Whitney Biennial: The Spectator/Audience/Museum-goer

I am extremely excited, because today’s post is by my sister, Shoshana, who so graciously agreed to blog about the Whitney Biennial. I think that by the end of this post we can all agree that she should start her own blog. This is the first ever guest post so mark it down on your calendars and remember to wish a happy anniversary next year (gifts are also welcome). Enjoy!



While everybody loves somebody sometime, nobody loves or is even moved by every painting always. Forgive the cheesy Dean Martin reference, but as a frequent museum visitor (and intern), I have learned not to sweat it when a painting leaves me cold—even when I have strong feelings for other works by the same artist. Also, I have learned that I am less moved by art when I am hungry. Except for maybe Wayne Thiebaud. I digress.


I have a particular method for experiencing museum exhibits. I like to walk around the exhibition area quickly to gain a sense of the point of view, the development and, honestly, the punch line, and then I start again from the beginning and focus on the pieces I like.  It’s not a time-efficient method, it’s not a scientific method but it’s how I like to walk around in museums. Last week I visited the Whitney Biennial. Every two years, the Whitney chooses “a roster of artists at all points in their careers the Biennial provides a look at the current state of contemporary art in America.” Of course, an exhibit that aims to look at a survey as wide as “the current state of contemporary art in America” is rather wide and more vulnerable to criticism than, say, The Steins Collect. The first work that I responded to was actually not part of the biennial but part of the museum’s permanent collection by Agnes Martin.  A series of twelve white canvases that look the same at first glance but upon closer inspection reveal thicker and wider stripes, dull grayish-blue whites mixed with richer and brighter whites. It spoke to me of the essential feeling of femininity. Not the hurtful parts, not the political parts, not even the beautiful, camaraderie of sisterhood but the multifaceted aspects that make up every woman.  Even the wall copy notes that Martin’s work does not reproduce well. An image here, therefore, would diminish the power of her work. Then I saw Lee Krasner’s The Season. Best known as the wife of Jackson Pollack, Krasner was an accomplished abstract expressionist painter in her own right and The Season is excellent proof. The painting positively dances with pomegranates, leaves, breasts—all things feminine.



The next two works shared a gallery on the fourth floor of the museum affected me very differently. I became quite uncomfortable. I am a rule-abiding museum-goer: I don’t get too close to the artwork, certainly never touch and I appreciate the enormous gulf between the spectator and the spectated, that is, the art. Red Krayola and Georgia Sagri transgressed and crossed that gulf. Red Krayola, a self-described “psychedelic rock band” set up a Skype connection to chat with museumgoers from their home base in California. Sagri, whose “evolving installation” explored book production, was not present when I visited on a late weekday afternoon, but her work was strewn across the floor. I found that I was scared to engage with it. I did not know where the installation began and the interaction ended. Both works demanded the spectator to engage more fully and more physically than the standard head tilt, squint and nod, de riguer for the museum regular. I kept fearing that the Red Krayola member would call out to me, “Hey you! Come over here!” and challenge my desire for invisibility. To clarify, neither Red Krayola nor Georgia Sagri are unique in form: engaging audience (spectator) engagement. Their actual works aside, performance art as a postmodern western art form has been around at least since the 1960s. I had come to the Whitney, however, seeking escape and respite. No, art does not and should not serve as ambient music, calming as light versions of pop songs piped into the dentist’s office. What I wanted, however, was to leave my day-to-day existence and immerse myself in other people’s visions, into their greatness. I wanted to leave myself waiting outside the Madison Avenue entrance. Instead of rejecting that discomfort, I leaned into it, allowed myself to feel it and slightly unnerved, continued to the rest of the exhibit. Again, a work from the permanent collection stopped me in my tracks.



Fred Wilson’s Guarded View (1991), forces viewers to confront a ubiquitous and yet completely ignored piece of the museum experience—the security guard. It is she (or much more often, he) that stands there as a reinforcer of the value in each piece. Wait, Watch Out, the security guard’s presence seems to say. You are in the presence of something priceless and unique. You cannot be trusted not to damage it and I will stand here and ensure that you obey the rules of the artwork, the rules of the museum. I don’t fear the museum guard transgressing my silent pilgrimage and talking to me when I don’t want to be talked to, like the menacing person on the Skype screen, but I did refrain from fully exploring Sagri’s work, which I was incidentally really interested in, for fear of the security guard. Wilson’s point was a different one—not about fear and value but about class, I think, about how the guard is not noticed as a fellow person but as part of the décor, blending into the walls with her uniform. It’s okay, I decided. I had gone to the Whitney to be moved and I left challenged.


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