By Martica Sawin
The first Whitney Biennial in the new Gansevoort Street building focuses on contemporary political and social concerns. The spacious galleries are well suited to the installations, bulky sculptures, and viewing areas for video that dominate the exhibition. Four blocks to the south, an artist-generated exhibition, “On the Shoulders of Giants,” filled the walls of the Westbeth Gallery with paintings of the human figure by forty easel painters, joined by a few free-standing figure sculptures.
Taking in both exhibitions provides provocative insight into the challenge of summing up American contemporary art—the function of the Whitney Annual and Biennial exhibitions since the mid-1930s. The earliest Whitney Annual that I attended, in the museum’s original 8th Street building in 1949, was the first in which the leading Abstract Expressionists were included alongside the standard roster of academicians, social realists, and hesitant semi-abstractionists. Even with 160 artists represented, only the tip of the iceberg of the country’s expanding art production was on view. Yet, as the museum grew larger, the annuals have grown smaller and less ecumenical; they seldom include survivors from older generations so there is little sense of either commonality or continuity with what has gone before.
By contrast, the figurative painters at Westbeth acknowledge a debt to the “giants” they were exposed to early in their careers. These were artists who worked from life but with a firm grounding in abstract principles. A case in point: Seen across the length of the Westbeth Gallery as one enters is a bold Leland Bell full-length self-portrait. Bell’s first allegiance was to the Non-objective Mondrian; he was insistent that his painting should be exhibited with Mondrian rather than hang with realists.
An underlying grounding in abstract structure strengthens the painting of the younger heterogeneous generation shown here. They share with the “giants” an emphasis on “painterliness,” that is, a feeling for the substance of paint and for a visible process of paint application. At the Whitney, the possibility of making intergenerational links is missing as viewers are unsparingly confronted with the ills of the present or caught up in the sensation of a headlong rush toward an out of control future.
The Westbeth show ended on March 25th, but the Whitney Biennial will be with us through June 11th. It is a spectacle not to be missed. The technical innovation, the exploitation of all kinds of digital capabilities, the ingenuity with materials, and the brightly colored poster-like paintings generate an atmosphere of excitement, and heighten our awareness of the contemporary environment.
The Biennial curators, Christopher Y. Lew and Mia Locks, traveled widely, criss-crossing the county to bring together a 2017 show that includes a greater number of Asians, people of color, and women, than ever before (not surprisingly the largest contingents of artists live in Brooklyn and Los Angeles). As Locks writes in the Biennial catalog, “It reflects our current unease by questioning in a willfully uncertain mode, testing supposed certainties, and asking us to reflect on the current conditions of social life in the United States.” How important it is to have a show like this to demonstrate that art has an alternative value in our society beyond the headline-producing works sold at auction that provide tax avoidance for billionaires.