If you saw the Whitney’s recent cycle of permanent collection shows uptown, notably Carter Foster’s “Real/Surreal” and Donna de Salvo and Scott Rothkopf’s “Sinister Pop,” you’ll be well primed for the shrewd, unpretentious, and often winningly provincial exhibition that inaugurates the museum’s on-the-money new home. The show’s early galleries think past boundaries of media—Imogen Cunningham’s double-exposed portrait of Martha Graham hangs next to a Charles Burchfield sunburst—and of race and gender, most persuasively via the juxtaposition of a blah abstract totem by Robert Laurent with a better 1931 bust by Nancy Elizabeth Prophet, an artist of the New Negro Movement. Folk artists such as James Castle and Bill Traylor complicate the progressive modernist story, though sadly not the postwar one.
“America Is Hard to See” succeeds most by looking askance at American claims to cultural advancement, whether in Woodrow Wilson’s time or Mark Zuckerberg’s. America’s theft of the idea of modern art in the late 1940s is scrutinized rather than celebrated; it takes guts to make your anchor painting a Hedda Sterne. Minimal developments in the 1960s get blown away by informel collages and assemblages—hands down the best room in the show, juxtaposing Jack Smith’s groovy short film Scotch Tape, 1959–62, with menacing works by Lee Bontecou and Bruce Conner and an eerie painting of a bat by the underrated Los Angeles mystic Cameron. Eventually the sting of the late 1960s (in Peter Saul’s churning Saigon, 1967, or Faith Ringgold’s collage Women Free Angela, 1971) and the anger of the first AIDS years gives way to the Hellenistic nonchalance of the present. But any complacency in the Whitney’s last galleries should be countermanded by the views they afford: to the Piketty-validating glass towers arising in west Chelsea and to a Hudson River that, within our lifetimes, will rise high enough to regularly flood the neighborhood.
For his second solo exhibition at this gallery, Arthur Ou took fourteen portraits of artists who work primarily within the realm of the photographic—people such as Uta Barth, James Welling, and Moyra Davey—reading parts of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s famous treatise on the limits of perception and language, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, in settings both public and domestic all over the world. Also on view are two R. M. Schindler–inspired chairs on which viewers are encouraged to dally and pore over pocket-size volumes of Wittgenstein’s book, republished in three variations—World, Picture, and Fact—where instances of these three words in the text have been replaced by the artist with the word photograph.
There is a nineteenth-century strain of quiet in this suite of small black-and-white images by Ou. It is a temperament that seems to honor interiority, solitude, and a sort of tender pictorial loveliness—qualities that run counter to the extroverted supergraphic shininess of much contemporary photography. The artist doesn’t seem persuaded by the idea that Photoshop has killed the photograph, either. On the contrary, his exquisitely produced gelatin silver prints seem to announce that analogue photographs, as documents of representation, intention, technology, and time, are more intractable and mysterious than ever, and have a power far stranger than any digitally over-manipulated mutation floating across a screen. Ou’s modest works are as subjectively and materially rich as paintings, a medium we once foolishly thought died from modernity, too.
When the 1963 negative for Le Bonheur (1965) lost most of its colors, Agnes Varda had a new one created to look more original than the first. The name given to things more original is artifice, but Varda has said that the film’s palette was exactly as she found it in nature, a truth that applies itself well to the realaesthetik of painter Lisa Yuskavage.
Opening with the green-on-green oil-on-linen Bonfire, which is split in two panels of equal, familiar brilliance, the exhibition unreels into a series of canvases obscured in shades of fog, letting iridescence win over her signature scale-tipping chromaticism. A second surprise: The woman who for years has felt like painting other women now also feels like painting a number of men, some of whom she affectionately termed “dudes” in the titles of her works. Others appear with babes, peek up from supine positions (The Neighbors, 2014) or fan out in splendor from behind (Hippies, 2013). Most of these boys are coyer, cuter, and more virginal than the feminine subjects we’ve often mistaken for “girls.”
But if her subjects-as-objects have always been grown, her style is matured—tenderer, reveling in awe. It’s rare that we get to see a famous painter changing before our eyes, especially so late in a game she has already won (though fans of John Currin, her straightforward counterpart, may have a different opinion). In a show that extends her career-long field day with color, a sunset coda—three pieces in finely splayed pastels over ink-jet on paper, each re-presenting a scene or a subject from her oils—gives us a chance to see Yuskavage’s figures in a state that feels closer to her nature, as heavenly and earthy as it is.
