On Her 101st Birthday, My Mother Visits the Whitney Biennial

For her 101st birthday, Muriel Mandell visited the Whitney Museum of American Art to catch the Whitney Biennial before it closes September 5th. “The Whitney Biennial,” we read, “is the longest-running survey of American art, and has been a hallmark of the Museum since 1932” — 11 years after my mother was born.

Muriel Mandell in front of “Mountains Walking” by Leidy Churchman
On the sixth floor of the exhibition, she was most struck by Raven Chacon’s “For ZitkálaŠá,” thirteen scores in tribute to Yankton Dakota writer, musician, and activist ZitkálaŠá (1876-1938), and video of performances by contemporary Indigenous women musicians and sound artists and composers. “This is powerful, and moving. I didn’t know the Navajo believed in Heaven.”

“Ishkode” by Rebecca Belmore. A religious looking figure (actually a sleeping bag cast in clay) standing amid thousands of empty bullet casings. “Untitled (Snag)” by Cy Gavin. “Mundus: A Novel” by N. H. Pritchard known primarily as a concrete poet “who arranged words spatially across the page.” Muriel, an author of more than a dozen books, most recently “A Donkey Reads,” an adaptation of a Turkish folk tale, was taken by Pritchard’s novel, and stood there reading the pages on the wall. Pritchard hung out with painters at the Cedar Tavern in Greenwich Village, the neighborhood where my mother has lived most of her life.

Long Low Line (Fordland) by Danielle Dean, which initially looks like an oil painting on canvas, but turns out to be an 18-minute animation traveling through a series of fantastic landscapes. We stood there for quite a while, although not all 18 minutes.

Ecstatic Draught of Fishes by Ellen Gallagher. We stumbled on a tour, for which this was the first painting. The tour guide talked about the social significance of the piece. My mother asked questions about how it was made. The tour guide said we had to move on. (We soon moved on from the tour.)

“Mountain Walk” by Leidy Churchman. Untitled by Richard Lemon. “Project Row Houses: If Artists Are Creative Why Can’t They Create Solutions” by Rick Lowe.

A life-long New Yorker, she was delighted by “64,000 Attempts at Circulation” by Rose Salane, an Only in New York work of art about masses of people sneaking onto city buses. The artist explains:  “I acquired 6,400 coins from a New York Metropolitan Transit Authority asset recovery auction. The lot I acquired was listed as ‘slugs’ and contained a variety of tokens that mimic the shape and weight of legal tender. Each of these were used by commuters to pay for bus fares from 2017 to 2019. Five distinct categories of slug coins kept appearing across the contents I acquired. Chance: arcade and casino tokens. Faith: religious keepsakes and prayer tokens. Blank: batteries, washers and hardware. Imitation: plastic play money and counterfeit coins. Place: destinations, commemorations and tokens for access.” We spotted some actual NYC subway tokens, which were used from 1953 to 2003, until they were replaced by the MetroCard (which will soon itself be replaced.) Until she was 27, Mom paid a nickel to take the bus or subway.

We took a break from the Biennial, and went up to the seventh floor, selections from the Whitney collection from 1900 to 1965. Muriel — who continues to write and teach (computers, to other senior citizens) and serve on the Children’s Book Committee; and take courses (this semester: Spanish and Trends in Art) — was especially drawn to The White Calico Flower by Georgia O’Keeffe, who lived to 98.

“We have to come back before it closes.”

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

Leave a Reply