Now at the Whitney: Photoconceptualism, 1966-1973

Alyssa Bianca-Pavley


Whitney Museum building (from

There is a whole lot of awesome currently crammed into the Whitney Museum of American Art. “Photoconceptualism, 1966-1973” is third in a series of exhibitions that focuses on the photography collection amassed by the Whitney. This show, though tiny, is comprised of incredibly compelling conceptual photographs by artists such as Bruce Nauman, Ed Ruscha, Adrian Piper, and Mel Bochner, to name only a few. The images vary from tongue and cheek humor to the examination of human existence. Included in the show are pictures from Bruce Nauman’s “Eleven Color Photographs” (1970), which focuses on word play within classic one liners. The photographs are quick witted, especially in “Waxing Hot”, where hands are pictured polishing the letters H-O-T, or “Eating My Words”, where Nauman is literally eating letters cut out of bread, with a jar of jam nearby.

Waxing Hot, 1966-1967, from

Also included is Adrian Piper’s “Food For Spirit” (1971), which chronicles the summer she spent cut off from the rest of world, reading Kant, fasting and practicing yoga, rarely allowing herself to venture outside. The images are a result of a metaphysical crisis that occurred when she began to feel as though she no longer physically existed. She chose to photograph herself to make sure she was still present. The photographs, each taken in the same position with Piper nude in some and clothed in others, are beautifully unsettling.

Food For Spirit Image #11 from the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art,

Another current exhibit is Sadie Benning’s video installation, “Play Pause”. The piece consists of two channels, each projected on to a movie theater-sized screen, which play concurrently and occasionally combine to show one larger image. “Play Pause” features hand drawn images by Benning, which illustrate life in a city, both the urban environment and those who live in it. Benning’s drawings are charming and disarming, simply done in black and white with occasional blue and red washes. She explores sex, yearning, politics and more, all over an engaging soundtrack that varies from the whirr of insects and chattering birds to squealing tires and drinks being poured, fully immersing the viewer in her experience. Sadie Benning is one of the youngest people ever to be included in the Whitney Biennial, in 1993 at the tender age of 19. This video installation is more subtle than her earlier work but just as excellent.

Detail of a Drawing for Play
, 2001-2006

But wait! That’s not all, folks. The Whitney is featuring an exhibit of Claes Oldenburg’s work, including his short films, drawings and sculpture. The space is actually divided into two exhibits, one of just Oldenburg’s work and another that is done in collaboration with Coosje van Bruggen.
Within “Claes Oldenburg: Early Sculpture, Drawings and Happening Films”, definitely check out his gigantic sculptures of softened cigarettes and the delightfully squishy-looking “Soft Toilet”. There is also “Ice Bag- Scale C (1971)”, a massive mechanical ice pack that fills up an entire room and inflates and deflates continuously with a mesmerizing hum. The “Happening Films” were scripted and performed by Oldenburg and feature casts composed of his fellow artists and friends. Each “Happening” was filmed in stark black and white by various filmmakers, in the late 60’s through the 70’s. This installation is the first time all seven of the films have been shown together and a rare treat indeed.
“Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen: The Music Room” features many of Oldenburg’s classic soft sculptures, this time tackling musical instruments as a subject. What emerges is fantastic.

Soft Viola, 2002 from

Get thee to the Whitney! “Play Pause” and “Photoconceptualism” are on view until September 20th and both of the Oldenburg exhibitions end on September 6th.  For more information, check out The Whitney Museum of American Art is located at 945 Madison Avenue at 75th Street and is open Wednesday through Sunday.

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