In Sanskrit, samsara denotes the endlessly repeating cycle of birth, life, and death, the quality that is, according to Buddhist philosophy, determined by individuals’ actions. Max Greis illustrates this concept in an impressive exhibition of eighteen mixed-media artworks. He packs myriad scenes and tiny details into apocalyptic panoramas that evoke history, war, conquest, development, and environmental devastation.
While from a distance the compositions appear as moody landscapes that evoke Constable or Turner, close viewing reveals the influence of Bosch and Breugel. Where the Buffalo Roamed, 2015, depicts a surreal palimpsest of North America’s occupants: Native Americans and herds of bison, teepees and Conestoga wagons, give way to soldiers, cars, and military barracks. Terraced fields and industrial installations give rise to piles of garbage and the leisurely bourgeoisie. Nearby is the Oklahoma Land Office, a launching rocket, and a satellite dish, deftly evoking a century and a half of exploration and expansion. Above it all fly small planes, fighter jets, and birds of prey. Heaven, hell, animals, humans, titans, and hungry ghosts—the six realms of existence described in Buddhism—are all here.
In several works, Greis projects video footage onto the panels, perfectly matched to the landscapes in scale and perspective, adding yet more layers of time and history. And on a shelf, a row of dioramas set into vintage books extends the exhibition’s themes, with book titles providing ironic commentary: The Future as History, Outside In, Strange Animals I Have Known, Carved in Sand, Only in America, Beyond the Summit.
Jamian Juliano-Villani’s new canvases are huge, bulging, and flat. They panel up the walls and leave almost no empty space. In addition to seeming unmannered, they’re rude. Fly Kama Sutra (all works 2015) swipes through frames of at least three different, disjointed, and frankly unhinged scenarios. To see it in its entirety, you have to step outside the doors and look in through glass. Have you ever been to a tiny, shitty apartment with no real furniture, no food in the cupboards, but then a seventy-two-inch brand-name TV? Juliano-Villani’s third solo exhibition feels a lot like that, inviting judgment from an inner classy mom: This artist is irresponsible; this artist is not spending wisely.
Nor is hers an easy, happy profligacy, as her brushes with cartoon airiness and billboard surrealism suggest. The best painting is the one that looks you square in the eyes, but its own eyes are scratched right out: Penny’s Change is a smear-up of a puffer-jacketed graffiti artist’s selfie and Peter Saul’s Mona Lisa Throws Up Pizza, 1995, with the kind of teeth—big but mostly missing—that appear to you in nightmares about money. If you can bear to zoom in on it, you’ll notice that its surface is greasy, like a screen that’s been touched or spilled on, as if the painting has been handled without any care or maybe with far too much.
Fragments, ciphers, mirroring, and a whisper about lineage are hung as five oil paintings in Caitlin MacBride’s New York debut. Presenting a mysterious array of oblong forms severed from discernable context, MacBride’s works slink around the alleys of representation but have clearly inhaled the vapors of abstraction and had more than a few liaisons with “Pictures.” Orphaned from any alliances, they look like they’re searching for where they might fit in, as if wandering down art history’s halls, querying David Salle: “Are you my father?”
The two largest works pull the heavier weight of ideas. The first is mysteriously titled Wry Proportion of Its Begetting, 2015, and is predominantly painted a night-colored black and centered by an olive-green display containing three amorphous, articulately rendered blobs all in a line and individually posted on rods or a shelf. They resemble nothing so much as 3-D printed tchotchkes living in a flat monochrome realm cut off from any world except that of race-to-the-black-square minimal painting.
The second, Neck for the Worm Arm, 2015, functions less as a unified composition and more like a layering of competing visions for contemporary painting. A rocky indigo-blue shape in the top center opens a window onto a ghostly white folkloric scene of a deer and a shadowed figure holding out a sword. This interruption in the otherwise color-blocked painting feels cinematic, like an oblique zoom into an intimate scene or a rip in the veil of abstraction. To say that this gentle, even pretty, sight is the painting’s true face emerging from the coded gestures around it, though, would be too trusting given the pieces’ evidently wily nature. Spend the night with them, yes, but in the morning you might not recognize them.
