THE DAILY PIC, Whitney Biennial edition: This 2008 portrait of Barrack Obama, by Dawoud Bey, is the opening image on the fourth floor of the Whitney Biennial, where many art lovers begin their visit to the show. (The Daily Pic will linger at the Biennial for all of this week.) There’s so much packed into this single work that it makes almost all the art that comes after seem thin and wan.
Bey’s portrait stands as a kind of “full-disclosure” moment for an art world whose politics are almost universally progressive. Better for a show to wear those politics on its sleeve than to pretend to be apolitical.
It broaches the issues of race that still reach so deep into the American psyche. It’s a portrait by a fine African American artist of a great black hero – who happens to have as much white “blood” as black. The portrait is neutral enough that it refuses to make blackness its overt subject, even while blackness, in all its infernal complexity, is inevitably central to how we read it.
In a Biennial that’s full of fancy aesthetic footwork, the Bey makes clear how much a straightforward representation can still do for us, if only by pointing a finger at what matters in the world. Great art, you could say, is 99% ostension, 1% inspiration. Of course, some subjects that art points to have more packed into them than others. I can hardly imagine any subject more meaning-filled than an image of the country’s first black president, captured at a hopeful moment when he was still just an inspired candidate, and before the unprecedented dysfunctions of our second Gilded Age had not fully revealed themselves to him or us. Part of the greatness of Bey’s photo lies in how it refuses to live up to the cliches that insist that every portrait should reveal the essence of its sitter. The portrait stands for Barack Obama, and all that he means, without making claims about who he “really” is and what we are supposed to feel about him. (Courtesy Stephen Daiter Gallery, Chicago, ©Dawoud Bey)
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