In June, on the way home to Anchorage from Finland’s Arctic Arts Summit, husband Dave and I detoured to New York City to take in Nicholas Galanin’s art at the Whitney Biennial, 2019 (thru September 22). The show, curated by Rujeko Hockley and Jane Panetta, was designed to be ‘socio political’ but also ‘open ended and hopeful (catalog 96)’. It began with 75 artists making up an unprecedented balance of ethnicity and gender. Somewhat unusual, there were street protests and petition signing over Warren Kanders, a high profile Whitney Board member, whose company Safariland manufactures law enforcement and military supplies. (NYTimes, Cotter, 5/16/19).
Last February, before the opening, Chicago artist Michael Rakowitz pulled out, becoming the first to actively protest museum policies (NYTimes, Steinhauser, 2/25/19). Around July 19, eight Biennial participants, including Alaska’s Galanin, asked that their work be removed from the Biennial, because of Kanders’ business practices. Also pulling the plug was ‘Forensic Architecture’ with their video, ‘Triple-Chaser’, documenting alleged use of Kanders tear-gas on civilians at the US/Mexican border. (NYTimes, Moynihan, 7/19/19). The Eight, who chose to leave, began to be criticized as to why they had waited until the show was half over. Did they calculate ‘having their cake and eating it too’ — attend openings, get publicity, becoming martyrs before exiting? The 67 remaining also felt heat as they rationalized staying would have more impact on Kanders’ removal; besides, getting into the Biennial was like winning a lottery. Whitney Director Adam Weinberg addressed staff and trustees stating the organization, “is first and foremost a museum. It cannot right all the ills of an unjust world, nor is that its role (NYTimes, Steinhauser, 2/25/19).”
July 25, one week after the Eight left, Kanders, who had donated over $10 million to the Whitney, abruptly withdrew writing, “Unfortunately, the targeted campaign against me and my company that has been waged these past several months has threatened to undermine the important work of the Whitney. I joined this board to help the museum prosper. I do not wish to play a role, however inadvertent, in its demise (NYTimes, Pogrebin, Harris, 7/25/19).” Did Kanders get a ‘golden parachute’ albeit aesthetic, to dash?
In the beginning, 1918, there was New York heiress/sculptor Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney (1875-1942) bankrolling a small museum, promoting the Eight Ash Can painters, whose brash brush strokes and gritty landscapes were passed over by European art collectors as “ugly.” Whitney money accumulated in the Robber Baron era was not ‘Snow White’ either. According to Whitney’s granddaughter, Flora Biddle, “she well understood the need for the artist’s freedom to experiment, for the director’s freedom to choose, and for absolute separation mandatory between staff and patron to ensure these freedoms (Biddle, 105, 404).” This attitude prevailed on into Whitney Biennial 2017. ‘Open Casket’, 2017, by Dana Schutz depicted the gaping coffin of Emmett Till, the black teenager lynched in 1955 (NYTimes, Loos, 1/9/19). Outrage ensued over a white artist, (albeit a female) poaching on an African-American narrative. The Whitney refused to adhere to protesters, and the painting stayed in the show. Has the Whitney’s adherence of being steadfast to its original Mission of separation between artists, management and community just been shattered with Kanders’ ousting because of outside pressures?
The Whitney is no stranger to confrontation having faced accusations of promoting and purchasing mainly white-male-art, with little regard for white women either. In 1970, 15 of 75 black artists exited because the Whitney failed to include black curators or give the show a coveted December-January (’70-’71) slot (NYTimes,Glueck, 4/6/71). Biennial 1987, Guerilla Girls hosted a rival women-only exhibition insisting, “No black woman had ever been chosen by the Whitney since 1973 (NYTimes, McDonald 5/16/14).” Biennial 2019 has come a long way demonstrating political-correctness. Hockley and Panetta sought artists who addressed poignant issues: “race, gender, and equity, explorations of the body and its vulnerabilities; and concerns for community (catalog 97).”
The Nineties saw the burgeoning of art fairs worldwide, where anyone can pay for space: unknown artists to tony galleries. Art-lovers meander without feeling the snootiness oozing from urban galleries. There’s food, booze, and prices vary enough that a few thousand bucks will start a collector on his way. With museums being asked to refuse ‘blood-money’, commercial festivals, not juried, may be the new Biennials!
