Impressions of the Whitney Biennial by JW Harrington

This summer John and I spent two art-filled weeks in New York City and the Hudson Valley.  I shared photos of a few of the things we saw, with a little commentary, in posts on Facebook and Instagram.  (If you don’t follow me on Instagram – @jwharringtonjr – please consider doing that!)  In the months beforehand, I’d been ambivalent about viewing the 2019 Whitney Biennial, thinking it would be extremely crowded and very white, New York centered.  Then I read about the two curators, Jane Panetta and Rijeko Hockley, their vision for the show, and their many travels around the country to the studios of artists far from the crowd -- and bought tickets.

We spent four exhausting and rewarding hours in the museum.  The only crowding we experienced was on the elevator to the 6th floor (we used stairs thereafter).  Featuring painting, sculpture, photography, performance, and video from 75 artists or art collectives, the only quite-accurate generalization is the focus on the strife, misfortune, and inequality of the current moment. 

However I also perceived an emphasis on what I’ll call the materiality of visual art.  Here are some examples, go to for more, and for images, since I don’t think this platform allows me to insert images! (If you’d like to get my newsletter with images, let me know at


Eddie Arroyo (Miami FL) presented a series of four works of special interest to my geographer and urbanist friends.  5825 NE 2nd Ave., Miami, FL 33137 is painted expressionistically four times, illustrating its façade transformed from a locally owned, low-key eatery in Little Haiti  to an abandoned, graffiti-covered storefront, to a white-washed storefront over the years 2016-19.  This de-materialization of culture in a changing city with rapidly rising property values struck me.

Nicole Eisenman (Brooklyn NY) exhibited  a set of large-scale sculptures, titled Procession, using a verywide variety of materials and objects to speak to bodies, bodily functions, human interaction, and human disenfranchisement.

You may know that several artists selected for the exhibition refused to present their work after (a) the discovery that a company co-owned by a vice-chair of the Whitney’s board manufactures and distributes “less-lethal” (but often, nearly so) munitions, (b) that these specific products have been used against civilians in Gaza, the US, and other countries, (c) a written demand that the board member (Warren B. Kanders) leave the Whitney board, and (d) the refusal of the board to expel Kanders.  Among the most riveting of the Biennial’s displays was a video presentation by the collaborative Forensic Architecture(London, England;  with Praxis Films) titled Triple Chaser, which is one trade-name for a particularly awful tear-gas canister manufactured by a subsidiary of Kanders’ company.  Video was needed, because words are inadequate for the horror inflicted by governments (in many cases, against their own citizens) and the elaborateness of the research that Forensic Architecture engaged to show the exact incidences of these specific devices’ use.  Here is the art of uncovering materiality.   See my photo of the descriptive placard, and see these articles (among many others): and

Daniel Lind Ramos (Loiza PR) presented a set of large sculptures to which the viewer can ascribe various interpretations, until closer examination reveals the materials of which they’re made, and with that, reveals other meanings.  I photographed Maria-Maria, which seems to be an other-worldly female with an elaborate headdress, no face, sagging breasts, and a striking blue robe.  The accompanying placard lists the materials as “metal basin, wooden seat, lamp, tarp, coconuts, palm-tree trunk, steel sheet, rope, beads, fabric, tacks, wood, plastic tubing, steel bars, scissors, and wooden box.”  The materials relate to the destruction that Hurricane Maria brought to Puerto Rico;  the title refers to the hurricane and to the Virgin Mary, who was so often rendered in Medieval Europe with brilliant blue robes because of the rarity and expense of rich blue pigments.

Wangechi Mutu (Brooklyn NY and Nairobi, Kenya) showed a set of larger-than-“life” sculptures of found wood, clay, fired clay pots, a cow horn, and paper pulp.  The forms definitely evoke women, in strong poses, warm tones, and provoking use of material and texture.  I photographed Sentinel II.

Heji Shin (New York NY) presented large, vividly detailed and colored photographs of human childbirth:the actual moment of crowning, when the baby’s head emerges in full.These photographs shocked and deeply disturbed me – only because I’ve never been close to childbirth since it produced me, and I’ve never seen any other images that portray the bloodiness that accompanies the start of our lives and the pain of our mothers.Childbirth is deeply material.

Texture! by JW Harrington

Color provides powerful stimulation for almost all of us, as I explored in my last post. In a visual art work, visual detail pulls the viewer in to inspect (more about that in a later post).

