The Whitney Biennial: This, That, and the Other Thing

The 2017 Whitney Biennial

The seventy-eighth installment, March 17 through June 11, 2017

Pope. L aka William Pope. L
Claim (Whitney Version), 2017
Acrylic paint, graphite pencil, push pins, wood, framed document, fortified wine, bologna with black and white photocopied portraits

People have expressed problems with the this year’s 78th Biennial, as one can assume they have since the very first one in 1932. It is, once again, too much of one thing and too little of another, although of course which things are under or over represented depends on who you ask. To my eye, it appears that didactic works are too heavily represented, with verbose wall labels giving even the abstract paintings a shove toward being overly literal which, in turn, gives the show a somewhat juvenile quality at times.

Occupy Museums, Debtfair, 2017

For instance, the artist collective Occupy Museums’ installation quoting Larry Fink, CEO of Goldman Sachs, commenting on the vast amount wealth invested in art (and real estate) and literally peeling back the wall with examples is both visual uninteresting and painfully obvious: rich people control the art market. Who knew? I would add that Occupy Museums seems to have appropriated Hans Haacke’s ideas about the conflict of interest between museum boards and collectors without, unfortunately, adopting his tightly honed aesthetic sensibility.  (Compare this with Pope. L’s wonderfully sly Claim (Whitney Version), 2017, which is, literally, a large room covered inside and out with baloney.) Yet any complaints, my own included, are not really all that damning when we remember that shows of this broad scope and size are realistically next to impossible to curate, and that there are still plenty of interesting artworks worth seeing. This includes an unusually strong showing of paintings which, when compared to previous Biennials, are for once installed and lit exceedingly well.

Indeed, it was a painting that caused the most controversy. At least when the show opened, that is, for by the time of this writing that has all but blown over. The painting,

Dana Schutz
Open Casket, 2016
Oil on Canvas

Open Casket, 2016, by Dana Schutz, is based on an historic photograph of Emmett Till in his casket, a fourteen year old African-American who had been kidnapped, horribly tortured, and murdered in 1955 for allegedly flirting with a white woman. On the opening day an African-American artist named Parker Bright stood in front of the painting wearing a gray tee-shirt with “Black Death Spectacle” written on the back in protest. This was followed by an open letter written by Hannah Black, a British artist, and co-signed by about two dozen others, demanding that the painting be removed and destroyed. Which in turn was followed by a number of thoughtful articles on censorship before ultimately sinking into the quotidian foam that has come to envelope our 21st century culture.

Yet Open Casket bothered me as well, although not for the reasons of those who protested. I don’t believe in censorship in general, and I certainly don’t believe any group can claim exclusive rights to an image. If you think about it, telling artists that they don’t have the right to portray others is the same thing as saying that they’re only allowed to make images about their own group and no other. I believe most would agree that this is an absurd proposition.

No, the problem with Schutz’s Open Casket is in its aestheticization of its subject. Look at the black and white photograph the painting is based on:

Emmett Till


Now ask what Schutz’s painting does to capture that horror. Does her artful abstraction of Emmett Till’s gruesome dis-figuration make the crime against a fourteen year old committed sixty-two years ago more urgent or tangible? Or does the painting’s lush colors and fastidious paint handling sanitize and domesticate it?

For comparison, consider another painting in the Biennial, The Times Thay Aint A Changing, Fast Enough!, 2017, by Henry Taylor. A very large acrylic painting it, too, would have us bear witness to the unjust killing of an African-American. And similar to the Schutz painting, the figure is horizontal, and the predominant colors are ochre yellow, green, brown, black, and white, with a small bit of red.

Henry Taylor
The Times Thay Aint A Changing, Fast Enough!, 2017
Acrylic on Canvas

Taylor’s subject, however, is the 2016 shooting of Philando Castile, a thirty-two year old school cafeteria worker, with the image captured from Castile’s girlfriend’s cell phone. We see the policeman’s hand with clutched gun entering from the left side as on the right Castile stares into space, dying. Where Schutz depiction of Till is horizontal and therefore static, Taylor tilts the scene so that the left side is raised and the line of the car door runs diagonally down, inevitably down, to Castile’s head, ending as a short black dash of paint that is the dying man’s pupil. In contrast to Schutz’s buttery oil paints and heavily worked surface, Taylor’s flat acrylic medium appears to be urgently applied – the shapes are barely sketched in, details are at a minimum, and the ochre paint filling in the car windows splatters across Castile’s white tee-shirt in lieu of blood.

One might argue from a traditional painting standpoint that Schutz’s Open Casket is better painted than Taylor’s terse The Times Thay Aint A Changing, Fast Enough!, and no doubt many would. The problem, for me at least, is that while Taylor’s technique seems to be in service to and inseparable from his content, Schutz’s content appears tacked on, an attempt to add meaning to an extremely facile but otherwise not very challenging painting. She is, in short, using the idea of Emmett Till to give her work a weight that it does not possess on its own.

This is, of course, a subjective analysis, but for me it has nothing to do with Dana Schutz being white and Henry Taylor being African-American. It’s that Open Casket is a good painting while The Times Thay Aint A Changing, Fast Enough! is good art.


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