Cultural Sensitivity or Cultural Authority?

Apr 20, 2017 / by Wendy Vogel / ArtReview

Controversy has surrounded the Whitney Biennial since its opening last month. Celebrated in early reviews for its topical purview and representation of artists of colour, the exhibition has come under fire concerning its inclusion of the painting Open Casket (2016) by Brooklyn-based painter Dana Schutz, depicting the dead body of African-American teenager Emmett Till. This past Sunday, 9 April, the Whitney Museum hosted a panel titled ‘Perspectives on Race and Representation: An Evening with the Racial Imaginary Institute’. The event was organized by the biennial curators in collaboration with the Institute, founded by writer, artist and MacArthur ‘Genius’ Grant winner Claudia Rankine as ‘an interdisciplinary cultural laboratory in which the racial imaginaries of our time and place are engaged, read, countered, contextualized and demystified.’ Schutz’s painting became a touchstone to openly interrogate the Whitney’s response, as well as what might be an art institution’s stakes in upholding white supremacy. It did not reach a pat conclusion. The panel was held in the Whitney’s lobby, five floors below Open Casket’s display in the biennial. Rendered in Schutz’s signature expressionist style, the painting depicts an abstract version of Emmett Till in his coffin. The 14-year-old boy was brutally slain in 1955 in Mississippi after a white woman, Carolyn Bryant, falsely accused him of flirting with her. Although Till’s body was mutilated nearly beyond recognition, his mother Mamie Till Bradley insisted on holding an open-casket funeral in his native Chicago. “I wanted the world to see what they did to my baby,” she famously said. The horrific images of Till’s body, published in Jet and The Chicago Defender and widely circulated thereafter, helped catalyse the 1960s Civil Rights Movement. Schutz’s canvas obscures the details of Till’s face under swathes of multicoloured paint. Open Casket has been denounced by some critics as diluting the power of the original image; others have accused Schutz of political opportunism, as a white female painter whose work engages the grotesque but rarely broaches hot-button content. In the words of art historian George Baker, ‘Schutz painted Till because his mutilated face aligns with the disfigured figures of her art.’ Artists of colour immediately responded to the painting’s content, denouncing its appropriation of a racially charged image. On the day the biennial opened to the public, Parker Bright staged a protest in front of the work, wearing a t-shirt with the handwritten words ‘Black Death Spectacle’. Hannah Black, a Berlin-based British artist and former Whitney Independent Study Program participant, penned an open letter demanding its removal and destruction, co-signed by fellow black artists and cultural workers. ‘The painting should not be acceptable to anyone who cares or pretends to care about Black people because it is not acceptable for a white person to transmute Black suffering into profit and fun,’ she wrote, with the rallying cry, ‘The painting must go’. The exhibition’s curators, Christopher Y. Lew and Mia Locks, published a brief statement about the ‘empathetic connections’ sought by the featured artists in response to racist violence. They describe Open Casket as an ‘unsettling image that speaks to the long-standing violence that has been inflicted upon African Americans.’ Schutz, in a quote to the Guardian, said: ‘I don’t know what it is like to be black in America. But I do know what it is like to be a mother.’ Meanwhile, much of the condemnation on social media has revolved around the demonization of Hannah Black for her call to ‘censor’ the image. At the panel, thirteen respondents delivered brief remarks over the course of two hours, including Lew and Locks. Hannah Black (who had performed a new work, OR LIFE OR, at MoMAPS1 in Queens earlier that day), Parker Bright and Dana Schutz all declined to speak. As the event’s primary organiser, Claudia Rankine moderated questions between two rounds of six speakers each. Because Open Casket has not been removed from the biennial, the question of censorship was more or less moot. The relationship between the censoring body and the censored is one of power, which an artist outside the biennial (Black) does not hold over an artist in the biennial (Schutz). Aside from the curators, the few panelists who spoke out against the artwork’s theoretical destruction – such as poet Elizabeth Alexander, who wrote a catalogue essay for the Whitney’s provocative 1994 ‘Black Male’ exhibition, curated by Thelma Golden – kept those remarks brief. Instead, they pivoted to the role of the institution, and the way whiteness remains uninterrogated therein. As author Sarah Schulman and artists Malik Gaines and Ajay Kurian explained, Black’s call to remove the painting was far from fascistic. The moral outrage in response to Black’s letter instead seemed to express something more fearful and insidious. I read it as a call to artistic order, dramatically pitted against Black’s rhetorical gesture. Kurian, an artist in the biennial whose effigy-like sculptures cling to the museum’s stairwells, expressed his unequivocal admiration for Black. In a statement read by Margaret Lee (an artist and Kurian’s gallerist at 47 Canal), Kurian wrote: ‘[Black’s] anger needs no policing. She knows what she demanded and how she did so. Let us not confuse David with Goliath.’ Like Kurian, I see in Black’s letter a channelling of dispossession and rage into a provocative score. Her letter asks the museum to acknowledge that in the fight to decolonise and dismantle white supremacy, choosing sides is sometimes necessary. Protecting whiteness might well mean disenfranchising non-whites. The museum, for its part, stands by its defence of the painting as a type of ‘free speech’ – a right that has historically been restricted to white men, and most recently has been extended as a defence of fake news. Lew began his remarks by stating, ‘I believe that institutions like museums hold a promise to foster debate, a real civic responsibility that allows us to come together like this to hear one another.’ Yet the museum, like the rest of society (especially in the U.S.), is marked by deep inequality. This inequity is reflected in its policies, from the courting of sponsorship from the world’s wealthiest individuals to its $25 entrance fee. Schulman, whose recently published book Conflict Is Not Abuse argues against a victimhood mentality, disabused Lew of his utopian view of museums in her written remarks. The writer described museums and elite universities as corporate institutions that inhibit free speech. To that end she positioned Black and Bright’s protests as insider critiques, ‘an insistence on being treated like the powerful insider that people have been falsely promised to be’ through their institutional validation as artists. The majority of speakers, from academics Christina Sharpe and LeRonn P. Brooks to Elizabeth Alexander and biennial artist Lyle Ashton Harris, argued for the ‘failure of empathy’ in Schutz’s painting. According to Sharpe, it was Bright’s living protest against Open Casket that performed intimacy with Till — like a wake — not Schutz’s canvas. Schutz’s choice to depict empathy by an expressionist rendition of black death registered as hollow; so too did her ‘abstraction’ of her own white identity as she professed identification with Mamie Till. It is not a question of whether white artists can approach painful episodes of history. It is a much deeper proposition to acknowledge one’s complicity in that history. Instead of asking whether the painting should be removed, another set of questions might be proposed: after the 2014 Biennial scandal surrounding Joe Scanlan’s “Donelle Woolford” project – in which the artist made artwork ‘authored’ by a fictional black female artist – how did Schutz’s painting make it into the show? In a cultural climate that strives to understand intersectional oppression, how did Schutz’s painting make it into the show? Under the leadership of two accomplished Asian-American curators, how did Schutz’s painting make it into the show? With a biennial roster comprised of fifty percent artists of colour, how did Schutz’s painting make it into the show? One reason is that the institution has banked on the ‘controversial’ legacy of the exhibition. Although Schutz has stated that Open Casket is not for sale, the frothy debate around it has certainly increased museum attendance. As Kurian wrote, ‘The museum is profiting from this painting even if Schutz is not, though it is difficult to say since she has surely increased her cultural capital.’ More damaging yet is the museum’s defence of the work, as a symbol of political openness. ‘This form of cultural openness often becomes nothing more than a democracy of formalism,’ Kurian continued. ‘The slogan ALL LIVES MATTER insists on a similar kind of openness, one that easily reveals itself as a form of violence. It is a slogan that elides history and hides white supremacy behind the guise of an ahistorical world slogan, abstraction without content.’ Nearly a quarter century after the identity politics debates surrounding the 1993 Whitney Biennial, formalism remains a mode of analysis pitted against context. Both Lew and Locks began their remarks by describing Schutz’s painting in relationship to neighbouring pieces on view in the biennial by Harold Mendez, Julien Nguyen and Maya Stovall – non-white artists addressing political themes. Locks described the relationship between Open Casket and Harold Mendez’s American Pictures (2016) as that between a coffin and a grave. It’s true that Schutz’s painting evokes mourning, as does Harold Mendez’s mixed-media sculpture – composed partly of crushed cochineal insects and carnation petals that need constant replenishing. Yet the colonialist histories Mendez draws upon, as well as his abstraction, differ substantially in tone and origin from Schutz’s pictorial representation. A similar cultural relativism was deployed by panelist Herb Tam, a curator at the Museum of Chinese in America, who likened Till’s murder to that of Vincent Chin. In 1982, Chin was mistaken for Japanese and murdered by disgruntled auto plant workers outside Detroit who worried about their job security. In a speech about identity, Tam ended his remarks musing about American assimilation: “rejecting stuff is as important to feeling a sense of belonging as accepting stuff.” The question of rejection and acceptance inevitably turned to institutional diversity. During a question-and-answer session, Lorraine O’Grady, an octogenarian African-American artist best known for her 1980 performance as the faux beauty queen Mlle Bourgeoise Noire, asked why the Whitney’s curatorial staff did not include more people of colour. Lew responded by repeating his own commitment to diversity, though he neglected to mention two new assistant curators hires who are women of colour (Rujeko Hockley and Marcela Guerrero). The evening ended anxiously, as Claudia Rankine tried to put a positive spin on the voicing of pain. Biennial artist Lyle Ashton Harris grabbed a microphone, firing off a passionate speech about historical amnesia over the identity politics debates of the 1990s. Like many black artists of his generation, he said, he had done the work of creating the white imaginary. Now, however, the task is to dismantle it. “We don’t want cultural sensitivity. We want cultural authority,” he exclaimed, to a burst of applause. Wendy Vogel is a writer and independent curator in New York

