarian is based in Los Angeles, the troupe has had a solo exhibit at Participant Inc. in LES.
An artist who blurs the line between sculpture and music, Terry Adkins was represented by Salon 94 up until he passed away earlier this year at the age of 60. His piece in the Biennial, “Aviarium,” finds its home on the second floor and although it doesn’t emit any sound, it is very much sonically inspired. It features stacked symbols arranged in the waveform patterns of three species of birds. Cool, right?
Valerie Snoebeck and Catherine Sullivan
And if you didn’t find the work of your favorite American artist contained within the walls of the Whitney, you can probably find their name on the offsite sculpture by artist Tony Tasset. Down by the Hudson Piers, the artist erected a colorful four-sided structure featuring the names of over 400,000 artists. Perhaps this is the most accurate snapshot of contemporary art in America.