More Than Half
The Whitney Biennial leans in
For the first time in its seventy-nine iterations, the Whitney Biennial has included in its offerings a majority of women artists, with more than half aged forty and under. And while I think that any exhibition which claims to present the state of American arts ought to include those newly on the scene (replete with their unique perspectives), I’m still going to say this: it was the ones over forty, the women particularly, who I think made the best work.
Left to right: work by Nicole Eisenman, Simone Leigh, Wangechi Mutu, and Augustina Woodgate
Mostly I want to draw attention to Diane Simpson, the 84-year-old Chicago artist whose work stood by itself in the Whitney’s small exhibition space just off the lobby, though honorable mention goes to Simone Leigh for her grounded hybrids of African vessel-women, Wangechi Mutu for her kinetic poem, continuously scratched on a tin pot, and Nicole Eisenman, for her ragtag grouping of figures plodding toward an unknowable future.
While Eisenman’s work did what others in the Biennial were trying to do, but bigger, bolder, and better, Simpson’s work was altogether of a different tone. Creating sculpture that draws inspiration from garment patterns and construction in order to translate them into rigid three dimensional pieces, Simpson’s work is geometric when others’ upstairs is chaotic, intriguingly obscure while others’ are overt in their messaging, and appears fabricated when others did not try to hide their hand.
But why in a show so skewed towards the young did the curators Rujeko Hockley and Jane Panetta include Simpson? (She’s been making similar sculptures since the 1970s, after all.) As her work stood apart from the fray––both physically in a gallery unto itself and thematically in its impressively ordered content––Simpson’s work is clearly special, at least in the eyes of the curators. So why her and why now?
If you were searching for an answer with the same political zeal you might apply to the works upstairs, you might find the reason in Simpson’s Jabot (triplet) from 2017, a sparse and inert translation of a tiered collar, similar to the ones collected by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. But good luck with that interpretation, as the fact that Ginsburg has somewhat absurdly reached the status of cult icon is not the significance of this piece, as these works’ meaning does not lie in digestible sound bites, nor are they so topical. There is something else going on here.
Part of their brilliance is in their perfection. They are impeccable, “sublime” (in the words of Holland Cotter), spare and assured. Without a nail out of place, they are efficient in communicating the elegance of line in the human form. (Despite being constructed of cool metals and hard wood, they are recognizable as garments). “I'm interested in the seamless shifting from body to architectural form in the melding of the wearable with the structurally unwearable,” says the artist.
One of the pieces in the show includes work from Simpson’s Samurai series, in which she has framed a riff on Japanese armor in a symmetrical proscenium, like a stage set or a window display. (This work has been included in museum windows in the past.) Window dressings are a fantasy, a reflection of our world, refracted in vitrine. The smooth lines and bold symmetry of Simpson’s installations harken back to the days of department stores’ primacy, which, like our political system, seem to be in decline, struggling to adjust to a world dominated by the Internet. None of these references, however, are overt, but rather leave you with that vague feeling of familiarity, though their lines are too clean to suggest intimacy.
But still we are left with the question of why they’ve been included in the first place. As a gloss on the entire show, our fist experience of the Biennial before we head up the stairs, it seems as if the work is perhaps a nod at the show itself, the curators’ comment on the fool’s errand of curating any American moment, but particularly this one, so defined as we are by fracture. Whatever they have come up with in the galleries above will be no more true than a window display––keep this in mind as you ascend.
There is something wise about this work and something confident. Simpson knows that being loud only adds to the noise, which puts you in danger of getting lost in the din. Maybe her work is not so much of this moment, but rather is the curators’ way of offering us a path forward into the future.
Until September 22