Cultural sensitivity or cultural authority?

Apr 17, 2017 / by Wendy Vogel / Art Review

Controversy has surrounded the Whitney Biennial since its opening last month. Celebrated in early reviews for its topical purview and representation of artists of colour, the exhibition has come under fire concerning its inclusion of the painting Open Casket (2016) by Brooklyn-based painter Dana Schutz, depicting the dead body of African-American teenager Emmett Till. This past Sunday, 9 April, the Whitney Museum hosted a panel titled ‘Perspectives on Race and Representation: An Evening with the Racial Imaginary Institute’. The event was organised by the biennial curators in collaboration with the Institute, founded by writer, artist and MacArthur ‘Genius’ Grant winner Claudia Rankine as ‘an interdisciplinary cultural laboratory in which the racial imaginaries of our time and place are engaged, read, countered, contextualized and demystified.’ Schutz’s painting became a touchstone to openly interrogate the Whitney’s response, as well as what might be an art institution’s stakes in upholding white supremacy. It did not reach a pat conclusion. The panel was held in the Whitney’s lobby, five floors below Open Casket’s display in the biennial. Rendered in Schutz’s signature expressionist style, the painting depicts an abstract version of Emmett Till in his coffin. The 14-year-old boy was brutally slain in 1955 in Mississippi after a white woman, Carolyn Bryant, falsely accused him of flirting with her. Although Till’s body was mutilated nearly beyond recognition, his mother Mamie Till Bradley insisted on holding an open-casket funeral in his native Chicago. “I wanted the world to see what they did to my baby,” she famously said. The horrific images of Till’s body, published in Jet and The Chicago Defender and widely circulated thereafter, helped catalyse the 1960s Civil Rights Movement. Schutz’s canvas obscures the details of Till’s face under swathes of multicoloured paint. Open Casket has been denounced by some critics as diluting the power of the original image; others have accused Schutz of political opportunism, as a white female painter whose work engages the grotesque but rarely broaches hot-button content. In the words of art historian George Baker, ‘Schutz painted Till because his mutilated face aligns with the disfigured figures of her art.’ Artists of colour immediately responded to the painting’s content, denouncing its appropriation of a racially charged image. On the day the biennial opened to the public, Parker Bright staged a protest in front of the work, wearing a t-shirt with the handwritten words ‘Black Death Spectacle’. Hannah Black, a Berlin-based British artist and former Whitney Independent Study Program participant, penned an open letter demanding its removal and destruction, co-signed by fellow black artists and cultural workers. ‘The painting should not be acceptable to anyone who cares or pretends to care about Black people because it is not acceptable for a white person to transmute Black suffering into profit and fun,’ she wrote, with the rallying cry, ‘The painting must go’. The exhibition’s curators, Christopher Y. Lew and Mia Locks, published a brief statement about the ‘empathetic connections’ sought by the featured artists in response to racist violence. They describe Open Casket as an ‘unsettling image that speaks to the long-standing violence that has been inflicted upon African Americans.’ Schutz, in a quote to the Guardian, said: ‘I don’t know what it is like to be black in America. But I do know what it is like to be a mother.’ Meanwhile, much of the condemnation on social media has revolved around the demonization of Hannah Black for her call to ‘censor’ the image. At the panel, thirteen respondents delivered brief remarks over the course of two hours, including Lew and Locks. Hannah Black (who had performed a new work, OR LIFE OR, at MoMAPS1 in Queens earlier that day), Parker Bright and Dana Schutz all declined to speak. As the event’s primary organiser, Claudia Rankine moderated questions between two rounds of six speakers each. Because Open Casket has not been removed from the biennial, the question of censorship was more or less moot. The relationship between the censoring body and the censored is one of power, which an artist outside the biennial (Black) does not hold over an artist in the biennial (Schutz). Aside from the curators, the few panelists who spoke out against the artwork’s theoretical destruction – such as poet Elizabeth Alexander, who wrote a catalogue essay for the Whitney’s provocative 1994 ‘Black Male’ exhibition, curated by Thelma Golden – kept those remarks brief. Instead, they pivoted to the role of the institution, and the way whiteness remains uninterrogated therein. As author Sarah Schulman and artists Malik Gaines and Ajay Kurian explained, Black’s call to remove the painting was far from fascistic. The moral outrage in response to Black’s letter instead seemed to express something more fearful and insidious. I read it as a call to artistic order, dramatically pitted against Black’s rhetorical gesture. Kurian, an artist in the biennial whose effigy-like sculptures cling to the museum’s stairwells, expressed his unequivocal admiration for Black. In a statement read by Margaret Lee (an artist and Kurian’s gallerist at 47 Canal), Kurian wrote: ‘[Black’s] anger needs no policing. She knows what she demanded and how she did so. Let us not confuse David with Goliath.’ Like Kurian, I see in Black’s letter a channelling of dispossession and rage into a provocative score. Her letter asks the museum to acknowledge that in the fight to decolonise and dismantle white supremacy, choosing sides is sometimes necessary. Protecting whiteness might well mean disenfranchising non-whites. The museum, for its part, stands by its defence of the painting as a type of ‘free speech’ – a right that has historically been restricted to white men, and most recently has been extended as a defence of fake news. Lew began his remarks by stating, ‘I believe that institutions like museums hold a promise to foster debate, a real civic responsibility that allows us to come together like this to hear one another.’ Yet the museum, like the rest of society (especially in the U.S.), is marked by deep inequality. This inequity is reflected in its policies, from the courting of sponsorship from the world’s wealthiest individuals to its $25 entrance fee. Schulman, whose recently published book Conflict Is Not Abuse argues against a victimhood mentality, disabused Lew of his utopian view of museums in her written remarks. The writer described museums and elite universities as corporate institutions that inhibit free speech. To that end she positioned Black and Bright’s protests as insider critiques, ‘an insistence on being treated like the powerful insider that people have been falsely promised to be’ through their institutional validation as artists. The majority of speakers, from academics Christina Sharpe and LeRonn P. Brooks to Elizabeth Alexander and biennial artist Lyle Ashton Harris, argued for the ‘failure of empathy’ in Schutz’s painting. According to Sharpe, it was Bright’s living protest against Open Casket that performed intimacy with Till — like a wake — not Schutz’s canvas. Schutz’s choice to depict empathy by an expressionist rendition of black death registered as hollow; so too did her ‘abstraction’ of her own white identity as she professed identification with Mamie Till. It is not a question of whether white artists can approach painful episodes of history. It is a much deeper proposition to acknowledge one’s complicity in that history. Instead of asking whether the painting should be removed, another set of questions might be proposed: after the 2014 Biennial scandal surrounding Joe Scanlan’s “Donelle Woolford” project – in which the artist made artwork ‘authored’ by a fictional black female artist – how did Schutz’s painting make it into the show? In a cultural climate that strives to understand intersectional oppression, how did Schutz’s painting make it into the show? Under the leadership of two accomplished Asian-American curators, how did Schutz’s painting make it into the show? With a biennial roster comprised of fifty percent artists of colour, how did Schutz’s painting make it into the show? One reason is that the institution has banked on the ‘controversial’ legacy of the exhibition. Although Schutz has stated that Open Casket is not for sale, the frothy debate around it has certainly increased museum attendance. As Kurian wrote, ‘The museum is profiting from this painting even if Schutz is not, though it is difficult to say since she has surely increased her cultural capital.’ More damaging yet is the museum’s defence of the work, as a symbol of political openness. ‘This form of cultural openness often becomes nothing more than a democracy of formalism,’ Kurian continued. ‘The slogan ALL LIVES MATTER insists on a similar kind of openness, one that easily reveals itself as a form of violence. It is a slogan that elides history and hides white supremacy behind the guise of an ahistorical world slogan, abstraction without content.’ Nearly a quarter century after the identity politics debates surrounding the 1993 Whitney Biennial, formalism remains a mode of analysis pitted against context. Both Lew and Locks began their remarks by describing Schutz’s painting in relationship to neighbouring pieces on view in the biennial by Harold Mendez, Julien Nguyen and Maya Stovall – non-white artists addressing political themes. Locks described the relationship between Open Casket and Harold Mendez’s American Pictures (2016) as that between a coffin and a grave. It’s true that Schutz’s painting evokes mourning, as does Harold Mendez’s mixed-media sculpture – composed partly of crushed cochineal insects and carnation petals that need constant replenishing. Yet the colonialist histories Mendez draws upon, as well as his abstraction, differ substantially in tone and origin from Schutz’s pictorial representation. A similar cultural relativism was deployed by panelist Herb Tam, a curator at the Museum of Chinese in America, who likened Till’s murder to that of Vincent Chin. In 1982, Chin was mistaken for Japanese and murdered by disgruntled auto plant workers outside Detroit who worried about their job security. In a speech about identity, Tam ended his remarks musing about American assimilation: “rejecting stuff is as important to feeling a sense of belonging as accepting stuff.” The question of rejection and acceptance inevitably turned to institutional diversity. During a question-and-answer session, Lorraine O’Grady, an octogenarian African-American artist best known for her 1980 performance as the faux beauty queen Mlle Bourgeoise Noire, asked why the Whitney’s curatorial staff did not include more people of colour. Lew responded by repeating his own commitment to diversity, though he neglected to mention two new assistant curators hires who are women of colour (Rujeko Hockley and Marcela Guerrero). The evening ended anxiously, as Claudia Rankine tried to put a positive spin on the voicing of pain. Biennial artist Lyle Ashton Harris grabbed a microphone, firing off a passionate speech about historical amnesia over the identity politics debates of the 1990s. Like many black artists of his generation, he said, he had done the work of creating the white imaginary. Now, however, the task is to dismantle it. “We don’t want cultural sensitivity. We want cultural authority,” he exclaimed, to a burst of applause.

