The Whitney’s installation intensifies the viewer-artwork relationships. Singular Visions, a twelve-piece summation of contemporary art’s progression from post-war years to its current condition, has refreshed the viewing experience by giving each piece its own room to accommodate its size, technique and concept. This regal approach allows the artwork to properly resonate within the viewer. The Whitney re-released these pieces from their permanent collection to remind the art community of its accomplishments and to challenge it to reinvent some of its obsolete practices. The progression of contemporary art is best articulated by the work of Gary Simmons, Ree Morton and Edward Kienholz.
Gary Simmons’ “Step Into the Arena” completed in 1994, is similar to his previous “erasure” works, which features white chalk drawings on slate painted surfaces. However, the artist incorporated his drawing technique to sculpture, which resulted in a white boxing ring with a black canvas floor, theatrically lit from above as if something greatly entertaining just ended. In its own space, the ring transforms the innocent viewers into curious spectators of a ghostly sport. The floor of the ring is marked with chalked foot instructions to the Cakewalk, a dance popular during the years of slavery. Pairs of black tap shoes are tied to the roped perimeter of the ring, increasing the feeling of recent abandonment. With adequate reflection it becomes clear that the installation is address the artist’s personal and collective experiences of race and class. A white cage has been made to entrap the black flooring. The chalk marks, although fine and two dimensional, lay heavily on the elevated, stage-like flooring. The rich blackness of the floor is polluted with the smeared white chalk and bound by the immaculate white structure around it. Simmons also includes a secondary commentary addressing the oppression of essentialism; a philosophy that claims everything has a definite purpose, cementing individuals to a painfully narrow existence. Like a boxer, Simmons found himself defensive, fighting to break free of the imposed singular definition placed on him as an African American artist.
“Signs of Love,” first exhibited by artist Ree Morton in 1976, is a piece that brilliantly displays the benefits of the one-room one-piece arrangement utilized by the Whitney. Morton entered the art world late in her life, and did so with originality and sincerity, evident in her sensitive arrangement of mundane objects that offer intimate connections with the viewer. Her ten years of creative construction was interrupted by her untimely death in 1977. However, Morton’s work continues to pulsate with her artistic energy. “Signs of Love” is as bold as a broadway set design, but emits a sensitivity typically felt in the warmth of a home or in the innocence of new love. Materials ranging from wall paint and tape to ladders and garland are arranged on a large white wall, with wordy clichés about the title emotion. The installment is an interesting piece serving as both a painting and a sculpture. The collage of items may initially seem irrelevant, but the space and quietness of the room allow the viewer to interpret different associations. The freedom in which she handled mediums allowed for honest, interactive and penetrating artwork. The attention given to decorative elements such as bow ties and picture frames, make the piece visually poetic; its revealing yet still effortless in its minimalistic approach. Undeniably feminine, “Signs of Love” seems to make an individual rather then political statement. It reads as a personal reflection of how love and womanhood are experienced based on the experiences unique to the artist.
Edward Kienholz’s “The Wait,” is a main attraction in this group exhibition. The scene is familiar but unnerving, composed of aged materials, furniture and other oddities. Kienholz collected from Los Angeles’ piles of discarded objects deemed unfit or useless to the owner with the intention of making recognizable scenes that reflect social criticism. A scene that can only be viewed from the front forces the viewer to confront the central figure whose lifelessness is haunting and fragile. The observers are positioned outside the woman’s space, but the desire to intrude loiters as you silently investigate. A woman made of animal bone and completed with a small, glass-covered photograph as a head, sits below a sizable portrait of her husband. The title suggests she is waiting, but for what? The portrait of her husband seems to memorialize him. The fullness of his mustache and liveliness in his eyes makes him younger then his widow who continues to live, but does so painfully alone. Kienholz’s subject is a victim of her seemingly endless wait for death and the universal loneliness that erodes the human spirit in death’s wake. The barely recognizable objects, once members of homes and families, stand renewed and transformed as reminders of the dark realities of humanity.
Twelve pieces, chosen for their unique representation of contemporary art from the past forty-seven years, occupy twelve different rooms. Allowing an individual piece to be the singular focus of a room permits the art to stand in its most powerful state. The observer’s personal reflections are intensified by this exhibits simplicity. The grand scales of the works are matched by their compelling concepts, making them suitable for such an imperial exhibit.