How to find clean money sources? Museums, like the voracious plant in ‘Little Shop of Horrors’, have big appetites. And the member-public resists dues increases, with museum free days jam-packed. So far, the Koch Brothers, synonymous with present-day aesthetic philanthropy, haven’t been removed--they’re no saints. The Opioid epidemic induced museums to stop accepting Sackler donations, which may have caused Kanders’ exodus?
To recap: I detoured to The Whitney Biennial 2019 sleuthing Alaskan art. When the Eight, including Galanin, left the show, I surmised their aura-trace would dominate this Biennial, regardless. A week went by, Kanders resigned after he had just been re-elected to the Board, and no art was ever taken down. What really happened behind-the-scene at the Whitney? (NYTimes, Pogrebin, Harris, 7/25/19). Never mind--all art is back!
Galanin’s pieces contain social messaging that challenge materiality, while allowing viewers to further contextualize. ‘White Noise, American Prayer Rug, 2018’ is one of the best pieces in the Biennial. The wool/cotton rug, the size of two conjoined plywood panels, pictures a scrambled analog TV. The Post-war era featured this novel entertainment box which surfaced in living rooms as did prejudicial racial discussions about programming and the world at large. Prayer rugs are also synonymous with the Muslim faith which struggles to find space in America’s continuing intolerance. Retrofitting this image reminds viewers that inequality still exists. A second Galanin piece, ‘Let them enter dancing and showing their faces: Shaman, 2018’ covers the East windows of the Whitney’s ground floor eatery ‘Untitled’, puzzling diners. It resembles a black/white Francis Bacon stretched countenance. Like a Shaman who sometimes performs in altered states of consciousness, this gigantic blurred face loses its objectivity, ethnicity, and thus alludes to togetherness and healing, something the U.S. desperately needs to rediscover. Galanin addresses ‘surface and texture’ in unusual ways. Televisions have glass or plastic façades that separate the spectator from the picture. His TV-rug is nubby, teasing the onlooker to touch it, to enter into its message about societal ills. However, his Shaman piece is plastic-slick, uninviting, yet shoving social-injustice in-your-face in an upscale café.
Ezawa’s video is of his giant watercolor depicting NFL football players praying before a game. His looping audio of cellos plays the National Anthem in a minor key, permeating all of Biennial Floor 5, enveloping visitors to think about America’s strengths and hypocrisies, while looking at art that visualizes social issues. Ezawa, an instructor at California College of the Arts, was enraptured to be in the Biennial, after two other Whitney studio-visit rejections. He reduced his teaching load, juggled his kids, to finish ‘National Anthem, 2018’, peaceful protesting about inequality, seen by millions.
Maia Ruth Lee
Lee’s ‘Bondage Baggage Prototype 4, 2018’ made from recyclables: rope, luggage, bedding, is enigmatic in that it’s beautiful, but conjures up some of our worst societal ills—homelessness. She has neatly stacked four multi-colored packages--camping duffle bags come to mind. But the bundles also look like parcels that all too frequently appear on urban sidewalks as an unhoused person’s possessions. Symbolic of problems without solutions, sidewalk baggage is often gingerly packed.
Bittenbender’s wall sculptures: ‘Sister Carrie 2017,’ and ‘Mott Heaven, 2016’ are also made of recycled materials: wire, glass, rubber tubing. The mass of tangled objects: engine parts to kitchen utensils, take on new meanings, and prove using waste aesthetically contributes to a cleaner environment, while acting like a signpost for recycling possibilities.
Will museums create ethical boards while, finding ways to also ‘Pass GO’? Historian Lloyd Goodrich (1897-1987) had foresight to write about the Whitney,1954, “the contemporary art of a nation has a special importance for its people regardless of comparisons with that of other nations or periods; that a museum’s function is not merely to conserve the past but to play an active part in the creative life of the present; that a museum should always be open to the new, the young, the experimental; that it should never forget the artist is the prime mover in all artistic matters; that it should support his freedom of expression [and] respect his opinions (Biddle 404-405).” Don’t forget to Exit through the Gift Shop!
Mini Sleuth: ‘Whitney Biennial Catalog 2019’, and ‘Whitney Women’, by Flora Biddle, on Amazon.
Jean Bundy aica-usa is a writer-painter in Anchorage