Know Wave Radio: Michael Genovese & Harold Mendez

Dec 8, 2016 / by The Communiversity with Michael Genovese / Know Wave

Michael Genovese interviews Harold Mendez & Don Lambert about art projects and community, live at "The Communiversity" for Know Wave Radio. This episode was taped on December 1st, 2016 during Art Basel Miami. Click the link above to listen to the full archived episode.

Critics Pick, ONE: We Buy Gold

Mar 19, 2017 / by Wendy Vogel / Artforum

Inaugurating a Bedford-Stuyvesant art space named after the neighborhood’s cash-for-gold shops, the exhibition “ONE.” traffics in sobering monochromes rather than glittery baubles. The three exhibiting artists are united in their desire to explore how political abstractions become tools of oppression. Yet that doesn’t mean their works rely on representational tactics that are easily digestible. Torkwase Dyson reveals how environmental degradation, architecture, and racial injustice are intertwined. The artist gives us two new reliefs, subjective interpretations of black architecture, such as nomadic structures, that relate to her concept of black compositional thought. She affixes wire forms to simplified, architectural-seeming abstract panels. Before Black Mountain and the Anthropocene (Tuareg Women: Namadcity), 2017, references the Tuareg Saharan tribe, a matrilineal society that favors radical female sexual liberation. Renee Gladman’s drawings are composed of letter-like forms that arc into sketches of densely populated city skylines. Some are overlaid with expressionistic washes of gouache. The effect recalls Conceptual forebears such as Robert Smithson’s A Heap of Language, 1966, or Jackson Mac Low’s densely scrawled, illegible poems from the 1990s. It also suggests the ultimate incommensurability of text and lived experience. Los Angeles–based Harold Mendez’s work, also currently on view at the Whitney Biennial, finds more breathing room here. Untitled (Death Mask), 2015, consists of an oxidized copper replica of a pre-Columbian death mask in a singed cardboard container. For let X stand, if it can for the one’s unfound (After Proceso Pentágono) II, 2016, he distressed and reprinted a photo by the Mexican antiauthoritarian art collective Grupo Proceso Pentágono. The image shows decontextualized violence—a man being punched in the face and electrocuted by attackers whose identities lie outside the frame. It’s a staggering image, especially in a moment when the question of representation (in the sense of who speaks for whom) is igniting the art world

Meet the Midwest's 2017 Whitney Biennial Selections

Dec 15, 2016 / by Brad Fiore / Newcity

Though the 2017 list is nothing close to the record number of Midwestern artists in Michelle Grabner’s 2014 Whitney Biennial, nonetheless America’s longest-running survey of contemporary art is still stretching its neck outside of the five boroughs. Co-curators Christopher Y. Lew and Mia Locks have selected seven Midwest-based artists to join their roster of sixty-three in next year’s exhibition. The country’s recent inward turn has focused increasingly on Chicago, St. Louis, Detroit and Milwaukee as bellwethers of the “silent masses” as well as the objects of much-needed reflection, as these cities continue to vie for the top spots in national segregation rankings. And while this year’s Midwestern representation still fails to measure up to the roughly twenty percent share that we make of the country’s total population, it seems that it is becoming harder for coastal curators to ignore our relevance. Harold Mendez While other artists are content to label their work “mixed media installation” and call it a day, Harold Mendez wants us to know that crushed cochineal insects and staples each play an integral role in his latest sculpture. In fact, the wall text for most of his works read like minimalist poems, like that of his 2011 installation “Burial Party & Panic dwindled” which includes “Mixed-media, found objects, children’s mattress, foam, hand-printed Ghanaian funeral cloth, marking chalk, popcorn.” In this politically driven Whitney show, we are eager to see how his work’s Arte Povera roots connect to the show’s focus on social politics. Click the link above for the full article.

A Whitney Biennial on Fifth Avenue? Tiffany & Co. to Host Provocative Artist Collaborations in Its Fabled Windows

Feb 21, 2017 / by artnet News / artnet News

Biennial curators Christopher Lew and Mia Locks picked the five artists, who will show mere feet from Trump Tower. Forget about “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”—this spring, the throngs of tourists visiting Fifth Avenue’s most fabled jeweler will be treated to a Biennial at Tiffany’s. As part of its far-reaching new sponsorship of the Whitney Biennial, Tiffany & Co. has revealed that, beginning on March 9, it will be giving over its highly visible window displays to site-specific installations by five rising stars from the exhibition: Ajay Kurian, Carrie Moyer, Shara Hughes, Harold Mendez, and Raúl de Nieves. The installations will be constructed around exclusive editions that the artists have produced with the jeweler. The truly unusual thing about the collaboration? Tiffany gave full control of the partnership to biennial curators Christopher Lew and Mia Locks, giving the organizers free reign to select whichever artist they wanted—and then providing those artists with generous funding, access to a treasure trove of Tiffany materials, the help of its artisans, and no limitations on their projects. Set in motion by former Tiffany CEO and Whitney Museum trustee Frederic Cumenal, the enterprise will unleash some distinctly unorthodox artworks at the jewelry-seller’s flagship store—a mere half block away from Trump Tower, the de facto Manhattan White House of President Donald Trump. Perhaps the most head-turning installation will be courtesy of Kurian, a young Indian-American artist represented by 47 Canal. Recreating one of the most surrealistically horrifying scenes from the film American Psycho, when the title character drops a spinning chainsaw down a stairwell to murderous effect, Kurian worked with Tiffany specialists to build a trompe-l’oeil diorama of the stairwell that recedes into the window and embellished it with spinning sterling-silver business-card cases, his artwork for the project. Produced in a limited edition of 10, these cases are etched with a Magic Eye-esque stereogram that transforms a seemingly abstract acid-etched design into the word “psycho” when the viewers stares long enough—a reference to the film’s fetishization of business cards as a “secret handshake” among New York’s ‘80s-era Masters of the Universe. As for the other artists, Harold Mendez worked alongside Tiffany silversmiths in the company’s Rhode Island hollowware shop to sculpt a sterling-silver pre-Colombian death mask (a reference to his cultural ancestry); Carrie Moyer designed a sterling-silver pendant inspired by her abstract collages; Raul de Nieves worked with master engravers to adorn a silver box with an image of two figures presenting a child to the world, a recurring motif in his work; and Shara Hughes hand-painted a series of bone china pitchers with brightly hued fantastical landscapes. The editions will retail at both Tiffany and the Whitney, and range up to $8,500 apiece. “For each of the artists, it is as if their studio has expanded exponentially through the collaboration,” Lew and Locks said in a joint statement. “The range of bold and daring objects that they have created together is a testament to Tiffany’s longstanding commitment to art.” Mendez, for his part, hailed his work alongside Tiffany’s hollowware craftsmen as among his most successful artistic achievements to date. Although Tiffany has a storied art pedigree—evidenced by previous collaborations with Warhol and Rauschenberg, and its hugely popular Paloma Picasso line—the partnership is also certainly among the company’s most avant-garde undertakings in its nearly two-century history. However, the collaboration is of a piece with other edgy, high-profile moves Tiffany has made lately. The jeweler sponsored Lady Gaga’s conversation-starting performance at the Super Bowl last month, and has begun including same-sex couples in its engagement-themed advertising campaigns. (Tiffany’s recent “Legendary Style” advertising campaigns were overseen by Grace Coddington, former creative director of Vogue.) One can expect Tiffany to proceed further in this contemporary-art-friendly direction: the company has hired former Coach impresario Reed Krakoff as its new chief artistic officer, installing a dedicated art patron and collector in the influential post.

