The Whitney Biennial is a bellwether of new trends in the contemporary art world. Or, at least, on what is most important in the eyes of the curators charged with choosing a particular year’s participating artists — and what’s important to those artists, themselves.
And this year’s Whitney Biennial signaled, to me at least, that artists — presumably with curators’ approval — are continuing to move way beyond traditional notions of what constitutes visual art. They’re turning curation itself, along with the related field of archiving, into an art form rather than a way to document and preserve art.
As such, it mirrors what’s happening in society in general as the notion of “curating” moves beyond a specific profession and into everyday living — a way of navigating and valuing all the overwhelming choices in a global village.
For this year’s important Biennial, which ends on Sunday, Manhattan’s Whitney Museum of American Art asked three outsiders to each curate a separate floor. They are Stuart Comer for the third floor (chief curator of media and performance art at the Whitney); Anthony Elms for the second floor (associate curator of Philadelphia’s Institute of Contemporary Art), and Michelle Grabner for the fourth floor (professor in the painting and drawing department of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago).
They selected 103 participants — individual artists as well as groups, collectives and filmmakers. They even chose as a participant the celebrated novelist and essayist David Foster Wallace, who committed suicide in 2008.
The kinds of work submitted by these artists vary tremendously — from sprawling installations to feature-length documentaries to photographic portraiture to Etel Adnan’s small and colorfully Modernist oil paintings, abstract and geometrical but suggestive of landscapes. (She is an 89-year-old Lebanese-American artist.)
But what struck me the most were the entries that revolved around collecting itself. The Wallace exhibit was a case in point. Grabner selected his notebooks (loaned by University of Texas’s Harry Ransom Center, an archive and museum) as a statement of solidarity, I suspect — writing can be a visual art because we look at the words and letters. Also, maybe, as a way to remember and honor someone no longer with us to fight for his own reputation.
It’s touching. But as far as finding visual art in the written or printed word, Susan Howe’s “Tom Tit Tot” — on the floor curated by Elms — had a greater impact. It consisted of 22 small, paired letterpress prints made from printed sentence/word fragments cut and pasted to become new. Pristinely immaculate in their black-and-white presentation, they had an ordered formalism while being radical in idea.
Another piece that fit the “curating” or “archiving” definition, also on the second floor, was Joseph Grigely’s “The Gregory Battcock Archives.” It consisted of, to quote from the exhibit checklist, “inscribed and printed documents from Gregory Battcock’s personal archive, printed captions, seven vitrines, five framed posters and one portrait.”
Battcock, with whom I had not been familiar, was an artist and art critic who died in 1980 — he wrote an early book about Minimalist art. According to the Dictionary of Art Historians website, he was an openly gay man whose stabbing death remains unsolved. Grigely says he discovered Battcock’s material in an abandoned storage facility in 1992 and, aware of his significance, saved and magnanimously sought to display it.
This is exactly what a museum curator or archivist does. But in this context, it becomes art. But what kind of art is it? Found art? Conceptual or Installation art?
In the same vein was Public Collectors’ entry in the Biennial, “Malachi Ritscher.” This installation is by a group that has its own website — publiccollectors.org — and seeks to put together shows devoted to cultural artifacts that public institutions might overlook. For “Ritscher,” the group borrowed and displayed material and published a free booklet about a compelling figure who otherwise would be little known.
Malachi Ritscher tape-recorded free-Jazz and experimental concerts in Chicago, a center of such music, for decades and wrote about the events on a website. (Headphones are provided to listen to some of what he documented.) He was also deeply opposed to the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq and its calamitous aftermath — so much that he immolated himself along a crowded freeway in 2006.
It’s odd that the three pieces I describe here — Wallace, Grigely, Public Collectors — all have about them a sense of loss. They also, in different ways, involve storytelling. Maybe the way to view them is as a new kind of narrative art. Or as a new kind of memorial, when a headstone isn’t enough to do a life justice.
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