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Rob Perrée: Political Art in Whitney

Political Art in Whitney

The New York Times

June 20, 2013
Questions of Identity, Images of Crisis

“I, YOU, WE,” the Whitney’s latest collection show and the last one for the Breuer building before the museum decamps to the meatpacking district, makes a useful prequel to the New Museum’s recent exhibition “NYC 1993: Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star.” Everything here dates from the 1980s and early ’90s, otherwise known as the era of identity politics. And this show is unusually, almost unfashionably, forthright about those politics, foregrounding them with a string of pronouns.

The Whitney is extremely well-positioned to take on this period, having mounted the polarizing 1993 Biennial (still referred to as the “political” biennial) — an event that lent shape to trends that had been coalescing in the 1980s and would come to define much of 1990s art-making as well. The curators of “NYC 1993” certainly mined it for their show, including Biennial highlights like Pepòn Osorio’s installation “Scene of the Crime (Whose Crime?)” and Daniel Joseph Martinez’s metal buttons bearing the message “I can’t imagine ever wanting to be white.”

At the Whitney we don’t see much from 1993, although many of the names are the same: Robert Gober, Glenn Ligon, Lorna Simpson, Kiki Smith, David Wojnarowicz. Instead, we see the buildup to that cultural moment: artists reacting to AIDS, Reagan-era social policies, urban blight and gentrification, and a stock market boom and bust.

Shows of art from the ’80s and ’90s have tended to enshrine this not-so-distant past, but the pronouns of “I, YOU, WE” bring it into the present. They are intentionally divisive, emphasizing “disparities of wealth, ideology and social responsibility,” in the words of the curator, David Kiehl. In a clever move by the exhibition designers, the relevant pronoun appears as highlighted wall text — “I” in a room of self-portraits, “We” in a gallery of collaborative print campaigns that amount to social portraiture.

Of course, it’s not always easy to tell which subset of identity is at play in a particular work. The narration of the “Truisms” on Jenny Holzer’s marble bench is unmistakable: “You are a victim of the rules you live by.” But is Kiki Smith’s “Shield,” a plaster cast of a pregnant friend’s belly, a “You” or a “We”? What about Basquiat’s “Hollywood Africans,” which simultaneously critiques film-industry stereotypes and depicts the artist and two of his friends? The uncertainties make this show an excellent teaching tool, an identity-politics primer that doesn’t feel preachy.

The groupings can be wonderfully intuitive, as with a pairing of tremulously sensitive self-portraits by the photographers Mark Morrisroe and Francesca Woodman (who seem to echo each other’s raised-arm poses). They hang in the “I” section, alongside more familiar works by Cindy Sherman, Catherine Opie and Mr. Ligon.

“YOU” is inclusive almost to a fault; it carves out room for Richard Avedon’s portrait of the leathery drifter Bill Curry, as well as Richard Prince’s “Spiritual America” and Shirin Neshat’s photograph of a woman veiled by Arabic script. It finally achieves some cohesion with a row of images that speak to early-1990s ideals of androgynous, waifish beauty: Karen Kilimnik’s drawing of Kate Moss, from a Calvin Klein ad, and John Currin’s quasi-mannerist “Skinny Woman.”

“WE” arrives with a gallery of socially conscious posters, the work of activist collectives like Bullet Space and Political Art Documentation/Distribution (PAD/D), as well as individuals like Les Levine. Mr. Levine’s 1981 poster campaign, “We Are Not Afraid,” occupied ad space in the subways, boosting morale during a particularly gritty period in New York; more relevant to today, perhaps, is Anton Van Dalen’s 1986 print “Luxury City,” with its image of skyscrapers crowding out tenements.

These works set the stage for a room of AIDS-related artworks, which include both public awareness-raising campaigns (along the lines of General Idea’s familiar Public Art Fund print “AIDS,” modeled on Robert Indiana’s “LOVE”) and deeply private memorials (Mr. Wojnarowicz’s wrenchingly tender post-mortem portraits of his lover, Peter Hujar, himself a master of the deathbed photograph).

Somewhere in between are the drypoints and photographs of Sue Coe and Nicholas Nixon, who attend the dying and their caretakers with forceful empathy. Mr. Nixon’s shot of a young man named Tom Moran and his mother, Catherine, who wraps a protective hand around his emaciated jaw, is the show’s signature image.

It’s deeply moving to see all of these responses together; this is an exhibition that faces AIDS head-on, as it does identity. Nonetheless, it might have been more effective to disperse these works throughout the show, to underscore the frightening persistence and omnipresence of the disease during the years in question.

One work that benefits from isolation, on the other hand, is Nan Goldin’s 45-minute slide installation “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency,” a rambling portrait of friends and intimates stumbling through nightclubs and tumbling into beds. Made between 1979 and 1996, it defines the exhibition chronologically. But this work is so complex in tone that it almost supersedes the show; as a diary, a documentary and a universal cri de coeur, it joins “I,” “You,” and “We” into a single, pronoun-less entity.

“I, YOU, WE” runs through Sept. 1 at the Whitney Museum of American Art; (212) 570-3600, whitney.org.