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Issue No. 17 - Enigma

Exhibition Review: An Incomplete History of Protest at the Whitney

Exhibition Review: An Incomplete History of Protest at the Whitney

Toyo Miyatake (1895–1979), Untitled (Opening Image from Valediction), 1944. Gelatin silver print mounted on board, 9 7/16 x 7 5/16 in. (24 x 18.6 cm). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; purchase with funds from the Photography Committee  2014.243 © Toyo Miyatake Studio

Toyo Miyatake (1895–1979), Untitled (Opening Image from Valediction), 1944. Gelatin silver print mounted on board, 9 7/16 x 7 5/16 in. (24 x 18.6 cm). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; purchase with funds from the Photography Committee  2014.243 © Toyo Miyatake Studio

An Incomplete History of Protest at The Whitney


By Isabella Weiss


The Whitney’s current and ongoing exhibition is titled with care “An Incomplete History of
Protest: Selections from the Whitney’s Collection, 1940-2017.” This history is labeled
incomplete because the curators do not want to give the impression that they believe the
history of artistic protest represented in this exhibition is all-encompassing, but also
because this history is still ongoing, still alive and well within the institution itself. As the
first major collections exhibition at the Whitney since its controversial 2017 Biennial
closed in June, the exhibition seems to acknowledge, and even venerate, the protests
that recently occurred within it.

Annette Lemieux (b. 1957),Black Mass, 1991. Latex, acrylic, and oil on canvas, 95 13/16 x 105 x 1 13/16 in. (243.4 x 266.7 x 4.6 cm). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; promised gift of Emily Fischer Landau  P.2010.173 © Annette Lemieux

Annette Lemieux (b. 1957),Black Mass, 1991. Latex, acrylic, and oil on canvas, 95 13/16 x 105 x 1 13/16 in. (243.4 x 266.7 x 4.6 cm). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; promised gift of Emily Fischer Landau  P.2010.173 © Annette Lemieux


The Whitney’s current exhibition on protest is especially interesting in light of the very
recent history of protest within the museum’s walls. Within the first few weeks after the
opening of the Whitney’s recent Biennial, one could find protesters (many of whom were
artists themselves) staked out in front of Dana Schutz’s painting Open Casket, which
recreates in abstract expressionist style the photograph of Emmett Till, murdered and
brutalized, that played a significant role in instigating the civil rights movement. The
painting was immediately and justifiably critiqued for its aestheticization of an image and
subject matter that the artist herself could not identify with. The curators refused to take
the painting down upon public request, expressing a concern for institutional censorship,
and instead initiated a weekly open forum called “Ethics of Looking” that attempted to
address the complicated issues of identity and representation rights instigated by the
Schutz controversy. Whether or not the Museum’s decisions to include the painting, and
then not to the take it down, were right, these curatorial decisions, combined with
protesters’ actions and reactions, brought a pressing conversation into public discourses
that would not have otherwise been evoked by Schutz’s painting, nor had at all.


A major subsection of the current exhibition, titled “Strike, Boycott, Advocate: The
Whitney Archives,” features instances of protest against the museum as an institution,
with particular emphasis on examples of artists’ protest against bias and bigotry within
the Whitney Museum itself. The section’s wall text reads: “From disputes over the
curatorial direction of the Museum to demands that it be more inclusive and accessible,
artists have shaped the course of the Whitney and continue to do so today.” Such works
include Faith Ringgold’s Hate is a Sin Flag from 2007, in which the artist’s inscription
explains that the first time she was called the n-word was at the Whitney Museum, as
well as the Guerrilla Girls Review the Whitney poster, the artist collective’s critique of the
overwhelming male majority at the 1987 Whitney Biennial. There is great irony in the fact
that both of these art objects are now hanging in and owned by the Whitney, but there is
great promise in this fact as well.

Carol Summers (1925-2016), Kill for Peace, 1967, from ARTISTS AND WRITERS PROTEST AGAINST THE WAR IN VIET NAM, 1967. Screenprint and photo-screenprint with punctures on board, 23 3/8 x 19 1/4in. (59.4 x 48.9 cm). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; purchase, with funds from the Print Committee 2006.50.14 © Alexander Ethan Summers

Carol Summers (1925-2016), Kill for Peace, 1967, from ARTISTS AND WRITERS PROTEST AGAINST THE WAR IN VIET NAM, 1967. Screenprint and photo-screenprint with punctures on board, 23 3/8 x 19 1/4in. (59.4 x 48.9 cm). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; purchase, with funds from the Print Committee 2006.50.14 © Alexander Ethan Summers


Although the curators of An Incomplete History of Protest did not explicitly feature the
recent demonstrations at the Whitney in this exhibition, any informed visitor can not help
but be reminded of this controversy when viewing such critically self-referential works. In
spite of this obvious exclusion, it is an encouraging step that the Whitney is willing and
able to acknowledge its bias-, ignorance-, and mistake-ridden past. It takes no small
amount of humility for an institution to acknowledge egregious past faults, especially
ones that are clearly not merely a part of the past. Uniquely, the Whitney appears to be
an institution that is willing to admit imperfection as well as to make discernible efforts
towards change (for example, in spite of its controversial mistakes, the most recent
Whitney biennial was exceptionally diverse, the exhibited artists being nearly half female as well as half non-white). As the Whitney points out itself in its current exhibition, this
change could not have occurred without the work of the protesters who incited it. In this
light, An Incomplete History of Protest is an art event that honors the activists who have
fought for diversity, inclusion, respect, and dialogue both within the museum and without
it.

Guerrilla Girls (est. 1985), Guerrilla Girls Review the Whitney, 1987. Offset lithograph, 22 x 17 in. (55.9 x 43.2 cm). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; purchase 2000.91 © Guerrilla Girls

Guerrilla Girls (est. 1985), Guerrilla Girls Review the Whitney, 1987. Offset lithograph, 22 x 17 in. (55.9 x 43.2 cm). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; purchase 2000.91 © Guerrilla Girls

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