A friend of mine, an aficionado and collector of modern art, brought me to the Whitney Museum in the Meatpacking District. I had been to the iconic flowerpot structure of the Whitney in midtown once many, many years ago.
Two things about that visit that struck me vividly: first, the unpleasant reaction, perhaps visceral, to the entry fee, which when multiplied by the members of our party, would have covered the bill at a moderately priced restaurant known for its homey atmosphere and everyone would have completed the meal in a state of happiness; second, an artist with some kind of connection to Upstate New York had an installation that was basically a pile of hay.
It was not just “reminiscent” but it was exactly something you would see in a barn or perhaps in a field. Even though I didn’t grow up on a farm, my parents made a tremendous effort to ensure that that my education included exposure to numerous bales of hay and the occasional barn. One of our party said the winners in the world of modern art were “whomever thinks things up first.” Apparently hay as a medium was untrodden territory, even though it is trod upon daily by many of the citizenry.
At this juncture it would be pointless to say that my taste in art runs toward things that I recognize. A girl in an apron feeding geese. An old man smoking a pipe, or having his hands clasped in prayer. A woman with an open book her lap, or perhaps an embroidery hoop. A landscape that recalls my childhood. Even though I’ve never met a cherub, I do not object to renditions of the form in art so long as they don’t veer into the sappy or cartoonish. I ask art either to remind me of something that I know or to lift me to a higher plane.
On a sunny Friday afternoon, I enter the Whitney, along with a passel of slender Asian students, a smattering of handsy gay couples, and a good number of older women and men who dress disconcertingly alike and who carry of an attitude that they are just passing time until the next tour to Nepal departs.
My host said to me in low tones, “The art here isn’t very good.” But he wanted to see the Biennial 2017, and we stuck to Floors 5 and 6 (after it was made clear we could not have a cup of coffee in the café on the terrace on Floor 8).
When the elevator opened on Floor 5, I said to my friend, “That is baloney.” He thought I was making a trenchant observation on the art in general, but in fact, I saw slices of baloney, complete with red plastic casing, thumb-tacked to a wall, with a smear of black and white paint on each.
To be honest, for a split second I thought I was looking at cross sections of dried apple. But baloney was the part of the triad of my elementary school existence, along with salami (very fatty with the odd peppercorn) and braunschweiger (which didn’t gain points sitting at room temperature on bread that was made to dissolve when it had contact with anything that was liquidy, like mustard).
We strolled up to the exhibition, and upon further inspection my companion said, “I think you’re right.”
Today, I found out that hours before that I happened upon Claim, the brainchild of Pope.L, or William Pope.L, won the $100,000 Bucksbaum Award. In retrospect, maybe Jeb! would have had better luck as Je!B.
And, yes indeed, the piece is:
…an immersive installation including 2,755 slices of bologna that, over the course of the show’s run, has cured and gradually leaked juices into basins at the bottom of the piece. Pinned to the installation’s walls, each bologna slice has affixed to it a photocopied picture of a New Yorker photographed at random. The number of bologna slices is said to represent the percentage of Jews in New York, but Pope.L confessed to his methodology deliberately being “a bit off” in a text hung on a wall next to a bottle of MD 20/20.
In this race-sensitive era, what on earth is Pope.L thinking and what did he pull off? Why are there not legions of picketers outside of the museum declaiming the artist’s insensitivity? Why would anyone of any race want to be represented by a piece of desiccated lunchmeat? And the Mogen David? Insult to injury, perchance? Can you imagine an exhibition depicting a rednecks with using slabs of Spam and a bottle of cheap beer? Or Irishmen with banger and a bottle of Bushmills?
It was a pleasant afternoon. The weather was perfect. But I understand modern art even less now than I did on that Friday morning.