Tiffany’s Famous Windows Showcase the Whitney Biennial’s Rising Stars

Mar 22, 2017 / by Alanna Martinez / Observer

The Whitney Biennial, hands down the biggest event in the American art world, is now open for business. For its 2017 edition, the show’s host museum has for the first time attracted an unprecedented partner: Tiffany & Co. Not only is the 180-year-old jewelry and design house the main sponsor of the ambitious show, but the luxury brand has commissioned five biennial artists to create limited edition artworks for its Fifth Avenue flagship, as well as eye-catching displays for its world famous storefront windows. “They were incredibly great with the artists,” Biennial co-curator Mia Locks said of the museum’s partnership with Tiffany at the exhibition’s opening reception. “The artists all came back to us and said ‘Thank you for letting me be a part of this. They’ve really supported any kind of ideas I wanted to have, anything we wanted to do for the windows.'” Among Tiffany’s chosen collaborators is Ajay Kurian, whose Biennial installation Childermass is suspended between floors in the museum’s main stairwell with an assortment dangling half-child, half-human figures. With Tiffany, Kurian created an edition of ten sterling silver business cards delicately etched with a design that hides the word “pyscho” within its pattern, which he’s arranged in the store’s window display to appear as if they’re falling through the Whitney’s spiraling staircase—both a nod to his installation and to the 2001 film American Pyscho which features a similar staircase in one of its climatic scenes. Harold Mendez also worked with Tiffany’s silver artisans to create five sculptural vessels inspired by pre-Colombian death masks. When filled with water, the rainbow hues of the macabre objects’ metallic surfaces and the crude facial features etched that into the base of each bowl glitter and come to life. For his window display, Mendez entombed one of the vessels in a case lined with worn, velvety polishing cloths. Themes of death and ritual are also present in the artist’s Biennial presentation American Pictures, which features crushed and dead insects and an arrangement of scattered flower petals. Painter Carrie Moyer, whose glittering geometric canvases can been seen on the museum’s fifth floor, incorporated similar shapes and patterns into the wearable silver pendants she created with Tiffany. The pendant hangs front and center in the store’s window, against an otherworldly, neon-colored backdrop which mirrors layers of cut-paper collage—a process Moyer uses to create her paintings. Arguably one of the most striking visuals in the Biennial are the site-specific “stained-glass” window coverings Raúl de Nieves has created for the museum’s floor-to-ceiling windows on the fifth floor. But while the work bounces rays of colored-light across the museum’s galleries in the same manner as colored glass, the work was created from nothing more cut and taped pieces of acetate. Iconographic imagery also features in the silver boxes he’s created for Tiffany, which are etched with a haloed figure holding an infant child, also cut into layers of icy glass for his window display. The only artist who chose not to work with Tiffany’s signature silver is artist Shara Hughes, who is known for her dreamlike landscape paintings. Hughes has transferred the flowing quality of her brushstrokes onto hand-painted china pitchers, which are displayed amid a whimsical and surreal seascape on Fifth Avenue. The Biennial commissions and windows displays are far from Tiffany’s first partnership with fine artists. In the late 1950s, Tiffany window designer Gene Moore recruited painters Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns to create dramatic displays for the house’s fine jewelry. Objects and editions created for Tiffany by each of the 2017 Whitney Biennial’s collaborating artists will be sold at the house’s Fifth Avenue store.

