Looking back on the work of Tom Thayer, Moyra Davey, Elaine Reichek and Werner Herzog –
The Whitney Biennial, March 1–May 27, 2012, a group show of about fifty plus artists amply fills all five floors of the Whitney Museum of American Art. The exhibition is notorious for being one of the most anticipated and important group shows, while at the same time feeling like one of the most meaningless. The Biennial, turning from annual to biennial in 1973, is still seen as a truthful indicator of the state of the art world, the mood of contemporary artists, and the preoccupations of the society that surrounds them. The show has a kind of trend-setting prestige and greatly appeals to young artists, perhaps because the exhibition is supposed to highlight the young and the unknown. It is also known, however, for being a self-indulgent show of art world darlings. These favored artists are, as New York Magazine’s art critic Jerry Saltz calls them, “an insular in-group of parochial artists whose reflexes are shot.” The Whitney Biennial often lives up to the more cynical expectations of it, and is denounced at times for its predictability, favoritism, and unoriginality.
Jay Sanders, an independent curator, and the Whitney’s own Elisabeth Sussman, are responsible for curating the 2012 Biennial. Sanders and Sussman clearly picked artists with the intent of showing them together, of creating juxtapositions within the group, and thereby assembling a ‘statement’ show. The best way to view a group exhibition, however, is not always as a group at all. In the case of the Biennial it is helpful to forget about the curator’s intentions, briefly if not completely, to better view the artwork at hand. Approaching the exhibition the way we would a large art fair can give us a different perspective of the exhibition. We expect an art fair to be a disparate and deeply flawed grouping of artwork, and it’s in this regard that the Biennial always delivers. There are always a few great pieces, a couple of unexpected artists, and great deal of predictable artwork. Instead of being overwhelmed by the totality of the artwork on display, we should focus on individual artists. Seeing the Biennial as a group of individuals might be the only engaging and productive way of dissecting it.
Four artists of varying age, gender, prominence, and success, participating in this spring’s Whitney Biennial, deserve a second look, a look that is both within the context of the Biennial and outside the confines of it. The whimsical painter Tom Thayer, the subtle photographer Moyra Davey, the illusive fiber artist Elaine Reichek, and the renowned German filmmaker Werner Herzog, all warranted further investigation.
Walking into Tom Thayer’s installation of paintings, three-dimensional objects, and low-tech video animations on the third floor of the Biennial, divided slightly by a few walls into its own space, was one of the best surprises the show offered. A 42-year-old, New York-based painter, collage artist, and puppeteer, Thayer’s paintings feel like they explode off the canvas and wall into three-dimensional space. Boldly saturated in brightly modulating shades of red, Thayer’s paintings are magical and whimsical. The shapes painted and collaged upon the surface of his canvases are not confined to the stretcher, but rather dangle from the ceiling by string, or jut out from the canvas itself, suspended by thick wire. As various sculptural shapes unceremoniously sway in front of the paintings themselves, spindly Origami cranes made from wire, string, cardboard, and paint, wander amongst the paintings in the center of the space. The Paper Water Birds (2011), standing amongst old computer monitors playing low-tech, stop-action animations, seem like suitable company for the antiquated technology.
Reminiscent of the creatively dimensional paintings of Robert Rauschenberg, where nothing was too big or too strange to crudely attach to the surface of the canvas, or the playful “Circus” sculptures of Alexander Calder, Thayer’s multimedia paintings cull from the past while elaborating on the vocabulary of the present. His hybrid paintings, existing somewhere between stillness and motion, between props and precious objects, seem to redefine our expectations of what a painting can be, and even better, should be.
Moyra Davey, a Canadian photographer, video artist, and essayist, is an artist that is easy to overlook in the Biennial. Drowned out at times by louder artworks, her photographs and videos are aesthetically understated and traditionally presented. She favors picture frames, grids, and symmetry in her installations over contemporary notions of alternative presentation. Davey prints her work in small, unassuming dimensions, and does not subscribe to working with digital photographs, favoring instead large format, analog cameras. She believes that “the accident has gone missing from contemporary art.” Self-described as a “flâneuse who never leaves her apartment,” Davey’s photographs depict interiors littered with dark shadows, ephemeral pieces of dust, and the personal artifacts that festoon her daily life.
