Image not Object: the 2017 Whitney Biennial

Ajay Kurian, Childermass, 2017. Whitney Biennial 2017, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. Photograph by the Author

The 2017 Whitney Biennial closes in just over two weeks. Since its opening in March, the exhibition has been widely heralded for its “political charge” (see for example reviews by Peter Schjeldahl in The New Yorker and Jerry Saltz in New York Magazine), for its impressive diversity of artists included (though I wish this still was not so rare as to be newsworthy), and the controversies surrounding Jordan Wolfson’s ultra-graphic Real violence (2017) and of course the Dana Schutz’s painting of Emmett Till, Open Casket (2016), which not only raised highly problematic issues around race and its representation in contemporary American art, censorship, and quite interestingly to me at least, the role of abstraction, also had the unfortunate side effect of overshadowing so many stronger inclusions in this year’s iteration. In the wake of seemingly endless press, one more piece of writing hardly seems necessary, but my reaction was a bit more specific—essentially, I keep wondering why there wasn’t more sculpture.

Henry Taylor, THE TIMES THAY AINT A CHANGING, FAST ENOUGH!, 2017Whitney Biennial 2017, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. Photograph by the Author.


I visited the Biennial, with some of my undergraduate students, back in March, shortly after it opened. Overall I was impressed (surprisingly), overwhelmed (naturally), and happy to find more good than bad, more substance rather than just spectacle, in the 2017 iteration, curated by Christopher Y. Lew and Mia Locks. Over the past few months, I have thought back to my viewing experience of this supposed cross-section or pulse-taking of contemporary American art, and cannot seem to shake the thought that it was an exhibition dominated and shaped by images—images that were overtly political, often beautiful, and sometimes even made me reconsider the definition, purpose, and lasting power of “image.” With works like Henry Taylor’s masterful THE TIMES THAY AINT A CHANGING, FAST ENOUGH! (2017)—for my money hands down the most effecting, powerful, formally and conceptually strong work in the entire exhibition—an additional dimension perhaps was not really needed. After a decade-plus of “unmonumental” constructions, exploded universes, and figural distortions, I did notice, however, the absence or lack of sculpture. I am not sure whether to read that as a broader shift within contemporary artistic practice or just a result of a particular curatorial agenda. Such a statement is of course an over-generalization, and on some level may not even matter—art is art is art, especially great art, and as a survey it is by definition not an event that should focus on any one medium—but alas, I am a sculpture studies scholar and this is a blog devoted to examining sculptural things, so for better or probably worse I almost always approach my art experiences through a three-dimensional framework.

Raúl De Nieves, beginning & the end neither & the otherwise betwixt & between the end is the beginning & the end, 2016. Whitney Biennial 2017, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. Photograph by the Author.

Weaving through the new, larger gallery and outdoor spaces, not to mention various stairwells, of a building I largely find frustrating to visit, I kept waiting for the sculptural to assert its presence. There were of course contenders. Numerous works could be classified as sculptural objects outright or as works that had predominant sculptural components. Many of the “sculptures” included often operated with or within more-two dimensional components—I am thinking here of Jon Kessler’s Exodus (2016) and Evolution (2017), configurations far more about the transmutation of object into digital image than it is about the materiality of things; Rafa Esparaza’s Figure Ground: Beyond the White Field (2017), a weighty and timely installation on labor, colonialization and identity read through adobe bricks; or Raúl de Nieves’ beginning & the end neither & the otherwise betwixt & between the end is the beginning & the end (2016), an installation of five ornate, grotesque, and vibrantly hued sculptures set against a backdrop of eighteen colorful acetate sheets made to resemble stained glass windows. All of these examples border on installations with sculptural components rather than “sculpture” and they all certainly rely heavily on their imagistic elements. Taken apart from the “stained glass” sheets behind, however, Nieves’ sculptures are absolute riots of material, texture, and color that demand attention, painstakingly constructed from thousands of small pieces of junk, plastic beads, found objects, and scraps of cloth.

Nieves’ standing sculptures tapped into other defining characteristics of many of the sculptural works included in Biennial: the figure or perhaps more accurately the fantastical figure, whether explicit or implicit, that also appeared, for example, in the floating, disquieting bodies of Ajay’s Kurian’s Childermass (2017) installed in the main stairwell of the Museum; the engagement with the everyday, as seen in Kaari Upson’s dysmorphic, visceral transformations of furniture; and the fastidiousness of making, also visible in Samara Golden’s The Meat Grinder’s Iron Clothes (2017), which involved a lot of tedious labor, in this case the handmade, miniature pieces of furniture, treadmills, and medical equipment filling up the various vignettes comprising the piece. While no actual figures are present, they are certainly implied in the uncanny, unsettling, if ultimately quotidian multilevel construction of The Meat Grinder’s Iron Clothes.

Samara Golden, The Meat Grinder’s Iron Clothes, 2017. Whitney Biennial 2017, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. Photograph by the Author.


I found the work to be one of the most “sculptural” pieces included in the Biennial—engaging in issues of scale and sculpture’s relationship to architecture, but here is again ultimately is the image, sculpture about looking, about illusion. Larry Bell’s contribution, Pacific Red II (2017), a line of red and rose tinted cubes outside on one the terraces also operates along these lines, though of course through the austere, abstract language of minimalism.

Larry Bell, Pacific Red II, 2017. Whitney Biennial 2017, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. Photograph by the Author.


The sculptural object or rather objects again become something to look through, changing the perception of surrounding space through its physical presence (Though, as an anecdote, on my visit the few people wandering around the terrace were far more intrigued by slowly melting piles of snow in the corner than they were about Bell’s cubes within cubes).

There were a number of interesting, challenging, and even physically off-putting three-dimensional things included in the 2017 Whitney Biennial, and the fact that most of them seemed to explore and express the bodily, the quotidian, craft, and even a relationship with the image may indeed suggest something about the current status of sculpture within contemporary artistic practice. I am not sure, however, that any of these works really presented anything new about sculpture, but rather echoed methodologies and approaches found in the work of others (whether it be the soft sculptures of Claes Oldenburg and Patty Mucha; the sound suits of Nick Cave; the eerie paper constructions of Thomas Demand; or hell, even the earlier cubes of Larry Bell to name just a few that came to mind as I roamed the Whitney). As much as it pains me to say, none of these more sculptural works were the ones that have stayed with me as the months have passed, nor have they changed how I am thinking about sculpture these days—this year’s Biennial belonged to the painters, the photographers… the image makers.



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