American art at the cutting edge of the 21st century

Altair Brandon-Salmon explores two samples of recent art and their resonances

The Whitney Museum of American Art

Two shows. One, the most high profile exhibition of contemporary American art. The other, a Visual Arts MFA degree show—not contemporary art, but one example perhaps of the future of art in the US. The former is, of course, the Whitney Biennial, on until the 11th June at the Whitney Museum of American Art, in its new, very precociously-designed home in New York City’s Meatpacking district. Renzo Piano (architect of the Centre Georges Pompidou and the Shard) has created a glossy, metal and glass, angular frame to the museum, right at the end of the High Line. In a sense, it is Piano’s work who introduces the Biennial, the first installation in the exhibition. The Columbia first-year MFA exhibition, which was on from 24th March–8th April, is less glamorously located on the eighth floor of Schermerhorn Hall, a nineteenth-century Beaux-Arts, red brick building at the heart of the Ivy League-university’s campus in Morningside Heights, on the Upper West Side. Yet once inside the gallery space, the comforting familiarity of blank white walls returns and we are no longer so far away from the Whitney after all.

The Whitney Biennial is intended as a sampling of contemporary American art: it makes no claim to comprehensiveness, nor it is as prescient as it seems. Critics like The New Yorker‘s Peter Schjeldahl have taken great pleasure in pointing out that the curators—Christopher Y. Lew and Mia Locks—made their selection of works before last November’s presidential election. Indeed, the last Biennial had one hundred and three different artists represented, while here we are down to a more digestible sixty-three. On the other hand, Columbia’s MFA twenty-five strong cohort, are very conscious of the spectre of the 45th President of the United States. Meg Turner’s striking black and white, upside down American flag, entitled ‘It’s already happening/it has always been happening here’ breathes in the air of political anger and protest.

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Which is not to say the Biennial shirks current concerns—its most controversial work, Dana Schultz’s impressive, almost abstract painting ‘Open Casket’ has drawn ire from activists for a white woman portraying the mutilated body of Emmett Till. References, implicit or otherwise, to Black Lives Matter abound. One of the pieces operates more as polemic than art, Frances Stark’s ‘Censorship Now!!’ excerpting from Ian F. Svenonius’ book, which argues freedom of expression is a ploy of capitalist oppression—ironic for a work exhibited within a corporately-sponsored museum which claims to celebrate artists’ expression.

One of the most striking elements of both shows however, is the return to canvas. Of course, painting has never really gone away and the periodic cry from critics of either the death or revitalisation of painting occur with predictable cyclicality. What marks the works at the Whitney and in Columbia though, is their determined representational qualities, shirking abstraction. Aliza Nisenbaum’s ‘Latin Runners Club’ at the Biennial, a large-scale portrait of a cast of diverse runners recalls public murals, while Samantha Nye’s ‘Entertainment For Men (Bard And I As Triplets)’ from the MFA exhibition, shows three nude, blonde middle-aged women entwined by phone cords on a deep, flattening red background. Indeed, even in the galleries in Chelsea, works on walls dominate: certainly they are far more saleable than more avant-garde art forms.

Yet what I think is the crux of the comparison between the Whitney Biennial and the Columbia MFA show is that question of quality. The best work at the Biennial—such as Samara Golden’s genuinely awe-inspiring installation ‘The Meat Grinder’s Iron Clothes’, or the stained glass of Raúl De Nieves—is profoundly beautiful, moving, and thought-provoking all at once. Yet the worst (and make no mistake, the curators’ tastes are not infallible: you will find plenty to dislike), like the infographic that is the collective Occupy Museum’s contribution to the show, is not very much better in terms of craftsmanship, polish, and confidence than the work at Columbia. This is all the more surprising when you recall it is a first year MFA show. Certainly, the powerful ‘Revenge/Regret’ series of encrusted paintings, cleverly utilising a corner of the gallery space to surround the viewer in images hovering between representation and abstraction, could see Tanya Merrill one day gracing the hallowed space of the Whitney or the Met Breuer.

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The gap is not so great, the difference in quality from the chosen representatives of contemporary art in America today not as large as you might expect. Perhaps that is because the future of American art, as exemplified by this grouping of MFA students, is so enamoured with the present art of America, their subjects and styles and forms merging together into a thick, rich morass. We shouldn’t read this as a condemnation of the Whitney Biennial: on the contrary, it is a testament to the talent that has yet to break through that it is already operating on such a high level.