No Fluff in Their Stuff: Museum Guards Review the Whitney Biennial
Fred Wilson, Guarded View, 1991
No curator, art critic, museum member, or monocle owner spends more of their eyeballs on art than a museum guard. They stare at it for so long I imagine the pieces turn into a sort of visual white noise for some of them. Still, while they nag about not taking photos or whisper-shout at idiots who stand within Eskimo-kissing distance of the art, the work they are protecting must implant itself into their brains, right?
I set out to get the opinions of these master observers on the pieces they guard day in and day out. Unfortunately, getting them to open up turned out to be more difficult than I had originally thought. I went to the Whitney Biennial’s press preview thinking I could waltz up to anyone with a badge, ask them whatever I wanted, and be met with a happy reply. Instead, my questions were answered with questions like, “Who are you?” and, “Why are you asking me this?” Later, I emailed the museum’s senior publicist and was told that “it is Whitney policy to have only curators comment on the art…” Bourgeois elitism! Someone take the cork out of these untapped geysers of art criticism and let them gush!
It was obvious I wasn't going to get anywhere dealing with the bureaucratic nightmare that is the Whitney’s PR department, so I decided to simply go to the museum enough times that my face became as familiar to the guards as the art I wanted to ask them about. Gradually, they began to open up and tell me about the best and blandest of the Biennial.
Lutz Bacher, Pipe Organ, 2009-11
VICE: Hi. Do you have a personal favorite piece of art here?
Guard #1: No.
OK. Well, what do you think of this?
I've been here for ten minutes and this is very nice. It’s an electronic organ, and I love music. It’s very large, and I love when the hammers hit the keys. The organ pipes look destroyed, and I like how they’re falling over, which reminds me of torpedoes or missiles."
Joanna Malinowska, From the Canyons to the Stars, 2012
VICE: Do you have a favorite piece on this floor?
Guard #2: Yes, right there. The sculpture with the horns and tusks. I’m not sure what they are but it looks like a coat rack for dinosaurs. It looks scary. It reminds me of my trip to Alaska, so I like it a lot. My opinion on art has completely changed since I came to the US ten years ago.
Nick Mauss, Concern Crush Desire, 2011
Excuse me. Why do you think the artist painted a yellow room in the gallery?
Guard #3: I don’t know, but I like the disruption it has with the rest of the gallery. It looks like a nice room. I like that there are doors for people to walk through the art. Maybe it’s supposed to recreate a nice room that the artist liked. There’s Warhol hung on the wall of the “room” and some drawings by... what does it say over there? By Eyre De Lanux. My pronunciation is bad.
Kai Althoff, Untitled, 2011-12
Hi there. Do you like guarding this piece of art?
Guard #4: Yes, it’s fine.
What’s nice about it?
It’s very nice, indeed. It’s very colorful, and I like art with a lot of color because I’m usually dressed in dark colors. But it's weird, too, because the shape of the paintings are not normal—they look like diamond-shaped canvases or something. And this curtain of fabric is like a nicer version of a wall to hang paintings from. It’s lovely.
Jutta Koether, The Seasons II, 2011
What are you guarding at the moment?
Guard #5: I’m not sure. It says over there. [points to wall text]
Do you like it?
Yes, it’s nice.
What’s nice about it?
The painting has many colors, and I like the crazy zigzags. It looks like a celebration, a messy one. It reminds me of the spring, which is nice, because I’m tired of winter. It’s nice to see so many chaotic colors.
Andrew Masullo’s Oil on Canvas collection
Guard #6: Come here.
Why are you taking photos?
I’m taking a photo of the Masullos behind you.
[Guard says nothing and gives me a look.]
Do you like it?
They’re small and vibrant. I can quickly appreciate it because of the colors and the size. I don’t think of anything when I see this. I forget about my job when I look at these paintings.
Forrest Bess, The Noble Carbunkle, 1960
What do you think of this painting?
Guard #7: It’s not my favorite.
Oh. Why is that?
It feels too sexual.
Look at the center of the painting. It looks like a woman’s… you know what. And there’s a unicorn next to it, which looks a bit sad. The wall text also says that the artist got drunk and operated on his own private parts to become more of a woman. It’s hard to look at this painting without imagining what he did to his body.
Nicole Eisenman, Breakup, 2011
Do you have a favorite painting in the museum?
Guard #8: Yes, in the other room. It’s called “The Breakup.”
I haven’t seen it yet. What’s it like?
It’s the one with a person looking sad while holding what looks to be their cellphone. It reminds me of how much my children use their cellphones. I’m guessing the painting tells the story of someone who is breaking up or being broken up with over a cellphone. I think kids have developed strange social behavior, and the painting does a good job of pointing that out.