Squashed under glass like butterflies, a pink down jacket, five Hermès ties, and a human-hair wig lie inside a frame. Peanuts & Turtles & Hunters & Chains & Potted Plants, 2015—named for the items cheerfully printed on the ties—encapsulates the keen wit pervading Nina Beier’s first solo show in New York. The materials are whimsical, but their humor is undercut with horror. The flattened jackets and sleeping bags in this series suggest crushed bodies; the sinuous ties swirling around them become viscera spilled on impact. Flattening the ties allows us to examine them as though they were drops of viral blood viewed through a microscope. The jaunty prints become bizarre and a little sickening. Beier’s interest in exposing the perversity of everyday commodities recalls Mike Kelley’s unnerving arrangements of soiled stuffed animals and yard-sale relics.
In a second series, Beier creates giant glasses that Goliath might use to sip a cosmo. Each one contains objects extracted from photographs—hand sanitizer, scissors, bone—encased in translucent, blue-tinted resin. By placing these items in stemware, Beier points to how we consume ready-made images and to their power to alter our minds, moods, and behavior. The still lifes themselves conjure a tension between preservation and decay. Hair spray and Band-Aids as well as the substrate in which they’re embalmed contrast with fragile, transient tokens of the natural world: dismembered beetles, the shards of a shattered emu egg. These exquisitely cryptic sculptures play on the biblical conversion of water into wine. Metamorphosis lies at the heart of Beier’s work, which so effectively transforms prosaic materials, exploding their contexts and stretching their meanings to startling proportions.
Erin Shirreff’s art beats between objects and images. Her latest show, “Arm’s Length,” consists of four bodies of work: large-scale cyanotypes, lush pigment-print diptychs, plinth-bound arrangements of plaster geometries, and layered compositions of steel. Its structure is syntactic, defined through a vocabulary of forms that recur across materials and media. Here tapered to a line, there fixed as a photograph, Shirreff’s shapes resist self-containment, meeting in shifting constellations that fail to congeal.
Drop (no. 14) (all works 2015) began as a catalog of curves—the stock stuff of art-school figure drawing—that Shirreff sketched in her studio. Resized to the ready-made parameters of sheets of hot- and cold-rolled steel, the curves coexist as template and cutout, the bend of a semicircle hedging the rectangle from which it was clipped. Isolable and absent jointing, each leans against the gallery wall in mime of the pictorial logic of figure against ground. Cobbled with a sort of calculated casualness, the array seems primed for reconfiguration. A nearby cyanotype, Four strings, literalizes Drop’s insistence on a frontal (and, hence, imagistic) encounter with form. Created through the exposure of sculptural elements to light-sensitive fabric, the image indexes an object that no longer exists. Stretched to a scale typical of postwar abstract painting, its effect is at once factual and vague, the blunt aniconism of its forms contravening the lyricism of its rheumy scale of blues.
Such slippages between photographic, pictorial, and sculptural space organize the installation. Images sidle into objects; objects are percussed into images. In each case, Shirreff’s work appears other to us, close enough to touch yet poised at asymptotic remove: the not-quite nearness of an arm’s length.
In the photographs that compose Martin Beck’s Flowers (set 4) and Flowers (set 5) (both 2015), a bouquet sits in various states of completion, quite corporate in its prim pose, housed in a clear vase and floating in a field of black: This is the empty dream-space of stock photography, where portraits twinkle like Platonic ideals. At first, the arrangement is a bustle of white blooms (the better to slice against the black), while later stages burst into yellow, bloodred, and pink. These are not pictures of flowers but of cleanliness, of bureaucratic pleasantness, of the sanitized cheer kept up by those manicured hands that crane delicately from beyond the frame to fondle the petals and stems. Here at last is the utopia dreamt up by HR manuals and company retreats, a no-place of smiling industriousness and aseptic bliss.
This show sparkles with a glassy politesse that reaches its apex in Strategy Notebook, a video installation in which words such as “question,” “recall,” “reduce,” and “hold back” fade on and off a screen of alternating colors—the terms themselves were lifted from a 1970s “problem-solving” manual. Spliced with the limpid C-prints, the scene is one of workplace bubbliness, bourgeois incentives, and the hardening of entire states of mind (“memorize”) into techniques to be launched at the vaporous challenges that face a whole droning class of white-collar meaninglessness. The words—“chart,” “simulate,” “search”—dissolve and materialize on the cheerful flatness of digitized space, bobbing so gently there that it’s easy to forget what they are: commands.
