Perhaps one of New York’s most modern museums, the Whitney Museum of American Art is hosting its Biennial Contemporary exhibit, open to the public through Sunday, May 27. This extraordinary exhibit takes place every two years and highlights influential contemporary American artists, while also depicting a balance between art and design.
The entrance to the exhibit is a surprisingly plain white door, and its blandness offers no hints as to what lies beyond it. In fact, Nick Mauss’s replica of a Parisian doorway is the thing most unexpectedly found inside, with its purple and orange hues playfully detached from the feel of the rest of the area. Mauss aimed to evoke a feeling of “not supposed to be there,” which fell in line with displacement, one of the big themes of this year’s Biennial.
Many artists worked as curators to the exhibit, displaying both their work and that of others. Mauss fills up the space around his doorway with pieces from canons of art history and well-known artists, such as Andy Warhol. Perhaps even more radical than Mauss’s work is a 3-dimensional piece by Sam Lewitt. Though this Brooklyn-based artist generally limits his art to two dimensions, he tried something curiously different for the Whitney. Using ferrofluid, a magnetic substance frequently used in speakers and computer hard drives, Lewitt strategically placed it onto a plastic covering between multiple fans. The wind animates the fluid, giving it a solid, spiked look. The connection between art and technology is clear, as Lewitt intended. But he comes by the Whitney every two weeks to reconstruct his masterpiece; technology has progressed so much that he can no longer truly control it, even if he does utilize it.
True to the often-vague and experimental nature of modern art, a large portion of the work displayed does not have a blurb to accompany it, sometimes even asking the viewer to input themselves into the piece, no matter how emotional its content.
Perhaps the most personal collection is that of Dawn Kaspar, who shows us her nomadic living experience by having moved everything she owns into a corner of the Whitney for everyone to see. Troubled with not having a home, and haunted by the past of being the child of a hoarder, she makes that place her studio, wherever she goes. Kaspar’s work might be labeled a performance piece—she spends the majority of the day sitting in her “studio,” answering questions and chatting with any viewers.
Still, some messages prevail. While Kai Althoff exemplifies his interest in Judaism through geometrical oil paintings and colorful embroidery, Latoya Rudy Fraizier voices her concerts through black and white photography. Hailing from impoverished Braddock, Pennsylvania, Fraizier protests against the injustices done to the city through the captions to her pieces: “How can we go forth when our boroughs busses and ambulances have been cut.” One of her most dynamic photographs exemplifies the fallacies in Levi’s advertisements that were supposed to represent new youth and the revival of the Braddock community.
As expected, there is also the controversial and bizarre—Forrest Bess’s work, curated by Robert Owen, shows how he lived a secluded life and dedicated time to altering his genitalia to become both female and male. An artistic gesture and an attempt to tap into Bess’ feminine side, it is obvious that this portion of the exhibit is not aimed at all ages. In fact, the great majority of the Biennial is meant for a mature audience. Another controversial section is a cinematic piece by Werner Herzog. Walking into a large room, you are faced with booming acoustics and a projection of a man playing the cello, set to match the music. The moving picture is first projected on one side of the room. But as the music continues, the picture begins to fade into a color tint while its projection begins to appear on another section of the wall. This leaves another unexpected twist to the gallery.
Though the thought of a modern art exhibit generally conjures up images of white walls and perfectly hung paintings, this is not the case at the Whitney. Shattering expectations completely, this year’s Biennial illustrates modern art’s shift away from the predictable and into totally unexpected methods of expression.