Fine Art


The Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City weighs in every two years on what matters in the art world by mounting an exhibition that lays claim to showing the best, brightest and hippest. This Whitney Biennial, the 76th in the museum's history, may be different in several respects from its predecessors. There are fewer artists, nothing offsite, and all disciplines intermingled all the time. And this year, as Karen Michel reports, performance is big.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Up? Thank you. Going up.

KAREN MICHEL, BYLINE: There's activity on each of the five floors of the Whitney Museum, yet there's an odd stillness here; none of the frenzy that's marked earlier biennials.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Going up. Going up.

MICHEL: The mood is set when the doors open on a brown-clad woman sitting on the floor, unmoving, wearing a horse head. This is the performance floor. Though there are performances throughout the museum mixed in with everything else, Adam Weinberg, the Whitney's director, says that's part of what makes this biennial different from all others.

ADAM WEINBERG: We do have to recognize that the Whitney Museum is primarily in its DNA primarily a visual arts institution. And that's where it really starts to upend what people think about the Whitney if they come to us and expect to see paintings and sculpture, photography and prints and drawings. And we're not turning our back on that at all. I mean, it's part of the show and it will be ongoing.


MICHEL: A person-less performance had more than a dozen viewers sitting, hunching, listening to a player piano.


MICHEL: Not some tricked-out instrument, just a brown upright with a slotted scroll.

LUCY RAVEN: The song is originally by an LCD sound system.

MICHEL: Lucy Raven worked with pianist and composer Jason Moran, who made three variations of the song "Dance Yrself Clean."


MICHEL: Raven says it's a commentary on the encroachment of a computer-centric society.

RAVEN: That player piano really operates on this really early form of binary code. So, I wanted to pick a song that could talk about some of those ideas and almost be an elegy, which "Dance Yrself Clean" in a lot of ways is, a song about things of the past.


MICHEL: Photographs of the past, of the Works Progress Administration of the 1930s, inspired 30-year-old Latoya Ruby Frazier. Frazier's black and white images document the decline of her industrial hometown, Braddock, Pennsylvania. One photograph shows an older woman on the sidewalk, a hospital behind her. The woman is Frazier's grandmother. The hospital has since been torn down.

LATOYA RUBY FRAZIER: My grandmother died because of the illnesses she contracted from the steel mills and living in that environment. My mother was in and out of that hospital her whole life. In fact, when they decided to close and started tearing it down, at that time she was having a lot of these neurological issues and seizures. And she collapsed right here on 4th Street and Braddock Avenue, and there was no emergency care.


MICHEL: A New York Times preview of the show said: Of course, it wouldn't be a Whitney biennial without at least one outlandish installation. This year it's by Dawn Kasper.

DAWN KASPER: Welcome, to my studio. This is my home and my studio for the time being. I take naps but I can't sleep overnight.

MICHEL: Kasper is here seven hours a day. Her space is like a movie set: there's no fourth wall, so you peer in - a voyeur - or go right in among the boxes, the art supplies, the art books and the TV playing old movies that are Kasper's inspiration.

KASPER: The films of Buster Keaton as you see here, and "Steamboat Bill Jr." that's playing right now is all my work. And I'll move it around and I'll take things down. And, you know, you'll see behind you and around you that some of the work is propped up on books off the floor.

MICHEL: Unlike Kasper's space, this biennial seems remarkably uncluttered. Even though there are performances everywhere, there's plenty of painting and sculpture to see between the moving parts, says museum director Adam Weinberg.

WEINBERG: I don't imagine, but you never could tell, but I don't imagine there will be a time when there will be no visual elements to see within the museum, but you never know.


MICHEL: For NPR News, I'm Karen Michel.

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