From Artist’s Hand to Shop’s Counter: The Whitney Teams Up With Tiffany

Mar 15, 2017 / by Ted Loos / The New York Times

Gift shops and the merchandise inside them are a core part of most museums — try naming an art institution that doesn’t take part. Sales not only shore up the bottom line but also help visitors bond with an institution, making them more likely to come back. Such operations are evolving. The Whitney Museum of American Art is now introducing a tie-in with its signature show, the Whitney Biennial, which tries to take the pulse of contemporary art. Five biennial artists are collaborating with Tiffany & Company — which is sponsoring this and the next two biennials with a gift of $5 million — on a series of limited-edition works. Priced from $2,500 to $10,000, they will be for sale in the Whitney store and at Tiffany’s flagship store in Midtown Manhattan in tandem with the biennial, which runs from March 17 through June 11. The venture — blending philanthropy, art and commerce — is new territory for the Whitney, which has never had such an extensive collaboration with an outside partner. The painter Carrie Moyer, who has several colorful works in the biennial, designed a sterling silver pendant called “Daisy” that is based on her collage work. Shara Hughes created a bone-china pitcher hand-painted in a loose manner to resemble her canvases in the show. Each is in an edition of 10. Harold Mendez, known for his mixed-media installations, created a piece that’s a far cry from the classic engagement ring in a blue box: a colorfully iridescent silver vessel in the shape of a death mask. The piece, in an edition of five, looks like a slightly melted face. If it’s hard to imagine Audrey Hepburn sidling up to the Tiffany window to check out a death mask, that’s the point. For Tiffany, which has built itself into a powerful luxury brand with broad appeal, the collaboration has been part of an attempt to re-emphasize its artistic roots: Charles Lewis Tiffany, the business’s founder, was a founding trustee of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the company later enlisted such artists as Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg in collaborations. Beyond its significant donation, Tiffany felt like a good partner for the Whitney in trying something different that would highlight the content of the museum’s signature show. “The ethos of this comes from how the Whitney always engages with artists,” said Christopher Y. Lew, a co-curator of the biennial with Mia Locks. “We follow what artists are doing. The objects they have created are ones they wanted to produce.” Perhaps appropriately, given that it’s one of Tiffany’s signature materials, silver was the choice for four of the five projects, including Raúl de Nieves’s “In the Beginning,” a sterling silver box. “They are sensitive and simpatico to the spirit of the institution,” Adam D. Weinberg, the Whitney’s director, said of Tiffany. “We’ve had a lot of contact with them. If we say, this doesn’t feel so good, ‘They say, ‘O.K., we’ll find something else.’” Noting that the biennial has sometimes proved controversial, Mr. Weinberg also applauded Tiffany for taking a chance. “You never know what the biennial will look like until it opens, so it’s very brave of them,” he said. For 180 years, “Tiffany has been at the forefront of collaboration with artists,” said Frédéric Cumenal, who recently stepped down as the company’s chief executive. Mr. Cumenal, who helped initiate the project, was on the Whitney’s board from 2015 until this year. He added that Tiffany had always pioneered “new technology, new materials, new skills.” Charles Lewis Tiffany founded the company as a stationer in 1837; later his son, the celebrated artist Louis Comfort Tiffany, was its artistic director, although he is better known for his own prodigious glassmaking, examples of which are on view around the country. Today Tiffany is a publicly traded company. Mr. Weinberg stressed that the art objects made in partnership with Tiffany were at a remove from what was being exhibited. Whereas some museums have merchandising spaces just off their galleries, where they sell posters and other items based on the art visitors have just seen, the Whitney maintains only one store, in its lobby. “We’re not setting up a Tiffany shop in the galleries,” he said. According to the biennial curators, who suggested the artists for the Tiffany collaboration, twists and turns were part of the process. “The surprise is what the objects have turned into,” Mr. Lew said. The artist Ajay Kurian has a complicated installation in the biennial, “Childermass,” which includes a fog machine and fur, among other elements. For the Tiffany project, he did “Modern Secrets,” a sterling silver card case in an edition of 10. Its title seems to inject a layer of artistic ambiguity. But no one has tested the boundaries of the project as much as Mr. Mendez, whose silver vessel riffs on a Colombian death mask he knew from a museum in Medellín. “I was skeptical in the beginning,” Mr. Mendez, who is based in Los Angeles, said of the process. “I thought, ‘Tiffany, maybe they’re trying to rebrand. But the more I found out about it, the more encouraged I was. I got excited after a conference call, and they described what the possibilities were.” In particular, Mr. Mendez relished his trips to the Tiffany holloware workshop in Cumberland, R.I., where a series of silver-polishing wheels that were colorfully caked with bits of silver and chemicals set his mind racing. When he discovered a picture of an iridescent tea caddy from an old Tiffany catalog, it fired his imagination further. Mr. Mendez engaged in several months of back-and-forth with the Tiffany artisans on how to get the exact effects he wanted. “Initially, there were bumps, in that I had to translate my idea,” he said. “But it opened a new avenue to experiment with material. They let me follow through on my idea, even when I got to a dead end.” The resulting vessel — with a built-in mystery typical of his work — is not a vase, he said. It’s meant to hold water, but Mr. Mendez doesn’t intend it to hold flowers. “You have to put water inside to finish the work,” he said. “In the gesture of pouring, it can take shape.” Mr. Mendez added that he felt he was able to preserve his artistic independence throughout the project. “They allowed me to have my creative voice,” he said. “The object is really aligned with all my other work. I don’t think of it as something in a store.”