Texture also draws in a viewer and leads to questions: “Is that surface rough to the touch, or does it just appear that way?” “ Is that area still wet?” “Wait, I see shadows cast by those three-dimensional peaks on the painting, and they move when I change my orientation — so they must really be there in three dimensions!” “How did the artist do that — is there really that much paint on the surface right there?” Texture makes the viewer want to touch the piece, to get that additional sensory information. (To be honest, one of the reasons I buy some art pieces is to be able to touch them when I want to. Oops, there went the possible re-sale value of art works I own!)

I’ve been looking forward to more experimentation with surface texture in my painting. Toward that end, I purchased a lot of “cradled” hardwood panels. “Cradled” means that the 4 mm-thick piece of sanded hardwood is glued to a frame of softwood to yield a rigid, hollow painting surface that is 1.5” thick.

What does this do for me?

The wood surface (especially some more sanding and a layer of gesso) has no grain of its own, unlike cotton canvas. Any texture you see in the painting is what i put there, with nothing added by the support for the paint.

The wood surface is rigid and sturdy. If I load up a really thick impasto, the support can take it without sagging, and the support has no ability to move up and down like the drum action of stretched canvas. So my thick paint and additional mediums will not crack.

The 1.5-inch thickness, with no visible break or distinction between the front and the sides, combined with the visual and tactile texture of the painted surface, gives some implication that you’re looking at a 1.5” thick mass of paint — very impressive!

This first set of paintings on panel are all 12” square: fun to work with, easy to move around, and available at a nice, low price point!

In Through Change and Through Storm, I’ve used a heavy, matte, acrylic gel medium and three shades of deep red to create a rugged and colorful surface, with only two pigments.

In Trace, I’ve used the same technique, on a very different palette of colors. I don’t usually attribute a programmatic meaning to my abstract work, but I’ll admit that this makes me think of Champagne.

More or Less entailed the most profligate use of gel medium and the resultant textures: there are three sequential layers of thick paint-with-medium, built up after each dried, to create this evocative surface. Everyone who’s seen this creates a different interpretation of these forms!

I’ve also played with an acrylic product that creates a thin, transparent layer atop the surface, which I can then paint over, after it dries. I did that to paint Allegory 1 and Vigil, trying to create a slight three-dimensional separation among the figures that are painted atop each other.

Midas actually used a combination of these techniques. There’s a lot of color and pattern under that rich gold, visible upon close inspection. (I want to draw you in!)

Let me know what you think! Follow me on Instagram!

The thrill of color in paintings by JW Harrington

From the start of my time painting, I’ve been a colorist, fascinated by the visual and emotional impact of color.  Form certainly matters as well – as Mark Rothko showed so powerfully.  In my decades of studying paintings, I’ve always wondered – still wonder – why Rothko’s color-field paintings enthrall me.  I’m not alone, though I’ve read quite-good explanations.

Mark Rothko's Yellow Over Purple (1956).

 While Rothko’s paintings seem to demand that the viewer look internally for meaning (and defy that meaning to be “programmatic,” since they convey emotion and introspection rather than a “story,” Clyfford Still conveyed drama in his paintings’ value contrasts and jagged forms.  I see action, even fighting, and if I want I can see narrative.

Clyfford Still’s 1949, No. 1.


I started out painting Color Abstractions, each focused on two complementary colors: 

red and green,

orange-red and blue-green,

gold and purple,

yellow and blue (with a little orange).

Not too much orange, though:  orange is quite powerful, quite jarring.


In closing, I have to acknowledge the master of color and color theory, Josef Albers.

Josef Albers, Interaction of Color (1963), Plate IV-1.


Next: what happened when I’ve added texture to color?




The role of death in life, 8 by JW Harrington

“We humans are, however, not psychologically equipped to fully acquire such equanimity without an enduring sense of significance that extends beyond our own individual existence.  In The Broken Connection: On Death and the Continuity of Life, Robert Jay Lifton described five core modes of death transcendence:

“Biosocial:  by passing on one’s genes, history, values, and possessions, or by identification with an ancestral line or ethnic or national identity that perseveres indefinitely.”

“Theological: faith in a soul and the possibility of literal immortality;  or a more symbolic sense of spiritual connection to an ongoing life force.”

“Creative:  contributing to future generations through innovations and teaching in art, science, and technology.”

“Natural: identifying with all life, nature, or even the universe.”  [One recognizes that one is a tiny part of something that will endure.]

“Finally, experiential transcendence is characterized by a sense of timelessness accompanies by a heightened sense of awe and wonder…. such experiential states are most fulfilling when they occur in the context of one of the other four modes: playing with your children, engaging in spiritual rituals, throwing yourself into creative activity, being immersed in the natural world.”

-- Sheldon Solomon et al. (2015).  The Worm at the Core: On the Role of Death in Life, pp. 221-2