When Political Art Fails to Engage: The Whitney’s “Open Plan”

Nothing to see: Andrea Fraser's sound installation on the Whitney's superlative 5th Floor
Photo: Nic Lehoux / via

Earlier this month, the Whitney Museum of American Art completed what I see as a fascinating experiment. Timed, more or less, to the first anniversary of the museum’s luxurious new Renzo Piano building in Manhattan’s Meat Packing District, it decided to show off. The Whitney’s fifth-floor gallery spans the entire floor unobstructed; as the wall text explained, “This 18,200-square-foot space is the largest column-free museum gallery in New York, yet until now its full expanse has not been revealed to the public.” It is, indeed, a revelation: a breathtaking expanse of polished blond wood flooring, unobtrusive white walls that go on forever, a ceiling outfitted for any possible installation needs (and which charmingly evokes the iconic coffered ceilings of the Marcel Breuer-designed former Whitney) and those views! The east and west ends of the gallery are floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall windows. To the east, visitors can admire a heartbreakingly perfect, quintessentially New York view over the neighborhood’s picturesque, eclectic architecture. At the other end of the gallery, the dazzling view over the Hudson River and beyond borders on the sublime.

Open Plan Wall Text w Artists
Photos by the author unless noted.

But that gallery wasn’t altogether empty. The Whitney organized a five-part exhibition called “Open Plan” that turned the whole floor over to five artists, one at a time, to produce a series of installations that used the space without interrupting it. Each of the segments lasted for only a few days to a couple of weeks. Andrea Fraser created a sound installation about Sing Sing prison; Lucy Dodd peppered the gallery with free-standing abstract paintings and organized a festive music series in the space; Michael Heizer showed a monumental projection documenting—at full-scale—one of his earthworks; jazz icon Cecil Taylor exhibited archival documentation and ephemera from his long career, showed video of his piano playing and participated in a star-studded performance program; and filmmaker Steve McQueen screened a video about Paul Robeson’s McCarthy-era FBI file.

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What Worked

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Visitors were delighted to be in that gorgeous space.[/pullquote]

Part of why it felt like an experiment, part of what made “Open Plan” feel vital, is that the Whitney provided a higher order of self-explanation than museums normally tend to disclose. By this, I don’t mean sharing secrets, of course, but rather the very welcome gesture of demystifying some of the behind-the-scenes considerations that go into mounting exhibitions. The simple process of making the reasons for and concept behind the show part of the show goes a long way toward making institutions like the Whitney feel open and accessible. Inviting visitors into a unique and remarkable space and showing them artwork that was either created especially for that space or that can only be shown in such a space, simply put, engenders enthusiastic good will. In my admittedly anecdotal experience of “Open Plan,” visitors embraced the novelty of the event and the majesty of the gallery with a collective and extended frisson of delight.

Lucy Dodd's "Open Plan" installation
Lucy Dodd’s “Open Plan” installation

Another admirable quality of “Open Plan” was the care that the museum devoted to diversity. The five artists represent a mix of genders, races and generations. Each section was organized by a different curator or curatorial team, drawing from multiple perspectives for all aspects of the show. Moreover, the variety among the artworks was especially impressive. From Dodd’s paintings to Fraser’s conceptualism to Heizer’s photography to Taylor’s memorabilia to McQueen’s archive-based video—and that list is hopelessly incomplete—the multiplicity of media and sensibilities and styles show the Whitney at its best. There was aesthetic work, didactic work, performance work, documentary work, even objects of visual culture that weren’t necessarily technically art. There is a welcome current trend among museums to expand the media and definitions of art they take seriously; “Open Plan” is the kind of project that really needs to participate in this broadening of what museums can do, and the Whitney rose to the occasion.

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What Didn’t Work

I mentioned that visitors were overwhelmingly delighted to inhabit that gallery, but I didn’t mention how they reacted to the artwork. There is no denying that the space and the novel experience were stiff competition for all five sections of “Open Plan,” but I am most interested in the reception of the two explicitly political installations: McQueen’s and Fraser’s.