The Week in Art: Ryan McNamara Brings Go-Go Boys to the Guggenheim and Tiffany Meets the Whitney

Mar 10, 2017 / by Sarah Cascone / artnet News

Click the link above to read the full list. Though it may seem that Armory Week and Frieze Week get all the action, the reality is that there is never a dull moment in the New York art world. From the East Side to the West Side, there’s always something happening at the city’s museums, galleries, and various event spaces. Plus, the wider international art scene also keeps us plenty busy, with international events like the opening of Russia’s inaugural Garage Triennial in Moscow. Here’s a rundown of this week’s highlights. Tiffany x Whitney Artist Collaboration Cocktails at the Tiffany Store Tiffany & Co. unveiled the fruits of its collaboration with the Whitney Biennial—it’s the exhibition’s lead sponsor for 2017—at a party on March 9. From the biennial’s participating artists, exhibition curators Christopher Y. Lew and Mia Locks invited Harold Mendez, Ajay Kurian, Raúl de Nieves, Carrie Moyer, and Shara Hughes to create new limited-edition art objects in collaboration with Tiffany artisans and master craftsmen. The spectacular results are now on display in the storefront windows. Tiffany chief artistic officer Reed Krakoff and Whitney director Adam D. Weinberg welcomed the participating artists as well as guests including Indré Rockefeller, Sarah Arison, Isolde Brielmaier, Casey Fremont, and Marlies Verhoeven to a cocktail and canapé reception at the company’s 5th Avenue flagship store. “As soon as they asked me, I said absolutely,” Mendez told artnet News. For his contribution, he adapted one of his copper pieces to silver, a material he had never used before. “What ended up inspiring me was what the silversmiths were able to do,” he added. “They know the properties of silver, and I don’t, so it was a really great way of working collaboratively.”

A Sneak Peek at the 2017 Whitney Biennial ... In the Windows of Tiffany & Co.?

Mar 9, 2017 / by Stephanie Eckardt / W Magazine

Late in 2015, the curators Chris Lew and Mia Locks embarked on what seemed like an almost endless road trip, combing the country (and a few cities abroad) in search of the artists who best represent America right now for the 2017 Whitney Biennial. They finally narrowed that list down to just 63 after meeting with hundreds last year; and now down to just five for a preview of sorts in the windows of Tiffany & Co., the biennial’s sponsor, unveiled today at its flagship on Fifth Avenue. As it turns out, of course, that also happens to be just steps away from Trump Tower, a fact that’s taken on a whole new significance since the biennial’s planning stages—and one that Ajay Kurian, an Indian-American artist who was among those selected for the displays, was not going to let go uncommented upon. “I was ambivalent about the enterprise and the clientele—who shops at Tiffany’s, and what’s going on in the world right now,” Kurian said of his initial response when Lew and Locks approached him. “I just couldn’t get it out of my head.” So, when it came time for he and the other artists chosen—Carrie Moyer, Shara Hughes, Harold Mendez, and Raúl de Nieves—to start with selecting sterling silver Tiffany’s pieces to incorporate into their displays, Kurian took things into his own hands: he asked the company to help him engrave the word “psycho” into the business card cases he’d selected, a reference to the cold-blooded corporate showmanship in American Psycho, the 2000 film with its infamous scene of one-upmanship—using business cards, of course—in a Wall Street conference room. “I told my family and my partner my pitch, and they all just told me I should have a plan B, because [Tiffany & Co.] weren’t going to go for it,” Kurian recalled. To his surprise, though, the company actually did, if partly because the word isn’t readily visible—it takes a few seconds to spot, thanks to an intricately engraved pattern Kurian designed with the help of a website where you can make your own Magic Eye. After all, at this point, the company, who promised free creative reign to Lew and Locks for the project, and is sponsoring not only this year’s, but the next few biennials through 2021, should know what it signed up for—or at least the intentions of the biennial's youngest-ever curators, who were looking not to create extra work for the artists for the sake of a watered-down corporate sponsorship, but to instead give them a chance to expand their biennial contributions and typical artistic practice, “as if their studio has expanded exponentially to the collaboration.” Kurian’s contribution, for example, is an extension of sorts of his installation in the Renzo Piano-designed stairwell of the Whitney Museum, which he recreated in his display and topped off with business cards drifting around on clear glass wheels as if floating to the bottom, where a silver chainsaw is another reference to one of the film’s notorious scenes. Mendez, on the other hand, sculpted a pre-Colombian death mask in collaboration with Tiffany’s hollowware Rhode Island outpost; Moyer embellished her usual collage work with a sterling silver pendant; Hughes worked with bone china to create a series of painted pitchers; and de Nieves worked with the company’s engravers to adapt the three figures that make up one of his recurring motifs. All will be for sale in limited editions, not that Kurian need exactly worry—the money's all going directly to the museum, rather than in business-card-case-carrying pockets.