Protest Artist Creates Big Noise at New York’s Whitney

'An Ear to the Sounds of Our History'
"An Ear to the Sounds of Our History (Longest Day)" (2011) by Sharon Hayes. The digital C-print represents a segment of a large collection of spoken-word records in in the Whitney Museum's site-specific installation "Sharon Hayes: There's so much I want to say to you," which runs through September 9, 2012. Source: Whitney Museum of American Art via Bloomberg

A 100-foot-long (30 meter) white curtain, stretching almost the width of the Whitney’s third-floor gallery, is the first work you encounter in the exhibition “Sharon Hayes: There’s So Much I Want to Say to You.”

Printed across it in big black letters is the artwork’s title: “Now a chasm has opened between us that holds us together and keeps us apart.”

The work’s cryptic and multipurpose function (sign, paradox, invitation, barrier) is a metaphor for this mid-career retrospective, which lures viewers in, then keeps them at bay.

Born in 1970, Hayes is a “protest” artist who straddles the line between art and dissent. Her platform is the street and the soapbox, not the studio and the easel. She works mainly with words (written and spoken, her own and others).

Rough around the edges, the show at the New York museum is a site-specific installation that utilizes fabricated and found artworks, including dozens of yard signs, all arranged on and around a series of stepped wooden platforms and bleachers resembling those used at political rallies.

Headache-inducing, it comprises a confusing cacophony of rebellious voices -- an oversaturation of signage, words, images and talking heads (some loud, some silent, some heard only through headphones), all buoyed by the acrid smell of new, raw plywood and cheap carpet.

Vintage Words

It features posters, videos, recordings, taped performances, sound works and ephemera. Plastered around the gallery is a collection of vintage record albums featuring the spoken words of dignitaries from John F. Kennedy to Jerry Falwell to Dwight Eisenhower and Evel Knievel.

The show embraces issues as diverse as heartache, war, poverty, apartheid, women’s rights, gay pride, the abduction of Patty Hearst and the shooting of Trayvon Martin.

One spoken-word record, presenting the wisdom of Rev. Francis L. Filas, asks: “The Battle of the Sexes … can it be avoided?”

Hayes clearly has a lot to say. Amid this onslaught of verbosity, however, it’s almost impossible to hear the individual -- let alone the artist -- among the mob.

Clearer and more concise is the Whitney’s “Signs & Symbols,” a handsome though uneven exhibition of about 80 drawings, prints, paintings, photographs and sculptures from the mid-1940s to the late-1950s.

Abstract Mythology

The show’s premise is that the postwar period in the U.S. is usually associated with the machismo and heroic scale of Abstract Expressionism but that mid-century American abstractionists also explored more intimate and universally symbolic forms and mythologies.

Unfortunately, “Signs & Symbols” perpetuates the myth that U.S. art of this period was born out of a break with, rather than a reinvestigation of, earlier, revolutionary European abstract art.

It also is pandering, predictable and occasionally off course. Can’t the Whitney mount a 20th-century group show without including one or more of the Pop trinity Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein and Robert Rauschenberg?

Despite these shortcomings, “Signs & Symbols” has merit.

Like the European abstractionists before them, artists here draw on sources as varied as children’s art, primitive masks, Egyptian hieroglyphs, prehistoric cave painting and calligraphy.

Crash Course

“Signs & Symbols” develops relational themes through a diverse range of works by Louise Bourgeois, Adolph Gottlieb, Alfred Jensen, Louise Nevelson, Isamu Noguchi, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and David Smith.

Letting your eyes wander among analogous forms is to get a crash course in abstraction.

In Noguchi’s marble sculpture “The Gunas” (1946), interlocking vertical forms suggest ancient architecture, figures, totems, weapons and machines.

Noguchi’s enigmas speak to Smith’s “Hudson River Landscape” (1951), a linear, steel sculpture that conflates ship, bridge, river, face, mountain and lightning storm.

Flesh out “Signs & Symbols” with more Noguchi and Smith, jettison Johns’s misplaced “Study for Three Flags” (1958), and this show would be even clearer.

“Sharon Hayes: There’s So Much I Want to Say to You” runs through Sept. 9 and “Signs & Symbols,” which is supported by Bank of America Corp., is on through Oct. 28 at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. Information: +1-212-570-3600 or

(Lance Esplund is U.S. art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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