Is there such a thing as curatorial temperament? On the basis of the 2014 Whitney Biennial, the answer would have to be a qualified yes, or rather three stifled “yeahs.” The show sports an unlikely trio of curators, Michelle Grabner, Stuart Comer and Anthony Elms. Each was given a single floor of the Breuer building to manhandle. Given the preponderance of literary figures represented, this show may go down in history as “the writers’ biennial,” in that David Foster Wallace, Gary Indiana, Susan Howe, Etel Adnan and the independent press Semiotext(e) are each, somewhat paradoxically, included as artists.
Grabner’s fourth floor will be remembered as the show in which painting, particularly contemporary abstraction by women, adumbrated a comeback of gloppy, frequently scabrous materiality. Her installation has the greatest number of artists and the most saturated pileup of works. Grabner herself is an abstract painter as well as a professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and the more-is-more approach of her floor is proffered in her catalogue essay as an instance of “curriculum building” rather than curating. (Her section of the catalogue is curiously the only one that includes interviews with the artists; these are a big plus, given the mostly impenetrable prose of the curators’ essays.)
At the nexus of the visual traffic jam, two of Dona Nelson’s two-sided abstractions project off the wall at an angle, recalling Renaissance polyptych wings that have been opened. Their stained, unlovely surfaces are loosely gridded and punctured seemingly at random by rough, painted strings. The strings in turn play off an enormous multi-colored hanging fiber installation by Sheila Hicks, a veteran of the craft world and more recently a successful crossover to the contemporary art world. The muddy acrylic stains of Nelson’s work also resonate with the deep brown, almost scatological glazes of Sterling Ruby’s three oversize ceramic chargers from his “Basin Theology” series, which are filled with the shards of his own failed pieces.
Stuart Comer’s third floor is alternately brash and subdued. The taste of this former curator of film at Tate Modern, London, who recently became chief curator of media and performance art at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, runs to the Euro-transgressive. The Norwegian Bjarne Melgaard’s overstuffed, horror vacui installation is definitely the design scoop of this biennial, with its amazing neo-Salvador Dalí sofas in the shape of lips, pillows in the shape of penises, multiple hooked-rug collages climbing the walls, aggressive audio component and video footage of gorillas humping.
A more timeless repose is offered by the Beirut-born Adnan’s room, filled with School of Paris-style painted abstractions. At 89, Adnan, a renowned Arab-American writer, currently living between Sausalito, Calif., and Paris, almost steals the show with her quietness. Her nomadic life is highlighted in Comer’s catalogue essay, which harps on California as a new decentered model for cultural production.
Anthony Elms, a youngish writer/curator who recently left Chicago for Philadelphia’s Institute of Contemporary Art, trumps the other two curators with his poetic use of empty space. Zoe Leonard’s installation is the tour de force of the show, a breathtakingly beautiful and hauntingly simple work. An entire gallery, replete with Breuer’s signature trapezoidal window masked to contain a smallish lens, is repurposed as a working camera obscura you can wander through. It reproduces the view across Madison Avenue.
Kudos are in order for Elijah Burgher’s fine-gauged colored-pencil drawings in Elms’s second-floor installation. Beacon to beacon (for R. Hawkins), 2013-14, depicts three nude men posing casually in a room against a blowup of Antonio Pollaiuolo’s engraving Battle of Naked Men (ca. 1465); one of the men mimics the raised arm of one of the Renaissance warriors. Nearby, in a dark room, homoerotics dovetail with brilliant philosophizing in the wild 53-minute video Rib Gets in the Way (Final Thoughts, Series Three), 2014, by Steve Reinke with Jessie Mott. The fact that these artists are friends from Chicago suggests a new hotbed of over-the-top comedic fatalism.
The real archeological discovery in Elms’s show is Joseph Grigely’s The Gregory Battcock Archive, 2009-2014. The archive was found by Grigely when it was about to be thrown out from a defunct storage facility in Jersey City, N.J. Battcock (1937-1980) was a well-known critic and anthologist and an important gadfly on the Pop and Minimal scenes, who was murdered at his home in Puerto Rico. Grigely carefully resurrects Battcock’s nude Polaroid self-portraits, art-world memorabilia and typescript pages from his diary of sexual exploits in the ’70s, which make for steamy reading. The resulting artwork is low-key, documentarian and riveting, as well as a melancholic reminder of how soon such figures are forgotten. Running into a colleague at the press preview, at a time when I’m pondering throwing out my own paper files from the 1970s and ’80s, I found myself shouting, “Hang on to that archive!”