Finding the Wit in Whitney

Don’t be so serious when you take a tour of the 2012 Biennial—you’ll have more fun...

Here is the secret to finding happiness and success at the current Whitney Museum of Art’s Biennial: follow a docent.

Indeed, the moment you climb the gloomy Brutalist staircase of the museum to one of the three levels that feature the works by the some fifty-five chosen artists, look for that huddled mass of Danes and Germans, Italians and Frenchmen shuffling along behind one of the museum’s guides, her badge dangling from her neck, her arm raised like a kindergarten teacher. Otherwise, you will be left on your own to understand why it’s worth looking at monochromatic panes of photo-developing material or a slide projector showing images of dirt specks, why a glass case shows photos of a man who performed a kind of self-castration (we’ll leave it at that) or why we should pay attention to puddles of a toxic fluid oozing beneath tarps.

Contemporary/installation art requires an explanation; traditional/representational art does not. That is the fundamental difference between the two. (And before you log off, yes, there are exceptions to this rule.)

So much of what is here—let’s just called it “Untitled,” the favorite name adopted by many of the artists for their creations—needs to be explained so that you can have a response. Each installation features a descriptive plaque that runs the length of a Encyclopedia Britannica entry. The written description, for instance, of Matt Hoyt’s array of “deceptively simple” (another favorite phrase of the show) items on plywood shelves (pebbles, indeterminate detritus) includes the key fact that “The pieces are never the execution of a technique nor the expression of any clear and logical idea or concept.” See, doesn’t that help? Whereas, if you have one of the museum’s knowledgeable and passionate guides take you around and you hear an explanation of what the artist intended, you’ll actually come away inspired, in most cases.

As for Forrest Bess (1911–1977), the Texas artist who decided to carve himself another orifice (okay, if you really want to see what we’re talking about, visit, you’ll learn about his poignant story. At one point, while in a War World II training camp, he was beaten so severely by fellow trainees that it resulted in a permanent brain injury. Thereafter, he saw visions that he recorded in paint. His Untitled no. 5 painting reveals a blood-red figure against an emerald-green background. This really is one of those deceptively simply compositions, but here that minimalism has maximum import. The minimally articulated red figure is discernible as such, but echoes, in some ways, the animation and torment of the figure in Munch’s The Scream series.

Nick Mauss, Concern Crush

Were it not for my docent, I might not have opened one of the two white doors in a makeshift wall on the third floor. But she, sans knocking, simply opened one and led us through. Nick Mauss, a young artist (born 1980), decided, according to the docent, to create an installation “about men’s bodies and women’s bodies through a queer eye.” Once you pass through the doors, you find a painted scene meant to replicate Guerlain’s first beauty spa in Paris in 1939, which Mauss has titled Concern, Cruch, Desire. Only, you are not in Paris; you are looking at a plywood wall beneath a concrete-coffered ceiling. What is beautiful here, though, is the gold-framed dazzling torso of a man by Marsden Hartley, some engaging black-and-white shots of a bicyclist by Andy Warhol and an Ellsworth Kelly drawing (all from the museum’s permanent collection). How fortunate for Mauss to be able to borrow from the museum’s collection to decorate his own creation. 

Andrew Masullo (who I know personally and respect as a serious artist when talking about his art) has been lauded for years for his colorful paintings of amorphous shapes set against a white background. The docent echoed a verbatim quote Masullo uses in the museum’s video interview regarding his work, whereby he says, “I hope that people see more than just paint slapped on a canvas.” You’ll see paint slapped on a canvas, and you’ll also quickly embrace his other tenet, that the works “refer to absolutely nothing.” He is right, absolutely.

When you are led through the show with an engaging docent and a group of enthusiastic, open-minded fellow museum-goers, a visit to the Biennial is sheer fun. When we approached Dawn Kasper’s complete workroom/home, a space/installation she calls This Could Be Something If I Let It, we were introduced to the artist herself, who welcomed us inside her home away from home. Our docent spoke of her grandchildren coming to this particular work. We saw Kasper works in progress, she offered us snacks, we watched her sit at a desk. It was a genial visit, though we were grateful not to have to witness her recreation of a bloodied murder victim with a pitchfork stuck in her chest—one of her performance pieces. That might have spoiled the visit and the mood. To view Kasper’s performance go to:

Unlike any of the prior Biennials, this is the first to feature performances, film, dance, and video, all within the envelope of the museum. The fourth floor has been cleared to make way for an array of performances, including a screening of Charles Atlas’s film of Merce Cunningham’s Ocean, a performance that was staged within a Minnesota granite quarry. Prior to the screening, the room’s huge asymmetrical window, with its quirky views over Madison Avenue and the Upper East Side, becomes one of the Biennial’s most effective and affecting works of art. Alas, the curtain is drawn on it during the screening.                                                                                         

Whitney Museum of Art, 945 Madison Avenue, New York City; Through May 27, though some exhibitions continue through June 10.