Every two years, the Whitney Museum presents a survey of the most topical, and aesthetically profound works of art being made in America, at least in respect to the vision of the appointed curator(s). Often this means that there is a certain bias and a string of controversy or criticism directed at the Biennial’s selection and display of artworks. This year’s show was no exception, in fact, the controversy and criticism has been amplified to a level that has not (in my memory) ever been experienced in the show’s history. The following critique will comment upon the controversy around the display of a painting of Emmett Till by Dana Schutz (a white female painter), and compare it to a painting by Henry Taylor (an African American painter) portraying the murder of Philando Castile at the hands of the Police. While Taylor’s painting has been celebrated, Schutz’s painting has faced opposition by those who have advocated not only for its removal from the show, but for its physical destruction.
Schutz’s Open Casket (2016) is an expressionistic portrait of Till, who was brutally murdered by white men in the deep south during the 1950s, an era of intense racial inequality. Schutz depicts the slain teenager in his casket, dressed in a tuxedo and surrounded by a display of pink and white flowers. His face, which was beaten to an unrecognizable state, is symbolized through the gestural movement of paint from Schutz’s brush. The composition, as Josephine Livingstone and Lovia Gyarkye argue, represents a dreamlike state that Schutz has envisioned, a far cry from the literal depictions of Till’s funeral, which can be seen in documentary photographs. The resulting abstract swirls of neutral colors are more painterly than linear, but they are still grotesque. Livingstone and Gyarkye have stated that Schutz’s abstract interpretation is the antithesis of why Till’s mother chose an open casket funeral. However, Schutz is taking liberties afforded to her as a painter, and presents a personal response, which those familiar with her mode of painting should not be taken aback with. To declare that this work is too subjective (as Livingstone and Gyarkye do) is not grasping the reality that art is indeed subjective. Many people will find beauty or offense in different types of imagery. The argument that Schutz’s aesthetic treatment of the work takes away from the poignancy of the original photograph is subjective. Some people will believe that it does, while others will feel that the artist’s treatment of the image is also powerful and effective in expressing the senseless horror of Till’s murder.
I find these aesthetic issues to be more of a talking point than the fact that Schutz is a white artist portraying black suffering. The assertion that she doesn’t have a right to enter a discourse on racism because of her whiteness divides and isolates us within our culture. What makes Schutz’s portrayal of this topic any different than Norman Rockwell’s iconic image The Problem We All Live With (1964)? Rockwell’s painting has been celebrated almost unanimously in our cultural sphere. What about the work of non-Jewish artists that reference the suffering of the Jews during the Holocaust? The call by one protester to censor and even destroy Schutz’s painting because they find it offensive is problematic. Are we validating the Nazi’s viewpoint that some art is in fact degenerate?
Coco Fusco writes a compelling argument for the painting to remain intact and on view: “Whether or not we like the painting or consider it her greatest work — I do not, but think it still has value — Schutz’s decision to refract an iconic photograph through the language of abstraction has forced the art world out of its usual complacency and complicated the Biennial’s uniformly celebratory reviews. Schutz’s painting has, perhaps inadvertently, blown the lid off of a biennial that features an almost too perfect blend of messy painting, which appeals to conservatives, and socially engaged art, which appeals to the more politically minded. As far as I’m concerned, that’s not such a bad thing, given the ghastly state of American political culture at this moment.”
Henry Taylor’s painting The Times Thay Aint A Changing, Fast Enough! (2017) isn’t that dissimilar from Schutz’s in that it takes artistic liberty in the service of symbolic expression. In fact, it also uses a photograph as reference. Like Schutz’s Open Casket, Taylor chooses not to paint directly from life when depicting the scene of a grisly crime. The painting depicts the moment that the bullet enters the body of Philando Castile, a black man who was murdered by a police officer during a routine traffic stop. There is an especially powerful feeling within Taylor’s handling of the paint, specifically the splatters of paint on Castile’s shirt. The spots of paint aren’t red, which typically suggests blood, instead they are blue and yellow and drip down the figure, evoking the style of abstract expressionism. Here, Taylor utilizes the affordances of the material and the history of painting in order to create an emotional impact. While splatters of color recall the energy of ‘action painting’, the art critic Jerry Saltz rightly points out that this painting is also Taylor’s Death of Marat moment. Indeed, the composition of Castile’s twisted body recalls Jacques-Louis David’s 18th century painting of the murdered French revolutionary figure, Jean-Paul Marat.
Taylor’s work in the show is a stark reminder that violent times and attitudes aren’t truly changing at all. Instead of lynchings, black mothers now have to worry about their sons being shot by police. The history of violence is personal to Taylor and his painting, Ancestors of Ghenghis Khan with Black Man on Horse (2015-2017), describes how his grandfather was shot in Texas for refusing to pick cotton.
Perhaps more than any other year, this year’s biennial is steeped in strong politically charged work. Both Schutz and Taylor use the affordances of painting to make bold social commentary. The fact that Taylor’s paintings have drawn praise, while Schutz’s work has been condemned, is typically illustrative of a divided art world. Like our culture at large, the art world in America is still a place of exclusive privilege, which has often marginalized the female and minority voices. The art world establishment has held white male privilege to such a high standard that it has tokenized the way we talk about the work of nonwhite men.
Regarding the response to the criticism around Open Casket, I think that the responsibility lies on the museum, along with the curators to make a statement. So far, we haven’t heard their reasoning behind why they chose to include this painting. It sounds like they may have known that it would be a talking point and perhaps that justifies its placement within the show. It is all speculative at this point. However, there remains the thorny issue of institutional racism from within museum ranks. Museums are far less diverse than they should be, which is evident from the perspectives of the staff demographics in major museums, as well as the amount of solo and group shows featuring women and artists of color.
Perhaps, calling museums out on issues such as institutional racism will have a positive effect on the overarching problems of inequality within the arts? A healthy critical dialog is largely encouraged when discussing works of art or socio-cultural issues, however, it becomes problematic when rage fuels the discourse and calls for the destruction of art.