[pullquote align=”left” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]No one managed to engage with the political substance of the work.[/pullquote]

McQueen’s installation is called End Credits, a cinematic allusion appropriate to the artist’s primary role as a director of such movies as Hunger, Shame and last year’s Best Picture Oscar winner, 12 Years a Slave. At either end of the gallery, huge screens shows a scroll of typewriter-produced, grainily photocopied, largely redacted documents from Paul Robeson’s extensive, racist FBI file. Audio of various voices reading more of these documents filled the gallery. For this section of “Open Plan,” as for Heizer’s, the windows were covered and the space was dark. McQueen’s was the only part of the show where photography was not allowed.

And how did visitors receive this moving indictment of the violence and insanity of official racism and governmental persecution of a beloved African-American public figure? Barely at all. While I was there, one or two people occupied the many available seats in from the screens and a handful of others milled around briefly before stepping back into the elevators and moving on.

Fraser’s project, Down the River, consisted of speakers mounted in the ceiling playing the sounds of slamming doors, rattling chains, sharp buzzers, distorted loudspeakers, muffled talking and other ambient noise that she recorded at Sing Sing prison. The wall text included a very pointed, very smart, very devastating essay by Fraser comparing the Whitney and Sing Sing as two opposite, but jarringly parallel, institutions on the banks of the Hudson River, and not even all that distant from each other. The essay is available here, and well worth the (short) read. She notes that since the ‘70s, both US art museums and US prisons have gotten busier. While museum attendance has increased tenfold, the number of prisoners has grown by 700 percent. She continues, “art museums and prisons can be seen as two sides of the same coin in an increasingly polarized society where our public lives, and the institutions that define them, are sharply divided by race, class, and geography.” Devastating.

Selfies overwhelmed the possibility of contemplating one's own implication in the prison-industrial complex.
Selfies overwhelmed the possibility of contemplating
one’s own implication in the prison-industrial complex.

Fraser presented this clear, powerful statement and the unsettling sounds of incarceration, and visitors ignored them. The day I was there, I was conspicuously the only person among a respectable crowd who seemed to notice there was sound playing or that there was an artwork on display at all. Visitors would emerge from the elevators, absentmindedly glance at the wall text and then immediately succumb to frolicking and selfies and the wonder of the gallery.

So, the central aspect of “Open Plan” that didn’t work was the substance of the artworks, which, it turns out, was not much of an issue for the work Dodd, Heizer and Taylor presented (and that’s not a criticism of those three projects). It was only when the work focused on fraught political issues that the audience didn’t engage. This is no one’s fault. The Whitney and the artists took the show seriously and developed and executed well-conceived installations that responded appropriately to the concept and space. And, of course, it’s hardly a surprise that recreational visitors to an art museum would rather take high-cultural-capital selfies in front of the best views they’ve ever seen than contemplate their own implication in the prison-industrial complex.

It is important to note that the problem is not just that people don’t like political art. At the very same time no one was paying attention to Fraser’s or McQueen’s agitprop, visitors on another floor of the Whitney were heartily engaged with Laura Poitras’ exhibition, “Astro Noise,” about government surveillance.

I don’t have any definitive answer about why the audience couldn’t connect with Fraser’s or McQueen’s work in this context (outside of “Open Plan,” both artists are eminently respected and plenty popular with all kinds of audiences). Maybe it’s a problem of marketing, not that this explanation is very satisfying. Everyone who went to “Astro Noise” knew what s/he was getting into in a way that people were unprepared to be confronted by Sing Sing or J. Edgar Hoover’s bigotry at “Open Plan.” But that’s just speculation. If you have thoughts on this—or if you had a different experience from mine at “Open Plan” and think something different was at play—please turn this into a conversation in the comments or on social media.