Davey’s most intriguing series in the Biennial is titled We Are Young and We Are Friends of Time (2011). The piece consists of two photographic grids, each made up of twelve images printed on paper slightly larger than tabloid, mimicking the proportions of a 35mm photograph. Davey shows reproductions of letters that she has folded, taped, addressed, stamped, and mailed to her mother, sisters, and nieces. Receiving the letters back again, she presents them unfolded upon the wall, accentuating their wear and tear. Quenching our initial assumption that something deeply personal is written on them by the artist, the letters are excerpts. Written in a timeless and undulating cursive, they are Mary Wollstonecraft’s letters to her husband. The particulars of this 18th century romance do not seem as important as the sentiments Davey has drawn into focus, highlighting words like farewell, darling, and yours truly. In a recent interview Davey asked rhetorically “Why does everyone want to tell his or her story?” and these works are like an open-ended answer. Davey seems to acknowledge with a shy nod the great importance of our objects, journeys, sentiments, and relationships.
Elaine Reichek is perhaps the most unlikely artist to be included in this year’s Biennial, which is why stumbling upon her installation was one of the great and unexpected experiences of the show. It takes a moment to adjust to the unusual materiality of her art, intricate and delicate works of embroidery and tapestry mounted like paintings on the wall. Her imagery—classical images that retell the story of the Greek goddess Ariadne, iconic symbols of antiquity, and seemingly sampler-esque quotes and mottos—leaves you fruitlessly trying to remember what the real stories are, or what true sampler morals should be. As critic Kyle Chayka says, “the success of Reichek’s work is to unmoor stories in our minds, loosening their tropes and making everything slippery, moving stable meaning just out of reach.”
A feminist artist who began working in the 1970s, studying first at Brooklyn College and later at Yale, Reichek can also be labeled as a grandmother who embroiders. Everything about her persona, however, inconveniently defies stereotypes. If she could be labeled as anything it might be as an art historian—Judith Thurman of the New Yorker insightfully called her work “an alternative art history in swatches.” Reichek shrewdly manipulates our notions of needlework, textiles, feminine techniques, allegorical myths, and stories of crime and punishment. She appropriates text from great works of literature, from the mouths of esteemed writers, to deftly incorporate them into her seemingly unrelated imagery. In one tapestry depicting a maze-like pattern woven in muted shades of red, orange, and beige, is embroidered the following Jorge Borges quote: “There’s no need to build a labyrinth when the entire universe is one.” In another large tapestry, Reichek faithfully copies a famous painting by Titian depicting Bacchus and Ariadne, quoting a T.S. Eliot poem as if it were the appropriate postscript for the painting. Reichek mixes and matches materials, styles, and stories as though she wishes to retell, re-contextualize, and re-envision definitive histories of the past.
If Elaine Reichek is the most unexpected artist in the Biennial, the German filmmaker Werner Herzog is by far the most controversial. A misunderstood director, famous for his bleak and soul-searching stories, Herzog remains one of the world’s great living romantics. A member of the New German Cinema, a group of filmmakers working during the 1960s through the 1980s who were greatly influenced by the French New Wave, Herzog has always been attracted to the obscure and the unusual. He finds patterns and creates metaphors with the relentless devotion of a man searching for our humanity in the fringes of behavior. Contemporary art has little interest in the romantic notions of a man like Herzog, and it is perhaps understandable why he hesitated when he was invited to participate in the 2012 Biennial. He insists to this day that he is not an artist, he is a “soldier.”
In his Whitney installation, Hearsay of the Soul (2012), it is not surprising that Herzog highlights the unknown drawings and paintings of the 17th century Dutch artist Hercules Segers. Herzog likes to say that when he first discovered Segers it was like finding a “long lost brother.” Hearsay of the Soul, an ode to the Dutch artist, is a set of projections that document different works by Segers in a simple and objective fashion. Set to the gloriously full music of Ernst Reijseger, the work exists somewhere between film, art, and documentary. Herzog’s projections are mysteriously powerful, as are Segers’s small, muted landscapes that feel so timeless, and Reijseger’s score is nothing short of soul wrenching. Hearsay of the Soul plays to Herzog’s great strength, as it powerfully questions the human condition, in all its beauty and horror.
Uncovering and investigating these four artists exemplifies why it’s important to look beyond the group dynamics of such a large and encompassing exhibition. It’s excessively hard to draw conclusions about the society at large, the art world, or the artistic mindset from the Whitney Biennial, though most critics have to, or choose to do so. Close inspection of the art world ought to have taught us by now that all you can expect from any of the mechanisms of it—galleries, museums, open studios, art fairs, biennials—is that if you can cull from them a few interesting (or new) artists, then they’re still worthwhile. You can’t visit the Whitney Biennial expecting to see a great show full of unpredictable artwork, but you can expect to leave it knowing about one new artist, or with the rekindled love of an old favorite. It is the art after all, though it’s much too easy to forget, that makes the art world and all its trappings worth our time.