The 450 photographs that comprise Wolfgang Tillmans’s slideshow Book for Architects, 2014, first seen last year in Rem Koolhaas’s Venice architecture biennale, pull off a neat trick: They turn down objectivity and subjectivity at once. Shot with no specialized equipment, his photos dissent from the pristine midcentury architecture photography of Ezra Stoller or Julius Shulman, but Tillmans muffles his own voice through spontaneous cropping, unmediated lighting, and indifference to scale. Many of the images come from London—and few artists since Hogarth have made that city look as vile as Tillmans, with his shots of the rebarbative new city skyline, comically ugly Vauxhall condos, or the money launderers’ palaces known as One Hyde Park. Others evince cool, downbeat placelessness: HVAC systems in Russia or Korea, anonymous towers in Berlin or India, airport security lines, a doorknob, an elevator.
Early in his career, Tillmans would tape or pin his relaxed, vernacular photographs directly to gallery walls, and favorite images—of his friends Lutz Huelle and Alexandra Bircken in the forest, or a backpacker encountering a deer on the beach—would repeat in his installations for years. Those recurrences bugged a lot of people, but Tillmans was onto something: He turned his own output into a perpetually renegotiable archive, a memory bank wherein individual images matter less than their relations and their redeployment.
Book for Architects, with its unidentified locations and slideshow presentation, reaffirms that transmission and circulation matter as much or perhaps more to Tillmans than form or place. “Architecture today is little more than cardboard,” Koolhaas averred in Venice last year, and Tillmans, on the evidence, wouldn’t seem to disagree. Yet Tillmans is smart enough to know what you can do with cardboard—the perfect medium for the projection of past memories and dreams that never came true.
Lutz Bacher’s current solo exhibition, “For the People of New York City,” feels a lot like a Frank O’Hara poem: clever, buoyant, wistful, and utterly enthralled by all the garbage and loveliness of city existence. Her ability to resuscitate amateur videos, industrial throwaways, or bodega tchotchkes into numinously charged tableaux aligns her with urban visionaries such as Jess or Joseph Cornell, makers seemingly preordained to make even the stupidest of ready-made things exquisite.
Bacher’s Empire (all works 2014) has nothing of the dead-eyed, steely glamour of Andy’s: Hers swings, blurs, and bobs in space on multiple surfaces, translucent and opaque, woozy with luscious, lurid color from a pair of precariously balanced digital projectors. Like a disarrayed Stonehenge, larger-than-life-size windshields made of Plexiglas are scattered throughout the main area of the ground floor, kept upright in metal stands weighted down with sandbags. Images of this famous edifice reflect into and onto one another, all over and at once, creating an atmosphere that’s like a touristy phantasmagoria by way of a boozy Midtown cab ride.
How Will I Find You is perhaps the most funereal experience of the show. What seem to be hundreds of dirty plaster molds and broken figurines of bunnies, bowling pins, and a beheaded Pillsbury Doughboy are collected into a vast heap in the middle of a room, all gathered around two columns. Is it a Canal Street junkyard? A 9/11 elegy? Heavy-handed, homely, and immanently heartbreaking—just like this terrible city that is so dearly loved.
If barbarism is shoved deep into art, it sits snug as a gun in its holster. Let’s call Hito Steyerl’s work an epistemology of the holster. This survey of her videos since 2004 betrays a preoccupation with casings, coverings, capsules: that is, the thin membrane of criticality stretched taut over so much art discourse. Steyerl’s filmed lectures tickle the art world’s left-ish pieties, as we see her—speaking with pedagogical placidity as she gets all political—deliver the eagerly anticipated theoretical assault. And the artist lecture is itself a kind of casing or effluvium, a foam that forms on top, as the art world’s stony concerns—selling, buying, selling again—churn beneath.
Is a Museum a Battlefield?, 2013, a two-channel video installation, presents a theory that dances along by Steyerl’s bracing, associative logic: It knots together the storming of the Hermitage by Russian revolutionaries; the commingling of arms manufacturers and the culture industry; and the technological imaging systems that make possible both the steel flexion of a Frank Gehry structure and of a fighter helicopter. The museum doesn’t simply “reflect” violence but is itself a site of contestation, destruction, and—we hope—retaliation (which is why the seating in the gallery is made of piled sandbags, perfect for ducking enemy fire). The theme is more poignant in the film Guards, 2012, for which Steyerl interviewed museum guards that have served in the armed forces at the Art Institute of Chicago. Her gesture scuffs the polished halls of culture with the mark of state violence.
It’s difficult these days to imagine any work that can’t simply be looped back into capitalism’s cynical embrace like a prodigal son. Not so here: With her pixelated images, her ironic truth-telling, and the coy fluttering of her dialectics, Steyerl dares to see agency in complicity, cunning in crime.
