Sunday, April 30, 2006


Last Stand

Every so often, an artwork speaks to you so directly that it seems to have been made just for you. Whatever I might (but won’t) say about the rest of the Whitney Biennial, it displayed one piece that it did something that no other artwork has ever done: It made me cry.

Most visitors overlook Hannah Greely's unprepossessing coat stand in the middle of a third-floor gallery, as if it were no more than what it seems---a mundane piece of familiar furniture, not meriting a second glance.

But from the moment I glimpsed it, I felt I knew what it represented. And the more I looked, the more I knew I was right. Hanging fornlornly from one if the coat stand's hooks was an old-fashioned, light-blue fedora---an exact replica (made of fragile paper) of the shabby old cloth hat that my frail 92-year-old father insists on wearing every summer. Closer scrutiny of the coat stand revealed that it too was made of evocatively delicate material: It was fashioned from old bleached bone, with lacuna-pocked marrow visible along the edges.

Reading the work's title, "Last Stand," after having gazed with rapt recognition at this memento mori, prompted my tears. I was mourning for the man---her grandfather? my father?---who had hung up this hat for the last time.

This stark sentinel embodies all that is missing from most of the offerings in this Biennial---profound emotional resonance, expressed with spare yet telling symbolism. Ironically, this atypical artist was herself missing from the artists' roster on the Biennial's website, until I pointed out the omission to the museum's press office.

Perhaps this under-the-radar status is only fitting for a young artist who recently told Peter Plagens of Newsweek that she didn't want to be represented by a gallery because "I don't want to be famous just for the sake of being famous."

But maybe she should be famous---for her ability to illuminate universal truths about age and loss with such artistic economy and lucidity.

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