Whitney 2014 Biennial: Five Hot Artists to Watch

Courtesy of Jerry L. Thompson

The museum presents the final survey of contemporary art to be held in historic Marcel Breuer building.

Its downtown digs may be nearing completion (the target for opening is spring 2015), but the Whitney Museum of American Art has one last installment of its closely watched Biennial to offer in its iconic Marcel Breuer-designed uptown home. However flexible the event has been since its 1932 beginning (at some points it was held annually instead of every other year), the Biennial has always aimed to present an informed, persuasive survey of what matters in contemporary American art. This year that job fell to three curators: Stuart Comer, Anthony Elms, and Michelle Grabner — each of whom was responsible for filling one floor of the building.

More than usual, this year's event (running from March 7 through May 25) stretches notions of what constitutes an artwork, incorporating everything from the notebooks and marginalia of author David Foster Wallace and a series of trade paperbacks published by Semiotext(e) to two films made not for galleries but for the cinema. Both Andrew Bujalski's 2013 Computer Chess and Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel's experimental doc Leviathan are playing in full on continuous loops for the exhibition's duration. One hundred and three participants (some of whom are collectives with multiple members) are represented, making the show impossible to summarize. But that doesn't mean some don't stand out:

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An abstract backdrop of The Great Train Robbery sequence descriptions exhibited in a L.A storage unit.

Los Angeles-based Dashiell Manley, one of the youngest artists there, got his MFA a mere three years ago from UCLA. His ambitious The Great Train Robbery, expected to take ten years or so to finish, will be a scene-by-scene remake of Edwin S. Porter's landmark silent film, albeit not your ordinary remake: Each scene is shot against an abstract backdrop covered with shorthand-like descriptions of the film's action, sequences that may only obliquely refer to the original. The installation at the Whitney, a recreation of the film's third scene, was previously exhibited in a L.A. storage unit.

Why focus on this film, one wonders? "I had been wanting to remake a film for a while," Manley says, "and there were two specific criteria that I was looking for. I wanted the film to be a first in as many ways as possible: first action film, first jump cut, etc. Second, I wanted the film to have been remade already." Michael Crichton's 1978 version starred Sean Connery and Donald Sutherland.

"More than the idea of simply remaking a film," he continues, "I am interested in telling the same story over and over again and the core reasons why we do this." Other scenes in the project will be produced in different styles; the one he's making now will be "traditional hand drawn animation, no physical sets or props," he says.

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Sample of Auerbach's knittings on mannequins

Lisa Anne Auerbach, also based in L.A., has multiple works in the survey: A giganto-sized publication titled American Megazine (two gallery assistants are required to help browse through its massive pages), and an assortment of knitted wool garments and hangings inscribed with personal and/or political themes. "Knitting was just another way to get ideas into the world," she says, noting that she arrived at it in the midst of making things like zines, flyers and photographs. Though a knitted cap and a Goliath magazine might seem strange bedfellows, she says matter-of-factly that "it's all self-publishing."

Three mannequins in Auerbach's gallery wear many of her colorful creations, including such topical works as No On 8 (Ghost), which seemingly refers to both California's Proposition 8 and the Octomom media phenomenon, and We Are All Pussy Riot, We Are All Pussy Galore, which name-checks women who've bedeviled both James Bond and Vladimir Putin. If the figures suggest an edgily adult version of playing dress-up, maybe it's appropriate that one of the collectors of Auerbach's work, Jane Holzer, started public life as one of Andy Warhol's Superstars under the name Baby Jane.

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Acoustic-style poems by Susan Howe.

Poet and academic Susan Howe, who at 76 is one of the Biennial's elders (Etel Adnan, born in 1925, is the oldest), is also one of its most unusual selectees: "I feel somewhat of an oddity," she admits, as someone whose work is generally found in editions from the venerable New Directions press as opposed to on gallery walls.

But the poems in Tom Tit Tot look more like slice-and-dice collage than something from a literary journal. The exquisite, minimalist black-and-white letterpress prints combine typographical fragments representing varied source texts into abstractions that are only partly legible. Though her influences include artists Kurt Schwitters and Agnes Martin alongside the expected Dickinson and Yeats, Howe insists the compositions "are meant to be read."

"I believe that every mark on paper is acoustic," she says. "So the sound and sight of a letter, or even a piece of one, a cross out, a misspelling etc. has an acoustic and visual effect that is part of meaning. In fact I have a very definite way of reading them aloud but obviously a reader might read them differently." These particular poems are so new that Howe hasn't recorded her own readings, but she's working with composer David Grubbs on live performances.

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Mayerson's stylized painting of Spiderman

Installed like the jam-packed, floor-to-ceiling offerings of an old-fashioned artists' salon, the dozens of paintings making up Keith Mayerson's My American Dream are meant to work as comic-book panels to tell a non-linear narrative. From stylized images of super-heroes and the cover of Marvin Gaye's What's Going On to paintings based on snapshots of Mayerson with his husband Andrew Madrid, they suggest a life that began in fantasy and continues to draw strength from larger-than-life figures.

Comparing his own collection of inspirational images to that of Anne Frank, who pasted images of high and low culture on her wall, Mayerson matches Elvis and Kermit the Frog with historic heroes including Rosa Parks and Abraham Lincoln. "All together," he says, "it is hopefully a sublime, ultimately positive and optimistic vision of family … of how personal agency and power can help and inspire to make America and the world a better place."

Given Mayerson's fondness for subjects like Superman and Spiderman, it may be appropriate that X-Men star Famke Janssen owns a picture he made of sculptor Louise Bourgeois.

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Rainbow-colored fibers by Sheila Hicks

The Whitney itself: Perhaps inevitably, artists in each curator's group find ways to turn the once-controversial, now-cherished Breuer building into part of the show. Sheila Hicks creates a column of rainbow-hued fibers to draw the viewer's eye up into the open coffering of the ceiling. Zoe Leonard turns one of Breuer's skewed windows into a camera obscura, projecting a dim image of the building's across-the-street neighbors on the wall of a darkened room.

Sound artist Charlemagne Palestine installed speakers throughout the stairwell, giving that already-somewhat-eerie space an even creepier vibe. And in the middle of a third-floor gallery, Morgan Fisher's Ro(Ro(Room)om)om plays with the design of the Whitney's future building to make a sheetrock puzzle-space whose walls have yet to be adorned with any kind of art. Here's hoping the rooms of that building prove to be as good a home for American art's cutting edge as Breuer's have been since the building's opening in 1966.

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