Trenton Doyle Hancock works in a baroque grotesque, from portraits whose emetic intricacy recalls George Grosz to centerless, Boschian tableaux. This retrospective starts with drawings from the artist’s childhood and maps his career’s uncanny continuity up to the present season. Already in the heavy graphite wobble of a ten-year-old, Hancock had chosen Torpedoboy as his avatar, a caped and hero-diapered character who would appear throughout the decades and here adorns a site-specific installation of his 2002 series “Studio Floor.”
This drawing series is the exhibition’s garish centerpiece, with captions in acrylics below each frame narrating the superhero’s theft of tofu from the bony, bone-white, repulsively awkward beings known as the Vegans. This begins to read as an episode of an ongoing racial conflict (another work on display, Vegans Send Newly Acquired Moundmeat to the Tofu Converter, 2004, reveals the creatures’ sacred pabulum to be made out of their darker rivals), but the story devolves with a gorgeously absurd narrative absentmindedness. Torpedoboy escapes, gets distracted by a prostitute, performs some anxious scat play in a hotel room, then falls asleep alone beside a nasty, worm-segmented dildo.
The series’ use of walls and frames in the manner of a cartoon panel sequence marks Hancock’s expansion from the page to other forms, among which are his pizza-box paintings, animations, and the frightening cutout series “Step and Screw,” 2014. Describing the development of Torpedoboy alongside Philip Guston’s “Klansmen” paintings and racist killings in the South, the subject matter draws the viewer in, then it disorients with too much information. It is the artist’s favorite strategy.
There is the problem of eyelashes. The six unnerving photographs that Laurie Simmons displays here feature interchangeable models against perky colored backgrounds: vapid, prosaic images from a fashion world where Vogue is no longer distinct from twelve-year-olds’ makeup lessons on YouTube. But the eyelashes: Overpainted on the upper lid, much too thick on the lower one. It takes a few seconds to notice—compliments to the dexterity of this maker’s hand—that the models’ eyes are actually clamped shut, and irises and pupils have been painted over their lids. What gives the game away are the lashes—the lower lashes are in fact upper lashes: monstrous, spidery antennae, markers of an enduring but diseased humanity on bodies that makeup and Photoshop have otherwise scrubbed of biology.
In The Land of Green Plums, 1994, the Nobel Prize winner Herta Müller writes of the body as a pell-mell cluster of organs, any one of which could betray the others. “If you control your face, it slips into your voice,” she writes. “If you manage to keep a grip on your face and your voice, as if they were dead wood, it will slip out through your fingers.” Like Müller, Simmons employs the techniques of Surrealism not as a dated language for internal fantasy, but to express the very real effects of external pressures on the body, the psyche, that thing we used to call the soul. There’s no point going inward, these images say; even your imagination has been spoiled, and the dream you dream with your eyes closed tight belongs, if we’re honest, to the international conglomerate that sold you the mascara. Put on a brave face for the camera, but the body cannot withstand the onslaught; keep the pain behind your eyelids, and it will slip out through your lashes.
The only way to understand the full extent of the revelations of Edward Snowden—the disregard for law, the imbrication of governmental and corporate power, the simultaneously awesome and pointless data harvesting—is to put your own grievances to one side and look from the position of the surveillant. For more than two years, the German artist Simon Menner combed through the archives of the Ministry for State Security and unearthed disturbing, at times bitterly comic photographs of Stasi agents trying on disguises (mustaches, hairpieces, fur coats with flared collars) and practicing hand signals: an outstretched palm or a fist pointing downwards, as structured as an Yvonne Rainer performance. A hundred Polaroids document not just illegally imported coffeemakers and West German marks stuffed into cigarette cases, but also unmade beds and sloppy desks: The agents put everything back after their raids, leaving the surveilled in the dark. The oppressors are watching you. But what do they see, and what do they want to see?
The nine other artists in this show take a more contemporary view of surveillance and of the photographic apparatus’s complicity in repression and privacy violation. For The New Town, 2013, Andrew Hammerand took footage from a CCTV camera set up in a planned American suburb, and the grainy images of teenagers and families have the look of a crime scene. Drone vision, whether in the black-and-white shots of Tomas van Houtryve or the Google Earth appropriations of Mishka Henner, turn life into data. Neither legislation nor public outcry seems to be enough to stop such gazes, and unless you can shrink to a size of a pixel, as Hito Steyerl has recently suggested, you aren’t going to escape. One other way out might be the one proposed by Hassan Elahi. Every week since 2002, he has sent the FBI hundreds of photos of his daily life, flooding the system and rendering it even more worthless.